Sesame Street has released well over a hundred albums in its four-decade history. So here’s my brilliant idea for a Tough Pigs article series: I’m going to listen to Sesame Street albums, and then I’m going to write about them. It’s Sesame Needle Drop!
For my first entry in this series, I took a good long listen to Love, a Sesame Street record that was one of my favorites back when I was an actual kid. Today, I’d like to talk about an album that I first discovered as an adult fan: 1981’s Grin & Giggle with Big Bird. Whereas Love is one of the most pleasant Sesame albums, I can say without hesitation that Grin & Giggle is the weirdest of all Sesame Street records.
Sesame Street is funny. It’s funnier than most children’s shows, and it’s even funnier than a lot of “comedies” for grown-ups. I’m eighty million times more likely to laugh while watching Sesame Street than Two Broke Girls, and it’s not just because I find the letter E hilarious.
So how is it possible that when it came time to make a Sesame record where the theme is basically “funny stuff,” the result has about as much comedy value as a Bazooka Joe gum wrapper? But I’m getting ahead of myself. Come grin and giggle with me, won’t you?
Oh, but I have to give this caveat first: Grin & Giggle has twelve tracks, including dialogue bits and songs, but the track listing on the original LP sleeve only lists four tracks. The album is listed for MP3 download on the iTunes store and Amazon, but for some reason only those four tracks are there, which means half the album is not available. Isn’t that funny?
“Joke Day” with Big Bird, Prairie Dawn and the Cast
The first sound on this record is a chorus of laughter — but it’s not just laughter. It’s eerie, it’s haunting, it’s seemingly inhuman, and it sends a chill down my spine. It sounds like this: HAAAAAA HA HAHA HA HA HEEE HEEE HEEE HOHO HA HAHA HAAAAAA. The perfect beginning to a record for preschoolers, right? Suddenly, Big Bird’s voice breaks through the cacophony: “HEY, EVERYBODY! COME HERE, QUICK!” The grown-ups of Sesame Street are alarmed by the urgency in his voice; Maria even says, “What’s all the hubbub, bub?”
“I just found out,” Big Bird says, “that today is National Joke Day!” And there we have the reason for this album. Big Bird decrees that everyone must tell a joke, including me at home — “You’ll get your turn,” he says. Oh, good. I’ll have to start thinking about what joke I want to tell so I’m ready. The one about the green paint? The one about the talking fish? Ooh, or the one about the nuns, that’s a good one.
Big Bird starts: “Why did the dodo bird throw the clock out the window? Because he wanted to see fly time!” It’s a bold choice to not only use one of the oldest jokes in the world as the first one here, but to also have Big Bird screw it up. I suppose it’s realistic that Big Bird, a six-year-old, would get a joke wrong, because little kids always get jokes wrong, which is why they don’t host late-night talk shows. So I’ll let it go.
Olivia, Maria, and Prairie Dawn tell some bad jokes, and then Big Bird tells me it’s my turn. I’m ready! I’m going to tell the one about the horse who walked into the bar. This is gonna be good! But then, to my great disappointment, Big Bird gives me instructions on what joke to tell. I’ll say “Knock-knock,” they’ll say “Who’s there,” I’ll say “Dishes,” they’ll say “Dishes who,” and I’ll say “Dishes me! Open de door!” I’m highly skeptical and feeling slighted by the theft of my autonomy, but I give it a whirl anyway. When I reach the punchline, everyone shrieks with laughter. What’s wrong with these people?
Oscar calls me over to his trash can and tells me that he hates jokes, because they make people laugh. He’s decided to look for the grouch joke book given to him by his uncle Shecky Grouch (a great name), and he invites me into his trash can to look for it.
This is a cool idea. At some point it was established on the show that Oscar’s trash can is much, much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside, but they never showed us the interior, either for budgetary reasons or because it was better left to our imaginations. An audio track can leap over both of those problems. Whatever the writer of this sketch can come up with can be made real to the listener through the magic of sound effects, while the listener’s brain fills in the rest. Oscar can have an elevator leading to a floor full of livestock, a subway tunnel, and an underground swamp, and the Children’s Television Workshop doesn’t have to build a single set. It’s not particularly funny, but it’s fun to listen to.
