Sesame Rewind: Hollywood Goes Sesame Street

Published: February 5, 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!

I don’t know if you know this, but here at ToughPigs, we love movies, whether they have Muppets in them or not (but especially if they do). And with the annual celebration of cinema, the Academy Awards, coming up this Sunday, I thought I’d take a trip back to 1979 to see episode 1262, when Sesame Street went Hollywood… or should I say, Hollywood went Sesame Street, thanks to some very familiar faces (well, at least to Muppet fans) making rare on-camera appearances.

Of course, I’d like to start with a short feature. With the majority of the Street story taking place in the second half of the episode, we start with an unrelated segment featuring Oscar the Grouch. Outside Central Park, Oscar is fed up with putting up with smiling faces and cheerful attitudes, and attempts to rally Grouches to assert their inalienable rights to messes, misery, and the pursuit of trash by singing about the “Bill of Gripes.” And as Oscar sings, Grouches come out of the woodwork to rally to his cause, while the mostly human crowd (including Gordon and Wally) reject this idea. But Oscar continues undaunted, proudly reminding Grouches of their rights. It’s a fun song, and the placement of puppeteers operating Grouches is novel, having them perched around the USS Maine National Monument, really filling up the space an on-location shoot can offer. It really makes for an ambitious start for the episode.

After a looooong run of short films and pre-existing Muppet segments (including a moment where Bob teaches Maurice Monster how to read), we finally get to the meat of the story. Famed film director Richard Altman (not to be confused with actual director Robert Altman) is on Sesame Street looking for locations for his new movie, where he becomes enamored with Hooper’s Store. He approaches Mr. Hooper about using his shop as a shooting location and recruiting local residents to be extras, and Hooper, himself enamored with the idea of being in the movies, enthusiastically agrees.

Now, this normally wouldn’t be so unique a street scene, but you might be able to tell by his bearded face and unmistakable voice that Altman is played by famed Sesame Street icon Count von Count. And Herry Monster. And Herbert Birdsfoot. And Mr. Johnson, Simon Soundman, Frazzle, and Fred the Wonder Horse. But you might just know him better as longtime Muppet performer Jerry Nelson. And my gosh, does Nelson have a lot of fun appearing on-camera. He comes off as a pretentious director who loves his job, and Nelson really throws himself into the part. Seriously, the man uses a riding crop better than a world-class equestrian. It’s nice to know Nelson acts as well with his whole body than he does with just a hand.

After Altman rejects Oscar as a potential extra (calling him “too… special”), we meet our production assistant, played by Muppet performer Brian Muehl, who (in a particularly funny/adult moment) is seen silently flirting with Maria.  He’s interrupted by Altman, who promptly takes over flirting with Maria by showing her his (ahem) camera lens.  And of course, the look on Maria’s face is all you need to know that she wants nothing to do with either of them.

Speaking of Muppet performers, we then meet our star, Nick Redfield, performed by none other than Richard Hunt. And if you couldn’t tell it was Hunt by his face alone (which would be excusable, as he’s wearing a mustache), once he opens his mouth, it’s pretty obvious.  Redfield’s debonair, movie-star appearance hides a high-pitched voice that could only be made by the Muppet performer responsible for Gladys, the Muppet Theater’s resident cafeteria worker. It’s unexpected and a gag that just screams Richard Hunt. (Thankfully, it doesn’t scream too loudly with that voice.) 

Altman gives everyone their motivations (Maria is supposedly searching for her long-lost husband, and she gives a masterclass in hamming it up), and filming begins. Redfield looks around intently, enters the store, shoves Bruno (who was cast instead of Oscar) aside, and exits out the rear entrance. And in true Muppet fashion, that’s all the film crew needs. All the work and effort for a dialogue-less scene where someone enters a building and leaves is just the perfect payoff for this episode.

Of course, as they’re packing up and preparing to move to the next location, Redfield and Altman decide to stay at Hooper’s for their lunch break, where Redfield excitedly learns that one of Mr. Hooper’s specialties is hot pastrami. And honestly, the funniest thing in the episode is hearing Hunt use that high-pitched voice to say “PASTRAMI? I LOVE PASTRAMI!” It’s just the right amount of goofy for Sesame Street.

The episode closes with Oscar being proud of Bruno’s film debut, saying he’s going to expand his pal’s media presence with appearances on The Dating Game and The Tonight Show. (And given that Kermit the Frog’s guest hosting gig would happen just weeks later, it’s eerily possible Oscar could have arranged it.) And in a way, Oscar predicts his own film stardom back at the beginning of the episode. In the “Bill of Gripes” song, Oscar sings under a banner that reads “Grouches of the World Unite,” which would become the first line of “The Grouch Anthem,” featured in Sesame Street Presents: Follow that Bird, the first feature film based on the television show.

All in all, it’s a silly episode that fits perfectly with the fact that come the summer of 1979, Nelson and Hunt would, in a way, become movie stars with the release of The Muppet Movie. It’s also a fun way to pay tribute to the Muppet performers that help make Sesame Street what it is by letting them play Hollywood bigshots working their magic in the neighborhood. I don’t know if episode 1262 would win any awards, but it certainly won my heart. (And maybe the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.)

Click here to break for hot pastrami on the ToughPigs forum!

by Matthew Soberman

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