My Week with Sesame Anniversaries: Day 2, Year 20

Published: November 3, 2009
Categories: Feature

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This week, I’m preparing for the beginning of Sesame Street‘s 40th season next week by watching old Sesame Street anniversary specials. Yesterday I watched the 10th anniversary special A Walking Tour of Sesame Street, and today I’m watching 1989’s Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting.

A ten-year anniversary is definitely cause for celebration. Fifteen years? Not so much. Who cares about fifteen years? But twenty years, now that’s something to brag about, preferably on primetime network television, and so we have Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting, an hourlong special that aired on NBC in 1989. (By the way, I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but that’s the most clever title of all the anniversary specials.)

This special begins with Jim Henson and Kermit welcoming us. Jim says, “Back in 1968, I was asked to take part in an experiment to see if you could use television to teach preschool children. We all figured it would last a few seasons at most, but here we are 20 years later, and Sesame Street is still going strong.” Yeah, man! It’s 1989, and it is still going strong. That’s so, like, radical! Tubular! Gnarly! (That’s how people talked in 1989, right?)

It makes me think: When the show first started, the producers had no expectations about how long it would last, but what about after they crossed the 10-year mark? The 15-year mark? At what point did it become understood that Sesame Street was going to be around long enough for the kids who watched it to grow up and show it to their kids? At what point did it cease to be surprising that Sesame Street would stay on the air long enough for seven U.S. presidents to come and go?

Jim introduces our host, Bill Cosby, and then just to be on the safe side, Cosby appears with a title on the screen reading BILL COSBY, in case we haven’t been paying attention and don’t recognize the star of TV’s #1 sitcom. (Hiring Cosby, of course, continues the policy of hiring cast members from the 1978 film A Piece of the Action to host Sesame Street anniversary specials. One can only assume that if there had been a 15th anniversary special, it would have been hosted by Sidney Poitier.)

Cosby interacts with the Sesame characters a lot more than James Earl Jones did ten years ago. Pretty much every time Cosby introduces a clip montage, he’s accompanied or interrupted by a Muppet. This includes Elmo, who learns the meaning of the word “curriculum,” and Placido Flamingo, who ends up singing a duet with Placido Domingo, “the other greatest opera singer in the world.” Honestly, I’d rather hear the flamingo than the Domingo, but at least the song is in English, because if it had been an operatic piece in Spanish or Italian, all the kids watching would have gotten restless. And when I say “all the kids watching,” I mean me.

Like James Earl Jones before him, Cosby can’t resist approaching Oscar’s trash can. He opens the lid, and a bunch of toy snakes come sproinging out. Oscar tells him to mind his own business, Ph.D-face, and Cosby does that funny sort of eye-rolling grin he does. “I’ve been insulted by Oscar the Grouch…”

So, for the record, Oscar is just as grouchy in 1989 as he was in 1979, and he’s still yelling at hosts of anniversary specials. He’s also pretty good at creative insults. “Ph.D-face,” that’s really hitting Cosby where he lives.

Cosby also meets Big Bird, which leads to a montage of great Bird moments, including one where it looks like he’s standing in a lake(!). I can’t imagine that they would ever let a puppet get wet like that, so I can only assume this means Big Bird is real. Hey, remember when Big Bird was the star of Sesame Street? I remember that. When Cosby asks Big Bird how he can still be six years old when he’s been around for 20 years, the bird has a perfect answer: “Just lucky, I guess!” And then he walks away la-la-la-ing, leaving Bill Cosby speechless.

The clip montages are entertaining — besides the usual letter and number bits, there’s a run of Muppets falling over backwards, and one of characters getting sprayed with water — but they really just make me wish I could see all the sketches in their entirety. I can’t wait until they release a Sesame Street complete series DVD set of all 4,000 episodes on 80 discs. That’s gonna be great.

There are a few bits that run throughout the special, like the one that follows aspiring documentarians Ernie and Bert using a video camera to take footage of Sesame Street so they can see it on television. This is despite Bert’s misgivings: “Who wants to see Sesame Street on TV?” They film kids waving at the camera, they film Maria and Luis fixing a toaster. So basically, they suck as filmmakers. This is a street where giant birds ride unicycles, where a species descended from woolly mammoths and unknown to science sings the alphabet, and the best they can do is a married couple fixing a toaster? The Maysles brothers they ain’t.

While this is going on, Bob, Gordon, and Susan are reminiscing over in Hooper’s Store. Or maybe it’s actually Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, and Loretta Long. It’s kind of unclear, probably in a deliberate effort to avoid making any toddler heads spin. Like if Gordon had said, “Well, it sure has been fun being an actor playing a character named Gordon on TV who is not actually real, just like the Tooth Fairy is not real!” that would have been ill-advised. But whoever they are, it’s lovely listening in. At one point, Susan/Loretta says, “Well, I’m up for 20 more, how ’bout you guys?” and I love that. Because it’s true! They do go on for 20 more years!

Out on a real-life city street, reporter Kermit keeps tries to ask the Question of the Day: “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” He keeps getting interrupted by Grover, who’s making a lot of noise working as an ice cream salesman and later as a jackhammer monster. It strikes me as funny that Grover bothers to wear a hardhat while jackhammering, despite the fact that he’s not wearing any clothes.

