Back to School Again for the Third Time

Published: November 8, 2012
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Sesame Street Old School: Volume 3 was released this week, and it’s about time, as it’s been a pretty long 1,827-day wait since Volume 2 came out in 2007. I’ve especially been looking forward to this Old School release, as it covers the period of Sesame‘s history during I was born and started watching the show. In that order.

This two-disc DVD set covers the years 1979 to 1984 with various episodes and clips, and I have about a million assorted observations and questions and ramblings that I can’t wait to geek out about. I’ll get to those in a minute — but first I’ll do the actual DVD review thing. Which will also be pretty geeky and rambly.

As with the previous Old School volumes, each of the five seasons is represented by its premiere episode and an assortment of bonus clips produced in that season.  The first two volumes contained three discs, but this set only has two, for whatever reason.  The first things you’ll notice are:

1. They’ve foregone the controversial disclaimers notifying parents that Old School is mostly intended for the nostalgia crowd, and not for the tiny tots of the 21st century.

2. They removed all opening theme songs, all closing credits sequences, and in fact, all uses of the Sesame Street theme.

Number 1 is a good choice. The public uproar over the previous Old School disclaimers was much ado about nothing, but I can’t blame Sesame Workshop for wanting to avoid that again. Even though Alistair Cookie is seen with a pipe!

Number 2 is more puzzling.  At first I thought the deletion of the theme song was done to make for a shorter running time, and while you lose a lot by not hearing “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” when you watch Sesame Street, it would make some sense if they were trying to trim time off to keep the number of discs to two and make the set affordable.  But then I got to the season 13 episode featuring Madeline Kahn, which I just happened to have on DVD from an early-2000s broadcast on Noggin.  There’s a scene where Big Bird and Kahn roller-skate to a pipe organ rendition of the Sesame Street theme, but on Old School, it’s been replaced with a more generic-sounding tune.  You can still hear the harmonica riffs at the very beginning and end of each episode, but never more than that.  What’s going on?

This is what we get instead of the original episode number card. It’s shiny, but it’s not the same.

But other than that, it’s all delightful, and everyone should buy it.

Season 11’s episode 1316 is a particularly fun show, in which Maria takes a trip home to Puerto Rico to celebrate her “almost-21st birthday,” unaware that all of her friends from Sesame Street (except Gordon, for some reason) are flying over to throw her a surprise party.  It must have been planned carefully, but there are lots of moments that seem completely spontaneous.

Big Bird packs light, which is easy when you don’t wear clothes.

In season 12’s episode 1446, Big Bird spends a day at school, where he learns all about the alphabet and water fountains, and practices his friend-making skills by beautifully serenading a trash can.

Today he would just friend the trash can on Facebook.

Season 13’s episode 1576 is the one with Madeline Kahn, who plays a birdwatcher. She and her colleague, played by Richard Hunt in a rare onscreen cameo, are amazed to find an eight-foot talking bird on Sesame Street, and make a misguided attempt to protect what they perceive as an endangered species. (By the way, if you ever meet me in real life, ask me to do my famous impression of Big Bird’s Uncle Slim.)

They flipped a coin to decide who would wear the moustache.

Season 14’s episode 1706 has Big Bird going to camp, where his counselor is played by future Breaking Bad star Giancarlo Esposito — and if I watched that show, here’s where I’d make a joke about Los Pollos Hermanos.

Also starring Rusty, whom you may recognize from his role on The Walking Dead.

In episode 1836 from season 15, Gordon runs in the New York Marathon — and so does Snuffy!  This was during the era when all the grown-ups still thought Snuffy was imaginary, and there’s some really great footage of Snuffy running alone across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge after all the grown-ups have moved on. There are also some incredibly frustrating moments where Gordon and Susan manage to miss seeing Snuffy despite the fact that he’s just inches away from them.  I don’t know how kids in the 1970s managed to watch the show without going nuts.

All my yelling at the TV failed to rouse Gordon and Susan from their Snuffleupa-blivious slumber.

All the episodes look and sound great, and as with the previous volumes, it’s fun to get a reminder of what it was like to watch Sesame Street back in the day.  And get this: There’s at least one Bert and Ernie sketch in every single episode!  Meanwhile, the bonus clips chosen for each season are a good combination of bits we’ve seen a million times before (“Born to Add”) and less obvious stuff (a cartoon with a dog pretending to be an alligator), although there don’t seem to be as many for each season as there were on the previous volumes.

The Extras are lovely too.  I was most excited about the commentary by Sonia Manzano on the Puerto Rico episode, and it did not disappoint.  She shares a lot of memories and thoughts about the episode and the show in general (Guess which TV comedy legends inspired the dynamic between Maria and Olivia!), and she’s great about talking throughout the entire episode.

Maria practices dialing a large, invisible telephone.

An interview with Caroll Spinney includes one or two of the same stories Mr. Spinney always tells, but he also goes into some specifics about the episodes seen on the DVDs.  Elsewhere in the Extras, he reads his own classic book How to Be a Grouch as Oscar, and you have the option of watching it with or without picture-in-picture video of Spinney reading. (Here’s a hint: Choose “with.”)

Joan Crawford is also a grouch.

The era represented on Old School Volume 3 encompasses the death of Will Lee and his character Mr. Hooper, so it was a foregone conclusion that this DVD set would include scenes from the “Goodbye Mr. Hooper” episode. I like that they chose to include the other street scenes from the episode, rather than just the one where Big Bird finds out Mr. Hooper has died. So often in retrospectives that’s all we see, and we miss the context.

