Muppet Book Club

“The Many Faces of Ernie”

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Commentary by the Tough Pigs Forum:

Anthony Strand, Danny Horn,

David Hirsch, Emmy Miklasevich,

Jess Healey, Joe Hennes, John Hamilton,

Kellie Bartlett, Lara Frazier, Laura Day,

Mark Rowan, Michal Richardson,

Mike Cervantes, Peter Papazoglou,

Rob Berg, Ryan Roe, Scott Hanson,

Thijs van Domburg, Tom Holste

While I Kiss Disguise

 

The main theme of the book is the shifting nature of identity. Ernie thinks that he can change himself at will, yet Bert sees through to the truth behind each disguise. Why, ultimately, does Bert’s perception fail, and what does that say about the possibility of ever truly knowing another person?

 

Ryan:

I have this book. So far, there’s only been one Book Club selection that I haven’t owned since childhood. My parents obviously knew that I’d be participating in these discussions one day, and they wanted me to be prepared.

 

Is it possible that there was something in the oatmeal which affected Bert’s sagacity? Don’t let your guard down just because you ate some oatmeal, that’s what I always say.

 

Michal:

Is anyone else wondering why Ernie says “Shiver MY timbers”? No wonder Bert keeps recognizing him. A gramatically conscious pirate is a transparent pirate.

 

Rob:

Maybe he’s purposely doing that in an attempt to win Bert over, and convince him to play. He’s assuring Bert that if he puts his book down, Ernie will agree to make the game a little more boring, so that Bert will enjoy it as well. And what’s more boring than a gramatically conscious pirate? Maybe for the next part of the “fun,” Bert can critique the historical inaccuracies of Ernie’s costume!

 

Joe:

I wonder what kind of reaction Ernie expected to get out of Bert: “Hey, a pirate! Come on in, but don’t eat the furniture!”

 

John:

Ernie’s desperation to put one over on Bert reaches a somewhat pathetic climax on page 13, when he tells Bert to get away from the window, and go sit down and read.

 

The childlike naivete that’s usually undercut by a knowing wit seems here like a sad kind of denial. He knows Bert can see through his charades, but still he attempts to fool him again. Why? Is it because Ernie feels he has to become someone else to keep Bert’s interest? Are these games his last attempt at saving a friendship long since headed for splitsville? Will this be their last summer together at “the house”?

 

Obviously, Bert and Ernie need to communicate more. Sure, they already talk plenty — about the letter L, about tall and short, about tying things to one’s finger to remember other things. But do they remember why they’re friends?

 

The ending of the story makes me especially sad. Frazzle’s fluke arrival has wreaked havoc, but Bert and Ernie aren’t any closer. And despite declaring on page 16 that he’s giving up the role-playing surprises, there’s Ernie on page 22 with a SUPER Disguise Kit, ready to try to impress Bert once again. I just hope their mutual frustration doesn’t spiral into bitterness or violence.

 

Extrasensory Deception

 

Danny:

I think the key to the book is Ernie’s absolute faith in the power of his Disguise Kit. Ernie is convinced he can fool his best friend; he’s fallen for the Disguise Kit’s hype.

 

After the first costume fails, Ernie figures it’s a “lucky guess.” Even after the third time, Ernie thinks it’s “amazing” that Bert recognized him. It’s not that Ernie thinks Bert is stupid. He just believes in the power of the Kit, and he can’t understand why it’s not working.

 

The climax of Ernie’s story arc is on page 16, when he’s forced to come to terms with the fact that his “silly disguises” won’t fool his friends. He’s on the verge of losing faith in the Disguise Kit — but then, in his darkest moment, what arrives in the mail? The Super Disguise Kit! It’s something of a deus ex machina, but the appearance of the Super Disguise Kit is an assurance that we should hold fast to our beliefs. The Many Faces of Ernie is a story of ever-renewing faith.

 

The twist to the book is that Bert the unbeliever, who’s spent the entire book maligning the Disguise Kit, is revealed to be even more of an ardent believer than Ernie is. The monster knocks on the door — a complete makeover, nothing like the simple costumes Ernie’s been wearing so far — and Bert thinks it’s Ernie. Even when the monster is biting chunks out of the furniture, something that Ernie couldn’t possibly do, Bert still believes that this is the work of the Disguise Kit. Ernie can see that the monster is real, but Bert, as a new convert, has the faith of a child. In the end, the Disguise Kit wins. Just imagine how powerful the Super Disguise Kit must be.

 

Peter:

Ernie, having fallen victim to false prophets, is tempted by the promise of fooling his best friend and promptly begins webbing tangled weaves that threaten to destroy not only his own soul, but Bert’s as well.

 

Practicing the art of deception, Ernie has unwittingly become an agent of the devil, appearing before Bert in many guises and tempting him with promises of pirate gold. Bert, always the more skeptical of the pair, recognizes the devil at his door and rejects him.

