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!
A lot of the Muppet characters seen on Sesame Street are children, which makes sense because the audience is mostly children (the rest of the audience is parents, caregivers, and odd grown-ups who write for Muppet fan websites). There are a few exceptions. Oscar is definitely middle-aged. The Count might be immortal. But back in 1987, Episode 2303 of Sesame Street introduced two of its oldest Muppet characters ever, two strange animals who are both eligible for AARP.
As the episode opens, it’s a normal day on Sesame Street. Bob and Big Bird are playing a guessing game wherein Bob gives Big Bird clues about what he’s hiding behind his back, and Big Bird drives Bob nuts by constantly interrupting him when he tries to provide said clues. Eventually Bob gets the kid to shut up long enough to reveal that the item in question has wheels, is red, and has ladders and a siren. It’s a toy fire truck, of course, and when Big Bird guesses correctly he dances around and hums the theme from Rocky.
But his victory dance is cut short by the arrival of Uncle Wally, who emerges from the doors leading to Big Bird’s nest area and announces that he wants to introduce Bob and Big Bird to two friends of his. How long have Uncle Wally and his friends been hanging out in Big Bird’s place without Big Bird’s knowledge? Is it normal for people to be constantly coming and going from the bird’s home like that?
Uncle Wally tells them that one of his friends has big ears, eats carrots, hops, and has a cottontail. Ah, I see what’s happening here. This is an extension of the guessing game! Very clever, Sesame Street writers. And yes, Wally’s friend is a rabbit… a 98-year-old rabbit! Bob is immediately skeptical and suspects this is one of Uncle Wally’s jokes. Wally continues: His other friend has a long curly tail, eats bananas, and is over six feet tall. Bob, bemused, guesses a six-foot-tall monkey, and that’s correct! It’s a 75-year-old, 6-foot-tall, juggling monkey who can’t speak but communicates in sign language.
Bob is laughin’ it up as Uncle Wally takes them into the nest area, but when they’ve crossed the threshold, sure enough — there’s an elderly rabbit with glasses and a white moustache. The elderly rabbit is introduced as Professor Dexter Rabbit, and he clarifies that he doesn’t hop as much as he used to. He hops once in a while, and he demonstrates by doing a little shuffle-and-hop dance, which is exactly the kind of dance a 98-year-old rabbit would do.
Professor Rabbit then introduces Garbo the monkey, who is just as tall and pink as advertised. Bob, who has just been talking to a giant bird, and whose friends include a woolly mammoth guy, is astonished at the sight of these creatures.
It’s worth noting that when Professor Rabbit first appears, his ears are both drooping, but when he starts speaking they perk up. As the scene continues, sometimes one ear is up and one ear is down. Presumably there’s a mechanism inside so his performer (Kevin Clash) can control those ears. It really makes the old fellow seem alive.
Side note: In between street segments in this episode, there’s a sketch with Kermit the Frog of Sesame Street News looking for young people to talk to about new ideas for games. He finds Elmo, and after Kermit explains to Elmo what an idea is, Elmo gets the idea to play the reporter game, and attempts to forcibly wrest Kermit’s microphone away. Boy, that Elmo, already trying to take over the show way back then. (I’m kidding! It’s a delightful scene, and youthfully-enthusiastic Elmo and straight-man Kermit work really well together.)
In the street next segment, Garbo shows off her juggling skills for Bob, Big Bird, Uncle Wally, and Telly. Professor Rabbit explains to Telly that Garbo is the world’s foremost teacher and student of juggling, while he is the world’s foremost talker about juggling. I have a suspicion that’s a self-bestowed title. But wait – how can Garbo be a teacher and a student at the same time? It turns out there’s always something new to learn about juggling, as demonstrated when Garbo figures out for the first time in her 75 years how to pick up a fifth beanbag without dropping the first four beanbag. How fortuitous that this monumental occasion occurred while she was on Sesame Street!
After several more inserts, including the always-excellent “Coconut Counting Man,” we find ourselves in the Sesame Street Library, a set that was used fairly often around this time on the show. Professor Rabbit and Garbo have volunteered to help Linda with some library responsibilities, but Uncle Wally is now nowhere to be seen. I bet he was getting tired of these guys so he dropped them off at the library and skedaddled.