Of course, these days they no longer do original album releases, opting instead for direct-to-DVD specials. Which means if Grin & Giggle with Big Bird were a project conceived in 2013, they’d just film Oscar in front of a green screen and create everything with computer animation. Maybe I’m just an old grouch, but I like the old-fashioned way better.
By the way, this track ends with Oscar getting trampled by a herd of stampeding buffalo. Now that’s funny!
“I’ve Got a Dog and His Name Is Cat” by Forgetful Jones
This is one of the tracks on the iTunes/Amazon release of the album. It’s a song! And it’s sung by the original Forgetful Jones, as played by Muppet performer Michael Earl!
See if you can follow: Forgetful has a dog named Cat, and a cat named Dog. Oh, and a fish named Bird, and a bird named… wait for it!… Fish! It’s a pretty silly song, and Earl’s performance adds a lot to it. Forgetful is extremely entertained by his unusually-named menagerie.
Gordon invites Big Bird to Hooper’s Store for a sunflower soda, which sounds like something the Jones Soda people might sell alongside their turkey & gravy, sweet potato, and pea sodas. To Gordon’s great surprise, Big Bird declines the offer. He can’t step away from the building he’s leaning on, he explains, because he’s the only thing holding the building up and preventing it from falling down.
When Gordon finally convinces him of how foolish that is, Big Bird walks away from the building, and then… well, you know what happens. You know what would have been really funny, though? If the building had stayed up, and Big Bird and Gordon had gone on their merry way. Because comedy is all about the unexpected, and the joke of the building falling down is so telegraphed that we’re expecting it to happen, so the most unexpected thing would be for the expected unexpected thing to not happen as expected. The four-year-old kids listening would surely have appreciated the subversion of the format.
“End of Side One”
“Are you still listening to this record?” Big Bird says, a bit too accusingly. Yes, Big Bird, I’m still listening. Is that okay with you? Then he tells me to turn the record over for “more funny stuff.” Warily, I take his word for it.
“Oscar’s Saxophone” with Oscar and the cast
On this track, Oscar tries to play “The Marine’s Hymn” on his saxophone (what happened to his electric guitar?), and it doesn’t go so well.
One of the lessons that Sesame Street most frequently emphasizes to its young audience is that, if you’re not so good at something, you shouldn’t feel bad or give up — you should just keep trying, and giving it your best! And yet, here we have Oscar making his best effort to honor America’s armed forces, and all of the grown-ups on Sesame Street laugh at him. That is seriously the whole “joke” of this track: Oscar plays the saxophone badly, and everyone laughs at him. Ha ha!
“Jabberwocky” with Big Bird
This might be the weirdest track on this, the weirdest of Sesame Street albums. Big Bird provides an intro: “Here’s a funny poem that’s one of my favorites! It’s called ‘Jabberwocky,’ and the words don’t mean anything at all, so you can pretend that they mean anything you want them to mean! It’s great when you want to play make-believe!” And then he reads the kiddies a poem about a guy using a sword to kill a monster by cutting off its head.
Even if we ignore the violence, is “Jabberwocky” even supposed to be a funny poem? I mean, I know it’s silly, but has anyone ever laughed while reading it? Ah, but it doesn’t matter. On this record, it’s followed immediately by the return of the human cast’s maniacal cackling. HAAAAAA HA HAHA HA HA HEEE HEEE HEEE HO HO HA HAHA HAAAAAA.
There’s a lot of potential here. It’s a whole song consisting of Big Bird and Little Bird trading jokes like a couple of vaudeville comedians with beaks. But let’s look at some of the jokes.
Little Bird: Oh, Mr. Big Bird!
Big Bird: Yes, Mr. Little Bird?
Little Bird: Do you know what kind of a bird eats with his tail?
Big Bird: Gee, what kind of bird eats with his tail? I don’t know!
