Sesame Rewind: Meet Deena

Published: April 24, 2020
Categories: Feature, Reviews

There are over 4,500 episodes of Sesame Street, many of which are primarily lost to the fans. We’re reviewing some of the best, strangest, and rarest episodes out there in our series Sesame Rewind!

For all of its many virtues, Sesame Street has always needed more female Muppets. They’ve made considerable progress in this area over the past 30 years, but it was certainly true back in 1980. In episode 1403, we find one attempt to add a new little girl monster to the cast. Unfortunately, this attempt was a spectacular failure.

Deena was a new idea for the show – an energetic young monster who seems more like an actual preschooler than the other savvier, more self-aware Muppets. She was played by a 20-year-old puppeteer named Karen Prell, which is certainly exciting to Muppet fans looking back from the future. On paper, she seems like a great idea. In practice she was a disaster. Let’s look at her first appearance to find out why.

We open on David, stocking boxes of Honeycomb cereal boxes promoting a “Ghost Stories Record” on the back. Just as I start fantasizing about sending away for a Ghost Stories Record, Deena pops up. David asks what he can do for her, and she says “Play with Deena!” This is pretty much all she says. At one point during this scene, the word “play” is said seven times within 20 seconds. This sets up Deena’s defining characteristic, which is that she’s relentless.

David comes up with the idea that Deena should throw him cereal boxes so he can set them up on the shelves. That’s fine at first, but then she starts throwing them faster and more furiously. She’s yelling “Play! Play! Boxes, yeah!” while David is yelling “Not so fast Deena, hold it!” Three minutes into her first appearance, and she’s already unbearable to her co-star.

(One more note about this scene – David’s low-key charm is in full effect here. When Deena introduces herself as “Me Deena Monster,” he smiles and says “Well I’m David Human!” Later, while Deena is throwing boxes to him, he exclaims “Terry Bradshaw! All right, Lynn Swann!” David is a Steelers fan, I guess, and I’m here for it.)

Deena’s next victim is Big Bird. While Deena and Big Bird are playing together, Susan calls Big Bird in for dinner. She says “Gordon made your favorite!” Big Bird is excited that “My favorite’s waiting on the table” but Deena wants to stay outside and – you know it – play.

She says “Deena no eat! Stay! Play!” Then we watch Deena move a car around a barrel three times, while saying “Vroom, vroom! Yeah! Vroom!” When she finally goes inside and sits at the table, Big Bird and the adults make a big show of talking about how delicious the food is. Deena doesn’t eat, she starts vrooming around a fork with meat on it and making car sounds. And guess what? Big Bird starts doing it too, because that guy’s a sucker.

Finally, Deena excitedly punches Oscar’s trash can, yelling “Oscar! Play! Play!” To his credit, Oscar’s reaction is delightful. His first line here is “Will ya knock it off, Deena? Knock it off!” He also gets to say “Play, play, play! I don’t wanna play! Now go away!”

Oscar tries to play “a subtraction game” where people disappear one by one, thinking Deena will leave once there’s no one else there. It doesn’t work. Deena leaves like she’s supposed to, and then comes back begging to “play subtraction game again!” So the episode ends with a promise that Deena will never stop begging to play, no matter how much we try to ignore her.

Honestly, I can see what they were trying to do with Deena. Little kids are very often relentless like this. When they want to play, they really do keep bugging the adults in their lives about it. They can be single-minded in their obsession. My own kids do this all the time. It makes sense for Sesame Street to make “Focus on something other than playing” into a curriculum goal.

But she’s so focused on “play” that there’s no reason to care. When other Muppets are obsessed with pigeons or cookies or trash, it’s funny because those are offbeat interests that mostly don’t exist in real life. But kids can still relate to them, because they too become fixated on things. “Play” is too mundane to be entertaining, so Deena just seems like an annoying kid who won’t leave the audience alone.

Well, we all know that Deena didn’t last long. They kept trying to make her work for one more year. In season 12, They redesigned Deena to make her more distinctive, and gave her a Muppet nanny named Pearl. That way she could annoy Pearl in sketches instead of annoying everyone in street scenes.

But it didn’t take, and after season 12 Deena disappeared forever. But her legacy lived on in two much better characters. Karen Prell, of course, went on to play Red Fraggle, another bold, confident young girl but one who was actually fun to watch. And, of course, Sesame Street would be taken over by an enthusiastic red preschool monster who has trouble with pronouns, just not this one. 

So in a way, Deena is the most important Muppet of all time.

Click here to send away for a Ghost Stories Record on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Anthony Strand

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