Using sign language, Linda relates to Garbo that she needs to reshelve these three books. Professor Rabbit explains to us that Linda is deaf, and Garbo can hear, and they can use sign language to communicate. While he’s yakking on and on, Garbo takes the books and does some really impressive juggling, flipping and tossing and catching the books. Then puts the books back on Linda’s desk without reshelving them. I guess she still has a few things to learn about actually making herself useful.
But it’s okay, because Professor Rabbit just says “Whoopty-doo and abracadabra!” and when the traditional puff of smoke clears, the books have moved to the shelf! Linda is amazed, and so am I. Professor Rabbit has teleportation powers?! This seems like something Uncle Wally should have mentioned in his introduction! And then comes the punchline from Professor Rabbit: “I used to work for a magician.”
The final street segment begins with Big Bird finding Garbo doing a handstand on a bookshelf — behavior that would normally be discouraged in a library — and giving her a banana. Monkeys love bananas! (This would later become the primary character trait of two amusing Muppets, Davey and Joey.) Professor Rabbit shows Big Bird the stack of books he and Garbo are planning to check out from the library — all picture books, and all about birds. “Why do you want to read so much about birds?” Big Bird asks, and Professor Rabbit says it’s because he has a new friend who’s a bird so he wants to learn more about bird. It only takes Big Bird a second to realize it’s him. They’re friends now! Big Bird says he’s going to go ask Linda for some books about rabbits. He doesn’t mention monkeys, so apparently he doesn’t care as much about Garbo. And that’s the end.
As of this writing, Muppet Wiki’s Sesame Street episode documentation is not 100% complete, but it’s pretty darn thorough, and I’m pretty surprised that there’s no sign of any further appearances by Garbo and there’s only one minor appearance by Professor Rabbit. I know there have been hundreds of one-off Muppets in the history of the show, but there’s something about these characters that really makes it seem like the writers could have come up with more for them to do. Maybe it’s because they have so many specific characteristics. They both have a history with Uncle Wally. He’s not just a generic Muppet rabbit, he’s a 98-year-old rabbit who hops once in a while and can do magic. She’s not just a generic Muppet monkey, she’s a 75-year-old pink monkey who juggles and teaches philosophy. She doesn’t speak, so he acts as her interpreter. Even the fact that she’s a female monkey a time when most new Muppets introduced on the show were male feels significant. The writers really put some thought into these two, so it’s a real missed opportunity if they never thought about using them again.
I also want to mention how impressive Garbo is. She’s performed by Fred Garbo, who also performed Barkley at this time. He’s a really talented juggler, and adept at all kinds of acrobatic movements. He manages to convincingly move like a monkey even when Garbo is juggling and using sign language. And the puppet is lovely, colorful and Muppety and flexible enough to allow Fred Garbo to move around and presumably allowing him to see as much as he needs to.
I’m guessing the creation of Garbo the monkey was a response to the show’s previous attempt at a juggling Muppet, a monster named Dexter from the season before. As Kevin Clash has described, Dexter was a collaborative performance between himself (as the head) and Fred Garbo (as the hands), but it proved so complicated to coordinate that it wasn’t worth continuing with the character. This monkey puppet (more of a costume, really) simplifies things by eliminating the second performer, giving Fred Garbo the freedom to move around and juggle without smooshing against anyone or smelling anyone’s armpits. With both of Fred Garbo’s hands occupied, this is also why the monkey’s mouth doesn’t move much, which is why it’s part of her character that she doesn’t speak, which makes her that much more interesting.
And now I’m noticing that the color of Dexter’s fur was similar to Garbo’s… Oh dear, do you think they cut up Dexter to make Garbo?! Either way, I don’t know how much it would cost the Muppet Workshop to build something like Garbo, but it’s really a shame they didn’t use her more.
So that’s Professor Dexter Rabbit and Garbo. We may never see them again, but I like to think they’re still out there somewhere, hopping and juggling.
Click here to pick up a fifth beanbag without dropping the first four on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com