My Week with Sesame Anniversaries: Day 3, Year 25

Published: November 4, 2009
Categories: Feature

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So here we are in 1994, and it’s Sesame Street‘s 25th anniversary, and wow. A lot has changed since the 20th anniversary five short years ago. In fact, there were more changes between the 20th and 25th years of the show than there were between the 10th and 20th. A few important people are gone — Jim Henson, Richard Hunt, Northern Calloway — and that makes a huge difference. But beyond that, the street itself has undergone a makeover. Everything’s a little brighter, and we now have the “Around the Corner” area, with a bunch of new sets and characters to go with it.

There’s Celina, and Ruthie, and Benny, and Zoe, and the Furry Arms Hotel, and the Finders Keepers store, and, and, and… I was well past the target audience by 1994, but I was already a Sesame geek, so I was pretty excited about Around the Corner’s debut. Now, though, I can see how it just wasn’t necessary. I mean, there were some funny street stories at the Furry Arms, but does a fancy hotel really belong on Sesame Street?

The guest star-filled special Stars and Street aired on ABC, and it has more of a narrative than the previous, more strictly retrospective anniversaries. The writers had to come up with a plot that emphasizes how valuable Sesame Street is, and they achieve that by threatening to take the street away. Joe Pesci plays real estate tycoon Ronald Grump, who wants to demolish Sesame Street to build his Grump Tower. He’s a spoof of the similarly-named real-life real estate mogul, of course, and while Pesci has played some bad guys in his career, you can’t get much more evil than Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is covering the whole story as it unfolds, as a reporter named Kathie Lee Kathie. Which is… funny? I guess? A look at the credits reveal that wacky Hollywood Squares regular Bruce Vilanch provided “additional material” for this special, and I have to wonder if some of this Kathie Lee Kathie stuff is his. We find out later that Kathie used to have a talk show, but it was canceled, and Elmo makes some snarky remarks about it. I love it when Elmo gets snarky.

But while there is a story, not much actually happens. The characters mostly stand around alternating between anger and depression, saying things like “How can we stop Grump? He’s so rich! And so mean!” And there’s a lot of restating the premise: Grump wants to get rid of Sesame Street, that makes us feel bad. I guess the writers were catering to the little kids in the audience. Man, little kids are dumb.

Of course, the threat of No More Sesame Street is really just an excuse for (guess what?) montages, as everyone reminisces about memorable moments. It’s not just the obvious letter montage/number montage/international montage setup. There are some other themes, like a series of clips featuring characters overcoming adversity, a group of slapstick-y, comic clips, and one that includes lots of hugging and smooching. (I’m sure Elmo remembers fondly the time Gina kissed him all over his furry face.) But grumpy Grump is unmoved by all this history: “If there’s one thing I despise,” he says, “it’s cheap sentiment. Hugs, kiddie television, cute, furry animals…”

Kiddie television? Naturally, that got me to thinking, AGAIN, about the issue of Sesame Street characters’ perception of their own reality. When they talk about “all the great things that have happened here on Sesame Street,” they’re not exclusively referring to a physical location. A lot of the stuff in the montages — Ed Grimley in a park, opera singer Marilyn Horne performing “C Is For Cookie” — obviously didn’t happen within a three- or four-block stretch of a New York city street. So are Gordon, Maria, and Savion aware that they’re actually campaigning for a TV show, and not just a street? Who knows? And indeed, who, besides me, cares?

At one point, Benny Rabbit (a cranky, high-strung character who’s not around anymore probably because the producers realized they only needed one Oscar) approaches Grump and offers to help him with his evil plan, in exchange for a job as a doorman at Grump’s new building. Grump immediately brushes him off, but I almost wish they had pursued that potential subplot. Benny’s willingness to be a furry Judas is an unusually dark turn for a Sesame character. But then, Grump himself is unusual because it’s not often we see villains in Sesame Street productions, especially not with hairpieces.

You want more guest stars? This show’s got ’em. Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman have the thankless job of playing giant worms on Slimey’s favorite cable channel, WormTV. I’m a little suspicious of the idea that Slimey can afford cable on a worm’s salary, so I’m guessing Oscar just steals it. This leads to a montage of popular music-style songs, including one I’d never seen before with a dashing Kevin Kline and a fetching Phoebe Cates singing about measurements. I found the full clip on YouTube, which is at least 72 inches of delightful:

There’s a scene where Kathie Lee Kathie, seeking advice, calls up Regis Philbin and the real Kathie Lee Gifford, which dilutes the joke of her name even further. Those of you still playing the Kathie Lee Gifford drinking game can take a shot, because naturally Gifford manages to work in a reference to her son Cody.

Hey, remember when people still liked Rosie O’Donnell? They must have at some point, which explains why she’s here as the Spirit of Hope, who shows up when Telly, Luis, and Savion are at their most hopeless and helps them out by buying them all several beers. I mean, by showing them a particularly optimistic montage. Then she has to run, because “Hope’s very much in demand during sweeps week.”