 

Although Bert initially rejects Ernie’s temptations, his actions reveal him to be susceptible to several deadly sins of his own, including gluttony (the oatmeal), sloth (“Simple To Make”) and vanity (Bert doesn’t even have teeth). By page 15, Bert has finally let his guard down, leaving his door — and his heart — open to the devil.

 

When Ernie sees the error of his ways, the devil himself is forced to intervene, appearing to Bert in the form of Frazzle. Bert believes that Frazzle is Ernie — not due to a lapse in judgement, but because of the devil’s overpowering powers of deception. It’s only when Ernie reveals the devil’s ruse that Frazzle is forced to abandon his mission.

 

Unfortunately for our heroes, the devil has left behind the Super Disguise Kit, well aware that Ernie — poor, simple, naive Ernie — won’t be able to resist reopening Pandora’s Box.

 

Let us pray for them.

Frazzle Knock

 

Frazzle comes to the house and immediately starts wreaking havoc. This is clearly a very impolite monster. So why does he knock on the door before coming in?

 

Kellie:

Frazzle was being extremely polite. I bet if you went over to his house and didn’t admire how tasty the couches were, he would feel hurt.

 

Jess:

Frazzle isn’t intentionally impolite, but he hasn’t grasped the finer points of company manners. The fact that he knocked indicates that he wants to improve himself. That should be encouraged, and instead what are we doing? We’re discussing his failings on a public forum. Tsk tsk.

 

Mark:

Frazzle is only eating the furniture to clean the oatmeal off it. Look at Bert’s spoon on page 7. Now look at that arm of the chair on page 19, where Frazzle has bitten that whole part off.

 

It’s nice that we get to see Frazzle’s thoughts and learn more about his inner life. (Usually I only get “Yaarrggrraaahhgghh” from him. And since that can mean either he’s happy, or sad, or that he’s hot, or not, it’s always been hard for me to connect emotionally with Frazzle.)

 

Since Frazzle finds Boring Stories so delicious, I can just imagine him going to the nearest library and chowing down on the collected works of, say, Theodore Dreiser or Thomas Hardy. While Frazzle’s around, no boring story is safe.

 

Danny:

I think we’re meant to assume that Bert has cleaned the oatmeal off the couch during the time between pages 8 and 9. There’s obviously some time elapsed between those pages — Bert’s eaten his oatmeal, and now he’s brushing his teeth. There’s no way that the anal-retentive Bert would drip oatmeal on the couch and just leave it there. He probably washed the dishes, too, all while reading his book with the other hand.

 

Lara:

Frazzle is wandering the streets, which may suggest that he’s homeless. Perhaps there is prejudice on Sesame Street? Prejudice against furniture eating monsters. He must have seen the furniture from the open window and gotten hungry. The oatmeal’s savory aroma must have helped even more. Frazzle may have thought the furniture was specially made oatmeal-furniture.

 

Mike:

Frazzle knows he’s a monster, and it’s his duty to rollick and rip things up. But just because he has to do that, it doesn’t mean he should throw common courtesy out the window.

 

Danny:

Good point about Frazzle doing his duty as a monster. That’s another odd quirk of the book: On Sesame Street, it isn’t surprising to have monsters popping in at odd hours just to mess up your house. Ernie certainly doesn’t seem that alarmed. He just says, “Shoo, monster,” and hustles the monster out the door, like Frazzle is a neighborhood dog. Bert is more upset about losing his book than anything. I guess that happens to them pretty often. They must order living room furniture by the case.

 

Ryan:

If the book had gone on for a few more pages, we would have seen another monster come to the door to try to sell Bert a new lamp, chair and table. It’s a pretty good racket they’ve got going on, though they don’t sell rackets.

 

Further Adventures

 

What do you think could be in the Super Disguise Kit? What would you dress up as first?

 

Jess:

What’s not in it? I would probably dress up as the Arc de Triomphe. No one ever suspects the Arc de Triomphe…

Browsing

 

Danny:

What do you guys think of the art style? I have a love-hate relationship with it — essentially, I love Ernie and I hate Bert.

 

I think Chartier gets Ernie exactly right. His wide-eyed wonder on the title page, when he’s looking through the Disguise Kit — that’s exactly Ernie. He’s got just the right kind of sunny innocence.

 

But Chartier totally flubs Bert, who moves his eyebrows too much. In fact, from pages 7 through 20, Bert’s eyebrows flip up and down from one page to the next. Up, down, up, down. It’s not right.

 

Jess:

Is the struggle between Bert and his eyebrows symbolic of the dichotomy of his nature? Is it an outward expression of the inner struggle of a person who strives to be boring — but who knows, in his heart of hearts, that no Muppet who lives with Ernie can ever truly be dull? Or was Chartier simply stymied by the unibrow?

 

The world may never know.

 

 

The Lawn Arranger

 

Emmy:

What really disturbed me was the fact that there was grass right out front. Grass! On Sesame Street!

 

David:

It’s simple. Ernie disguised the apartment as a house.

