O, what chaos hath New York Times writer Virginia Heffernan wrought?
If you own the Sesame Street Old School DVDs (volume 1 was released last year, volume 2 earlier this month), you’ve seen that they include a brief disclaimer: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” That’s it… just a brief note delivered by a cartoon character before the first episode on each set. Last week Heffernan wrote a clever, light-hearted article about this in the New York Times Magazine, asking with tongue-in-cheek indignation what could possibly be so wrong with the episodes that brought up a generation.
Since then, the internet has taken notice of the article, and if there’s one thing internet people are great at, it’s overreacting. Entertainment websites and the blog world are now abuzz with former Sesame viewers in their late 20s through early 40s expressing the shock, dismay and outrage caused by their misinterpretation of the Sesame Workshop’s cautionary notice. People, basically, are freaking out. Fox News even ran an incredulous, uninformed piece about it.
How do we, as Sesame Street fans who know better, talk some sense into these people? Well, picture the following scenario. BINKY and BUNKY are your coworkers, or your fellow partygoers, or on a bus with you, and they’re former Sesame viewers who have just heard the story. As our scene begins, they’re chatting just before you happen to come along…
BINKY: Hey, you know that show Sesame Street?
BUNKY: Yeah! I loved watching Sesame Street back in the 1970s when I was a kid!
BINKY: Me too! I also enjoyed watching that television show in the 1970s. So, I just read on some random blog somewhere that the old Sesame Street is on DVD now, but it comes with a warning that you should never let your kids see it because it’s inappropriate!
BINKY: YES! They said it’s because Cookie Monster used to hold a pipe sometimes!
BUNKY: Is that all? That’s nothing! We saw Cookie Monster with a pipe and we turned out just fine!
BINKY: I know! If you ask me, everyone on Sesame Street could smoke a pipe, and it wouldn’t be that big a deal.
BUNKY: Yeah, it’s not like the kids at home are going to start smoking right there in front of the TV!
BINKY: They also said it was politically incorrect that Ernie and Bert’s apartment was dirty!
BUNKY: I have no idea what that means or why it would be a reason not to let little kids watch, but I’ll take your word for it because you read it in some random blog! And I’m indignant!
BINKY: You’re telling me! Oh, and the same thing I read said that if the show started today, they wouldn’t be allowed to have Oscar the Grouch!
BUNKY: A world without Oscar?! O, horror of all horrors! How dare they say such a thing?!
BINKY: I know! Why, I can remember watching Sesame Street while sitting on the floor with my favorite teddy bear. My grandmother gave me that teddy bear! Are they trying to say that my grandmother is inappropriate for today’s children?!!
BUNKY: Those scoundrels! Sesame Street is way too politically correct now!
BINKY: It’s all Elmo’s fault, somehow.
BUNKY: You’re right, of course! Ever since they let him come in and take over the show, and start starring in and writing and directing every episode, the show has been ruined!
BINKY: Yes! Elmo destroyed everything! And then they changed Cookie Monster’s name to “Raw Organic Asparagus Monster!”
BUNKY: Oh, yeah. I heard about that from my cousin Melvin, who read it on the internet… so it must be true!
BINKY: What’s next? I bet they’ll turn the Count into a pink, fuzzy kitten because vampires are too scary!
BUNKY: I bet they will! Outrage!
BINKY: And then they’ll get rid of Big Bird, just because he runs around naked all the time!
BUNKY: Today’s children are growing up so deprived because their television experience is not exactly identical to ours! This is a subject worthy of getting furious over!
BUNKY: My entire childhood has just been invalidated! Grr!
(At this point, YOU, the Rational,Grown-Up Sesame Fan, enter the scene.)
YOU: Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear…
BINKY: Who are you?
YOU: I’m a rational grown-up Sesame Street fan.
BUNKY: You don’t say.
YOU: Sure I do.
BUNKY: Far out.
YOU: So, it sounds like you’ve got your Christmas lights in a tangle, so to speak, over the disclaimer on the Old School DVDs. Tell me, have you actually seen these DVDs?
