Here we are now in 1998*. Has anything changed since the 25th anniversary a few years ago? You bet your sweet bippy it has, and it’s all because of a little thing called Tickle Me Elmo, the toy that captured the hearts of America’s children while simultaneously driving their parents to violent rioting in the aisles at Toys ?¢‚Ç¨ÀúR’ Us. The little red monster is a huge star now, and that explains why this special, which aired on ABC, is called Elmopalooza and not Sesamepalooza or BigBirdapalooza, or Sesamestreet celebratesitsbirthdaywithaprimetimetelevisionspecialpalooza.But don’t judge a TV special by its cover: As Tough Pigs founder Danny Horn once pointed out here on the site, the show is really an ensemble piece, with the whole cast of Sesame Street Muppets putting on a show for us. Elmopalooza is a change of pace from previous anniversaries in that it is absolutely not a clip show. Clips are so 1994, so this is a variety show, coming to us live from Radio City Music Hall! And just to throw us off, nobody ever mentions the fact that it’s the 30th anniversary.
Our host is Jon Stewart, during the post-Jon Stewart Show, pre-Daily Show era in which he was not yet the most trusted TV journalist in America. The director is Prairie Dawn. I’m a big Prairie Dawn fan — she’s a funny character who tends to get overlooked, so it’s nice to see her used so well here. She even gets to utter the show’s one shocking obscenity: “We’re in deep doo-doo!” Yikes! What’s next, Ernie saying “consarn it?” (I apologize if the previous sentence offended anyone.)
So why are they in deep doo-doo? Well, here’s what happens: It seems the door to the dressing room sticks when you close it… and Elmo, unaware of this fact, closes said door, trapping Jon Stewart and Prairie Dawn and the entire crew inside, just moments before the show is supposed to start. Jeez, Radio City Music Hall must be a pretty crappy little theater to only have one dressing room.
But now Elmo has ruined everything (“Just like he always does!” shout the old-school cynics), and that’s why he and all his friends have to run the show themselves.The show consists of a bunch of slickly produced music videos of classic Sesame Street songs performed by famous singers with Muppets. I don’t know… If I bought an expensive ticket to a big show at Radio City, I’d probably be pretty disappointed if all they did was play some videos, but at least most of the videos are pretty cool.
It just occurred to me that none of the songs they chose are very educational, and I wonder if that was a deliberate for the primetime audience. “Mambo I, I, I” and “The Zig Zag Dance” (sung here by Gloria Estefan and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, respectively) are sort of about letters, but not really. Really they’re just catchy songs.
Some of the song covers are better than others. Shawn Colvin and Ernie sing “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” while on a romantic road trip (I swear, Colvin comes this close to asking Ernie to marry her). It’s quite lovely, although I’m not sure their driver would agree. He looks pretty unamused…I’m guessing he’s a Bert fan, and he’s never forgiven Ernie for that time he ate Bert’s piece of chocolate cake.
The Fugees do a hippety-hoppety version of “Happy to Be Me” on the streets of New York City, with Big Bird and Snuffy. I really like seeing Snuffy outdoors on location, and I wish we could see more of that on the show, although I would settle for seeing him walking down the street outside my house tomorrow morning.En Vogue shows up to do “I Want a Monster to Be My Friend,” and although the song loses a lot in the translation to an R&B arrangement, there’s some fun stuff with the Sesame Street monsters hanging out with the En Voguers. One of them is seen at a drive-in movie with the Two-Headed Monster, and I swear, this special is all about pop singers dating Muppets.
Meanwhile, the humans of Sesame Street — Susan, Gordon, Bob, Mr. Handford, and Gina — are on their way to the show, but they’re having some problems getting there because their driver is, of course, Grover. It was established 10 years earlier that Grover does not know how to get to Sesame Street by car, and now it seems he’s not so great at getting to 6th Avenue at 50th Street either. His wrong turns lead them to a snowy landscape where Grover picks up a few penguins, and Roswell, New Mexico, where one of the “Yip-Yip” Martians hitches a ride. How does Grover keep getting jobs? There’s no way he’s ever gotten a positive letter of recommendation.
The show goes on, even as various attempts to release Jon Stewart and Prairie Dawn from their well-furnished prison fail miserably. And guess who shows up again? It’s Rosie O’Donnell, who, like Elmo, has become a lot more famous since appearing in Stars and Street Forever in 1994. (His fame rose because he was ticklish, hers rose because she threw Koosh balls at people.) They do an onstage performance of the song “Nearly Missed”… I believe it was originally sung by Susan, but Rosie and Elmo do a rap arrangement, and I can’t say it’s an improvement.
At the end of their song, Rosie does a big, theatrical, “ta-da!” gesture, knocking Elmo clear off the stage and into the wings, where he crashes into the stagehand monsters, resulting in all the scenery collapsing all over the stage. Elmo is despondent about having messed up the whole show, but I’d just like to point out that the destruction of this particular number was caused by Rosie O’Donnell. Not that she takes responsibility for it, no sir. She just lets Elmo — an innocent three-year-old! — feel sorry for himself. Didn’t O’Donnell have the nickname “Queen of Nice” in those days? Well, in reality, she’s a heartless beast.
And then a bunch of stuff happens, and everything’s fine, and then the cast does a closing medley of their greatest hits onstage. With just a handful of Muppets and humans, it seems kind of small compared to the cast-of-thousands finales we’ve seen in previous shows, but who cares? Sesame Street has been around for 30 years, and as this show proves, everyone in the world loves it, from Jimmy Buffett to Chris Rock. Say it with me: Ten more years! Ten more years!
Other things about this special:
•So how’s Oscar’s grouchiness in 1998? Well, he doesn’t get much time in the spotlight, so it’s hard to tell. But for the second anniversary special in a row, he ultimately comes up with the solution that saves the day. Oscar the hero? It sure looks like he’s getting nicer as he gets older.
•The video for “One Small Voice” tells a little story, with a kid at a talent show feeling too nervous to sing until Big Bird offers him some encouragement. The celebrity guest on this one is Kenny Loggins, but he doesn’t appear at the talent show, no does he interact with anyone ever… He’s apparently trapped in limbo, where he’s surrounded by blackness and forced to sing inspirational children’s songs for all eternity.
So that’s Elmopalooza. Tomorrow it’ll be 2004, and Elmo will be itching to learn about Sesame Street for the 35th anniversary show The Street We Live On.
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com