Little Bird: All birds eat with their tails, I can tell you it is so! (Spoken: “Big Bird, don’t you get it? You don’t take your tail off for dinner, do ya?”)
What is it they say about jokes? Oh yeah, I remember: Explaining a joke always makes it funnier, and if you have to explain it, it must be a really good joke. But wait, there’s more!
Big Bird: Now since you know so much about animals, what kind of horse can fly?
Little Bird: I must confess I do not know!
Big Bird: The only horse that flies… is a horsefly, so they say!
Little Bird: Then a shoo-fly must be able to walk a long, long way.
It sounds a little better in the song, but that’s the problem right there. These jokes are already pretty dumb in their original setup/punchline format, but stretching them out so they conform to the music makes them seem even worse. “The only horse that flies is a horsefly, so they say?” Nobody says that. Come on, Big Bird! Get your head in the game!
The whole song is like this. I should just move on to the next track.
“Little Girl Loses Her Ball” with some voices I don’t recognize
It occurs to me that the primary ingredients of this album are 1) jokes from a children’s joke book, and 2) sound effects. In this track, a little girl’s ball bounces (BOING! BOING! BOING!) across the street, and a bunch of cowboys on horseback come to her rescue (gallop, gallop, NEIGH!) There are no recognizable Sesame Street characters present.
I was about to question why the lead cowboy’s voice is a W.C. Fields impression, but then I realized it makes as much sense for a cowboy to sound like Fields as it does for a magician.
Oscar is determined to find some jokes so rotten nobody would laugh at them. It seems like it would be easier to just not tell any jokes at all, but whatever. Oscar heads to a nearby payphone and calls Dial-a-Grouch, where Jackie Grouch delivers jokes like these:
-Did you hear the one about the mother kangaroo who got mad at her children because they ate crackers in bed?
-Do you know if you can draw pictures on an empty stomach? You sure can, but paper is better!
-Do you know what you’d have if you found ten dollars in your pocket? You’d have somebody else’s pants on!
Oscar is miffed that these jokes are too good to tell anyone, because they’re actually funny. And you know what? He’s right! These are the best jokes on the album! If I ever find myself hosting the Academy Awards, and I’m looking for writers, I’m definitely going to skip past all the birds and Marias and hire some grouches.
“Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with Big Bird and the cast
Gordon, Maria, Susan, and Olivia have gathered together to sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” because that’s what folks do for fun on Sesame Street. Big Bird has one job: When it gets to the part of the song where the animals noises go, he’s supposed to play a record that has a recording of the appropriate animal on it. I’m pretty sure most people just sing the animal noises themselves, but once again I say whatever.
Naturally, Big Bird messes up, first forgetting the record completely, then playing the sound of a fire engine instead of a duck. This is a solid, classic Sesame Street-style bit. The payoff, in which Big Bird unleashes a mob of wild animals in Susan and Gordon’s apartment, is satisfying, and it’s another good use of the audio format — it would be a lot more difficult to get a herd of ducks on the set of the TV show.
“Oscar’s Saxophone Part 2” with Oscar and the cast
Oscar still sucks at the saxophone. Everyone laughs at him again. Fade out.
What’s up with this album? Well, there were a lot of great Sesame Street albums produced in the 1970s, but Grin & Giggle with Big Bird was released in the later years of the Sesame Street Records label, at a time when many of the albums released were compilations of existing material and new content was rare. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this one was put together quickly, with just the musicians, four humans and three Muppeteers knocking it out in an afternoon, aided by a producer with access to a sound effects library. And a copy of Through the Looking-Glass.
As weird as it is, I’m still glad it exists. The bits and pieces we find hidden under the coffee table of Sesame Street history are often among the most interesting. We can all revere something like Bert and Ernie’s Sing-Along as a classic, but experiencing something like Grin & Giggle with Big Bird is a whole different kind of fun. Also: HAAAAAA HA HAHA HA HA HEEE HEEE HEEE HO HO HA HAHA HAAAAAA.
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com