 

Tom:

I think Chartier chose to set the story at Bert and Ernie’s summer home in Paris, where the entire cast of Sesame took their stage show every year (titled “La Avenida du Sesamuso”). I don’t know why Bert failed to recognize Frazzle, though, who must have come with the troupe. Did Bert already forget last night’s rehearsals?

 

 

Interesting Observations about Boring Stories

 

Kellie:

I love that the Boring Stories have such a large part in this, and that we even get a hint of what’s in them. When I was a kid, I really, genuinely wanted CTW to publish a book of Boring Stories.

 

Rob:

Ernie stands there, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, the ultimate symbol of femininity in danger from the masculine predators of the world. Yet he wears a beard the color of the wolf, thus embodying both the oppressed and the oppressor in a single, unified, powerful statement.

 

Ernie embraces both his dark, masculine impulses and his lighthearted, feminine urge to play and thus is depicted as psychologically whole, in charge of both yin and yang — as opposed to Bert, who ignores his bodily instincts and desires, in favor of the dubious pleasures of sticking his nose in a book and disregarding the physical world around him.

 

Thijs:

Another thing about those books overall: what is it with the monsters? On the show, Herry and Frazzle are both sweet monsters, but in the books they’re rampaging devils.

Anthony:

Hmm, that’s true. And in The Cookie Tree, everyone accuses Cookie Monster of lying when he tries to be nice. Not to mention that Grover — a monster himself! — is frightened of the monster at the end of the book. I don’t recall ever being told monsters were anything but friendly on TV. Also, look how crappy Grover’s first day of school was. No little guy deserves all that.

 

The obvious conclusion is that authors of Sesame Street books are all part of some anti-monster conspiracy, and they must be stopped.

 

Danny:

You wouldn’t say that if a monster came to your house and ate you. I mean, you couldn’t.

 

Anthony:

That’s true. I’d probably just say, “You looked so friendly on televis-“

 

Joe:

You know how they say that the camera adds a few pounds? Well, it also adds several veils of lies. About monsters.

 

 

Let’s hear from the Tough Piglets

 

Laura:

Here’s the responses from my Tough Piglet: Aidan, age 4.

 

1. Why does Bert think the monster is Ernie?

 

Ernie wants to surprise Bert, ’cause surprises are fun. Bert knows Ernie because he’s shaped like Ernie, and Ernie colored, only with some different clothes on. Bert thinks the monster is Ernie because he was wrong. Ernie was at the door every single time, so he thought the monster was Ernie at the door again, and the monster has an Ernie nose. I thought the monster was Ernie.

 

2. Why does Frazzle ring the bell?

 

Frazzle wanted to know if people were home, because you have to have people around for them to see you eat the furniture if you’re a monster.

 

3. What’s in the Super Disguise Kit? What would you dress up as first?

 

Spiderman, because in a Super Disguise Kit are super hero disguises. If Ernie wants to really fool Bert, he should dress up like a regular person with regular skin and not fuzzy skin and a regular shaped nose, because he wouldn’t be Ernie shaped and that would totally fool Bert.

 

While we were reading, Aidan noticed the beard, and said, “Look, Ernie is dressed up like Little Red Riding Hood, but he hasn’t completely stopped being a pirate yet. Him might want to be a pirate again, soon.” The oatmeal on the couch upset him, and he was glad that the monster ate it off the couch. He also noticed that Bert reads boring books like mommy and daddy — books with no pictures. When I asked him about Bert and Ernie living in a house, he said, “They live in a ‘partment, but they’re visiting somewhere else.”

 

Scott:

This was a favorite of mine as a kid. A few things always stood out for me — not things that bothered me per se, but just some particulars that I took notice of. For example, how Bert expertly maneuvered the oatmeal so that it would land on the chair instead of the floor.

 

Thinking about it now, I figure Bert might have liked the idea of making his chair smell like oatmeal. Cinnamon oatmeal. Wouldn’t you? Figure, if gravity’s gonna pull that oatmeal down, you may as well have it land on a place where the smell will be enjoyed for months to come.

 

Frazzle’s appearance at the end was always a highlight for me. This was Frazzle’s Big Moment in my memory, and I even knew that his name was Frazzle. Probably from the Sesame Street Library books, because I certainly don’t remember a whole lot of him from the show. Because of this book, I always wanted a Frazzle PVC. Except in my day, we didn’t call them PVC’s. They were Sesame Street Guys. Even the girls.

 

My daughter Gillian and I read this together a few times the other night, and her suggestion was that Bert should have been able to try on some disguises, too. Like me, she’s an Ernie kid, but she’ll learn to appreciate Bert later in life. She saw Ernie as having all the fun, and thought Bert should have been able to get in on it.

 

So now another generation begins their journey, pondering over oatmeal cans and toothbrush suds.

 

 

What We Learned

 

Joe:

The moral of the story is simple: Don’t open the door for strangers on the fifth knock. The first four are probably your roommate in a costume, but the fifth one might be a monster who will steal your stuff and ruin your decor.

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