When Kermit approaches two young women, there’s a spark of recognition. It’s Fanny and Shala, Kermit’s costars from 1973’s “next to” sketch! In that sketch, Kermit demonstrates being next to each kid, and they squeeze him a lot. He asks them for an update, and they both tell him they’re in college. That proves that Sesame Street makes kids smart! Then they squeeze him again, which proves that Kermit is cuddly. But they forget to answer the Question of the Day, and so Kermit is still empty-handed. Thanks for nothing, Fanny and Shala.

Later in the show, we see the classic insert where Herry counts to 20 with everyone’s favorite Sesame kid, John-John… and then they reunite Herry with the grown-up John-John, and they count again! The notion of bringing back the all-growed-up kids works so well, I wish they had done more of it. I know I would have liked to see an older version of Joey, the little girl who frustrated Kermit by insisting that Cookie Monster was a letter of the alphabet, or maybe the girl who turned Paul Simon’s performance of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” into an impromptu sing-along. Where they at?

When Cosby tells us that Sesame Street has a mother, and her name is Joan Ganz Cooney, we cut to Cooney and Jim Henson chatting about the show. She says she’s especially proud of the co-productions, but most thrilled to know that they have Sesame Street in the Middle East now. Her dream is that someday peace will break out in the Middle East over shared recognition of a Bert & Ernie sketch. Of course, we all know that that is exactly what happened in 1997, when Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu performed the “Why do you have a banana in your ear?” sketch at Camp David, with Bill Clinton playing the role of the banana.

A montage about life stuff includes a clip of Big Bird finding out that there’s a baby growing inside Maria’s body. When he asks how it happened, Luis grins as he explains, “We decided to start a family, so together we started a baby growing inside Maria’s body!” He’s so proud of himself, heh heh heh. They also show the clip from the show about the death of Mr. Hooper. It never gets any less heartbreaking, does it?

Cosby says, “And so Big Bird learned about death, birth, love, marriage, adoption, and that life is constantly changing, as Sesame Street keeps changing.” Just then Cookie Monster pops up and asks for a cookie, to which Cosby replies, “Some things never change!” Oh yeah?! I hear they’re changing his name to Vegetable M– oh, nevermind.

By the end of the special, Kermit is still outside, and he still has no answer to his Question of the Day. He admits his complete failure as a journalist and hails a cab back to Sesame Street, and guess who’s driving? Yeah, it’s Grover. And now Kermit has a new problem, because Grover has no idea how to get to Sesame Street. This is not the last time Grover’s poor grasp of geography will cause trouble in an anniversary special. (Ooh, foreshadowing!)

By this point, Bert and Ernie have finished their documentary, but Cookie Monster eats the tape (I hear they’re changing his name to Hi-8 Videocassette Monster). Argh, now no one will ever get to see Sesame Street on television! “What’re we gonna do now?” Bert cries, and Don Music has the only logical solution: “Let’s sing!”

So they sing “Sing,” and as each character gets a closeup, the actor’s name appears on the screen. There’s also a terrific moment where a kid spontaneously tousles Don Music’s hair and Don does a double take. Then Little Miles Orman appears as Gordon and Susan’s son Miles, and he’s cute, but he obviously doesn’t know the words. How unprofessional.

Finally, a huge crowd of humans and Muppets do the la-la-la-la-la’s. I’m pretty sure they’re spilling off the sidewalk and out into the street, which is a major safety hazard, but fortunately nobody gets run over by a bus.

Bill Cosby tells a baby, “Sesame Street is 20 years old, and going on for another 20!” And holy cow, he’s right! He’s so right! This is one of my favorite things about these anniversary specials, when they say, “Hey, maybe we’ll keep going for another decade or two!” and they have no idea if they will or not, but I know because I live in the future. So while the message of the 10th anniversary show was “Sesame Street is a television program that teaches kids stuff,” this one is more like, “Wow, you guys. Sesame Street is a really, really, really, really good show.” And yes, that’s really, really, really, really true.

So now Sesame Street is old enough to drive, vote, smoke, and get drafted. Tomorrow we’ll watch Stars and Street Forever and see how the show celebrates being old enough to rent a car! Woo-hoo!

Other things about this special:

•Jim Henson’s sweater is reminiscent of a Cliff Huxtable sweater from The Cosby Show. Then Bob, Gordon, and Susan are wearing sweaters too! I’m now certain that Bill Cosby gave everyone on the set his hand-me-downs during the making of this special, and nothing will ever convince me otherwise.

•Cosby begins by saying, “I’m standing on the most famous street in America, maybe the whole world.” For a minute there I thought he was going to compare it to Flugelhorn Street, or whatever, like James Earl Jones did.

•Cosby remarks, “[Sesame Street is] now seen all over the world, and they’re still asking how to get here.” And then, providing a vital clue to superfans eagerly awaiting the creation of Muppet Wiki sixteen years later, he says, “I took the A train.” It’s a clue!

•It’s interesting to glimpse all the characters who were prominent in 1989, but who aren’t around anymore: Snuffy’s sister Alice, Uncle Wally, Ruby Monster, Meryl Sheep. Say, have I ever talked about how much I dig Meryl Sheep? Of course nobody in the world remembers her now, but she was a pretty great character. Here she is with Susan Sarandon:

•My tape of this special has all the commercials intact… and hey, there’s a promo for The Jim Henson Hour! Man, I can’t wait to watch that show. It’s gonna be so good, and I bet it’ll be a big hit like The Muppet Show.

•In case you were wondering, this special was sponsored by Clorox. The next time you use Clorox, offer a few words of thanks for bringing Ruby Monster into your home.

Click here to read about the 25th anniversary special! And click here to answer the Question of the Day on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe –

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