The best guest stars are Susan Sarandon and the always-dependable Charles Grodin, playing a couple of rich twits who are considering buying a home in the Grump Tower. They’re horrified to see Oscar, which is not an unreasonable reaction. Grump assures them he’ll be gone along with the rest of the street once the tower is built, but guess what? It turns out Oscar’s can is on city property, so Grump can’t build unless Oscar moves.

Why would Oscar give up his trash can? It’s spacious, affordable, and convenient to the subway, so he’s not going anywhere. I know, I know, that’s a spoiler. I’d like to apologize to anyone reading this who thought maybe Sesame Street was destroyed and replaced by a high-rise in 1994.

All the other poor saps on Sesame Street don’t know about this development yet, so they start the world’s most pointless protest march. Their chant, “1, 2, 3, 4, Sesame Street forever more!” is no “What do we want? Freedom!/When do we want it? Now!” but it’s catchy enough. They quickly discover the truth, and Oscar is a hero, much to his dismay.

The show closes with everyone singing “Sing.” Whoa, deja vu! That’s the exact same song they used to end 20 and Still Counting, but this time around it’s mashed up with a new song I’ll assume is called “Our Favorite Street.” Even the guest stars join in, and if you ever wondered whether Corbin Bernsen and Rosie O’Donnell are stunningly bad signers, I can assure you that they are.

So, Sesame Street in 1994. A lot of old-school fans will tell you that this is about the time the show started to lose its mojo. It definitely has a different vibe than it did five or ten years earlier, but it’s still Sesame Street, and that means it was still evolving and developing, and I’m going to go ahead and say it was very nearly as good as it had ever been.

It’s funny that the show seems to carry an anti-gentrification message, with the characters insisting that their urban neighborhood is fine just the way it is and nothing needs to change… but maybe that was the point. Maybe the writers were trying to let us know that even when things get tweaked here and there, the spirit of the show stays the same, and those closest to it are never going to let it become unrecognizable as Sesame Street, because they’re always committed to continuing the elements that make it great. Or some crap like that.

Other things about this special:

•Back when Zoe first started wearing her tutu, I thought it was pretty silly, but I’ve gotten so used to it that now it’s weird to see her naked, as she is here. Even weirder, though, is the fact that Ruth Buzzi also spends the entire special naked.

•Once again my copy of this special has the original commercials, and guess who shows up in a spot for Jell-O? Besides Bill Cosby, I mean. It’s none other than tiny, adorable Desiree Casado, who plays Gabi on the show and in this special.

I’m sure millions of children saw this, and said to their parents, “Look, parents! Gabi from Sesame Street says I should eat Jell-O, so you have to buy me as much Jell-O as I want now or I’ll never learn the alphabet!” And that’s how the childhood obesity epidemic started.

•The important question: How grouchy is Oscar in this special? Stars and Street emphasizes the yucky aspect of Oscar’s grouch-hood more than the jerk aspect. He’s still grouchy, but not as aggressively so as in the previous two anniversary specials. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Or would that be a good day?

BONUS! Sesame Street: A Musical Celebration

As crazy as it sounds, there were actually two 25th anniversary specials. The other one aired on PBS as Sesame Street Jam: A Musical Celebration, and released on video as 25 Wonderful Years: A Musical Celebration. I have the home video version. I don’t have as much to say about it, because it’s mostly just songs from the show, with a framing story in which Big Bird, Telly, and Prairie Dawn are searching for singers, dancers, and “la-la-ers” in a city park.

Some of the song choices are obvious — “C Is For Cookie” and “Rubber Duckie” are required by law by this point, I think — but a few are more interesting, like En Vogue’s “Adventure,” and “Count It Higher.” “Do De Rubber Duck” shows up too, and how much do I love that song? A lot, that’s how much. In fact, I’m totally going to invite all my friends over to sing and dance with me in the bathtub in tribute to that song. Do you want in?

The big conflict in this special is that Big Bird gets depressed when he can’t find any la-la-ers, even with Mumford’s help, but what do you expect from an incompetent magician. Fortunately, Ladysmith Black Mambazo shows up out of nowhere to do some la-las, and then Big Bird’s happy again and everyone joins in a rousing rendition of… yep, you guessed it. “Sing.” All right, it’s a pretty song and everything, but now they’re just getting lazy.

And so Sesame Street has reached its silver anniversary. It’s grown, it’s evolved, and it’s marked the occasion with two specials using the exact same closing number. They’ll do another special when the 30th anniversary rolls around, but this time, not much will have changed… except for one thing, and that one thing is the skyrocketing superstardom of a little guy with a red face. And I don’t mean Mickey Rooney!

Click here to make your reservation for the Furry Arms hotel on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe –

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