BINKY: Well, no. But I watched the show when I was a kid, and I —
YOU: And you turned out just fine, I know. I can tell just by looking at you. But did you know that Sesame Workshop, the producer of Sesame Street, constantly does research and testing to determine how to make the best possible show that will simultaneously educate and entertain children?
YOU: Well, they do. Now, do you think a toddler in the year 2007 is exactly the same as a toddler in the year 1974?
BUNKY: I guess not.
YOU: So isn’t it possible that the type of show that can most effectively teach a child while also holding his or her interest in the year 2007 is different from the type of show that accomplished the same feat in 1974?
BUNKY: Huh. I guess so. But my friend sent me a link to a blog by some guy who saw a report about it on Fox News, and he said —
YOU: It may be true that seeing Cookie Monster as Alistair Cookie holding a pipe didn’t persuade you to become a smoker. It may also be true that you didn’t suffer lead poisoning from playing on playground equipment containing lead paint. Does that mean you want your children to play with lead paint?
BINKY: Gosh, Mr. or Ms. YOU. I never thought about it that way.
YOU: Anyway, here’s the important part: The disclaimer doesn’t say, “Do not under any circumstances let kids see this stuff because it’s bad for them.” It just says it “may not suit the needs of today’s pre-school children.” Now, if you had watched these DVDs, you’d know that the first episode includes a slow-moving, seven-minute segment on milking cows with droning, repetitious narration. Does that sound like the kind of thing today’s kids would sit still for?
BINKY: Um… yes?
YOU: No. There’s also a film sequence about unsupervised children playing in a construction site. We could debate whether or not watching that is damaging to kids, but can you blame Sesame Workshop for covering themselves by putting a disclaimer in front of something like that?
BUNKY: Hey, I milked a cow once!
YOU: By the way, since I have your attention, when you complain about today’s Sesame Street… have it you seen it lately?
BINKY: Is this a trick question?
YOU: If you were to watch it, you would see that Cookie Monster is still gorging on cookies. Just about every day, in fact, when he and Prairie Dawn do the Letter of the Day segment.
BUNKY: Is Prairie Dawn the same one as Betty Lou?
YOU: Besides, Cookie Monster has been eating healthy foods in addition to cookies for decades. In Old School volume 2, there’s a sketch from the mid-70s in which he gets excited about eating lettuce leaves.
BINKY: Get outta town!
YOU: I will not. The Count is still around too, and so are all your other favorite characters.
BINKY: Like Sam the Robot?!
YOU: …almost all your other favorite characters.
BINKY: So what you’re saying is, we shouldn’t get all worked up over a few words at the beginning of one disc of a three-disc DVD set whose only purpose is to point out that there’s a difference between the 1970s and the 2000s?
BINKY: And that just because the stuff we have fond memories of might not be the same stuff that’s the best way for today’s kids to have fun learning doesn’t mean our fond memories are any less valid?
BUNKY: And that the counting cartoon with the pinball machine and the “onetwothree FOUR FIVE sixseveneight NINE TEN eleven twelve” song is awesome?
YOU: Well, I hadn’t said that, but yes, that’s correct.
BINKY: Oh, wise Rational Grown-up Sesame Fan, you’ve certainly helped me to see things differently.
BUNKY: I’ll say! I’m going to stop complaining about Sesame Street DVDs and concern myself with something far more important… like complaining about who won this year’s Dancing with the Stars!
YOU: That’s the spirit…
BINKY: What’s more, I think we should run out and buy many, many copies of the Sesame Street Old School DVDs and distribute them to all our friends so everyone can see that this really isn’t a big deal.
YOU: Now you’re talkin’!
BINKY: And we should take this Rational Grown-up Sesame Fan out for ice cream, right now!
YOU: Sounds good to me. On the way over I’ll explain why it’s not necessary for you to hate and fear Elmo.
BUNKY: I can’t wait!
So there you go. Make these points, and I guarantee your discussions will turn out just like this one, every time. Good luck, and try not to get an ice cream headache.
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com