There’s a selection of behind-the-scenes clips, which of course is like delicious candy to Muppet fans.  Some of these were on the 40th anniversary DVD set a few years ago, but not all of them. Guess who puppeteered Grover to a pre-recorded track for the song “Exercise?” It wasn’t Frank Oz!

Oh, and there’s a neat little Easter egg on the second disc.  But you’ll have to find that one yourself, mwa ha ha ha ha! (Unless you wanna e-mail me or something. I’ll probably tell you.)

And Now, As Promised, A Million Assorted Observations and Questions and Ramblings

-Tragically, the loss of the closing credits sequences also means the loss of the “funky chimes” music at the end of each episode.  By the last show on the DVD set, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so the minute the episode ended I cued up the music on YouTube.  I highly recommend you do the same.  And dance to it.

-Lily Tomlin appears as her character Edith Ann in an insert in the 11th season episode.  Something about these bits threw me off as a kid.  Like, she was a little girl sitting in a presumably normal-sized rocking chair, but she didn’t really look like a little girl because she looked like a grown-up and maybe the rocking chair was just really big, but she talked about little girl things and wore little girl clothes, so what was she?  Watching the bit in this episode Herry now, my main question is: Where are Herry’s feet?

At the very least, shouldn’t he be wearing purple-striped pants?

-We see Oscar walking around in his trash can in the Puerto Rico story, and he seems to have gotten taller since the previous Old School set.  It’s common Sesame geek knowledge that short-statured actor Hervé Villechaize served as Oscar’s legs in earlier seasons. But once Villechaize hit the big time on Fantasy Island, who got the leg up on the grouch?


-The “Madrigal Alphabet” cartoon shows up a few times on the DVD set, and I’m about 98% sure we’ve seen it on the previous Old School sets.  That’s fine, because it’s a nice segment. But it reminds me that every once in a while I see fans on the internet saying they want Sesame Workshop to release full season sets of Sesame Street, and it makes me realize why that’s dumb. Sesame Street‘s format of repeating the same segments would mean that if you had a DVD set with, say, all 130 episodes of season 11, you’d end up sitting through “Madrigal Alphabet” at least 50 times, which is just an unreasonable quantity of bear R’s.

“Bear” is my favorite R-word!

-I have a new Favorite Muppet of the Day! It’s the crazed game show contestant played by Frank Oz in the “Mystery Mix-up” sketch.  I wonder: Were her eyes already askew when Frank picked up the puppet, or did his interpretation of the character inspire her look?  And does anyone else watching this DVD think about things like this?

-Of all the segments I don’t recall having seen before, my favorite is a film in which Gordon cruises around the city on his bike with a jazzy-funky tune playing on the soundtrack.  As with many Sesame bits, I don’t have a clue what the educational curriculum is supposed to be, but I have no doubt it would be fascinating to a kid.

“Get a horse!”

-On this DVD set, you get not one but two Forgetful Joneses!  First, Michael Earl’s original Forgetful appears in a sketch in which he fails to remember something. Later, Richard Hunt’s more familiar Forgetful appears in a street scene in which he fails to remember something.

I’ve commented on this before, but: Co-ed campsite on Sesame Street!!!

-Fans of short-lived characters, get excited: Warren Wolf is included in the bonus clips!  Warren (performed by Kevin Clash) was apparently meant to replace or rotate with Kermit as a “Newsflash” reporter in season 12, but it’s pretty clear why he didn’t stick.  Warren is sort of drily funny in his interview with Dr. Nobel Price, but he doesn’t do much to distinguish himself from Kermit.

Amphibians make better reporters than canids.

-Another little-known Muppet we thought we might never see again is in the bonus clips: It’s Aristotle, a blind monster played by Richard Hunt. It’s fascinating to watch a performance that must have required Richard to go completely against his instincts as a puppeteer… Aristotle can’t see Big Bird, so he never makes eye contact with him, and when he reads his Braille book, he doesn’t look down at the page.

-As previously mentioned, these DVDs don’t come with the much talked-about disclaimers of the previous Old Schools.  But they probably should, for stuff like this cartoon in which a kid comes up with a method for drinking from a tall water fountain that can only lead to serious injury:

DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME. Why do you have a water fountain at home, anyway?

-“Exercise” is a song with a lead vocal by Betty Lou and some of the laziest lyrics I’ve ever heard in a Sesame Street song. Take the part that goes “We can do it, you can too/To grow up strong and hea-e-althy/Exercise gives you energy/Just look at Betty Lou-ou-ou!”  But it’s a parody of the Olivia Newton-John song “Physical,” so it must be a commentary on how mindless the lyrics of pop music are.  Right?

Betty Lou > Jane Fonda

-It’s so silly that they have to blur out copyrighted images for a DVD release.  In the behind-the-scenes footage, Caroll Spinney is obviously wearing shirts featuring Mickey Mouse and Kermit the Frog, but they’ve been rendered fuzzy, presumably to keep Disney lawyers happy. Later, Frank Oz is seen wearing a headband with several blurred-out images, but for Muppet fans, it will be like the easiest Sporcle quiz ever to identify them as his Muppet Show characters.

-I know Sesame Workshop constantly does research about what kids like, but seeing this stuff, it’s hard not to pine for the days when there were so many different things on the show every day. By the end of an “old school” episode, you’ve gotten so many letters, numbers, cartoons, animal films, songs, Muppet inserts, and street scenes that you feel like you’ve been watching longer than an hour, in the best possible way. Today’s shows, with just a handful of long segments, feel shorter. But thumbs-up to Sesame Workshop for making this old material available for elderly people like me to wax nostalgic over.  I just hope they don’t make us wait 1,827 more days until Volume 4.

Click here to roller-skate with Madeline Kahn on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe –

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