August 08, 2006

Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood?

More than 4,000 episodes of Sesame Street have been produced in 36 seasons, which distinguishes it as one of the longest-running shows in television history. Because of its positive influence, Sesame Street has earned the distinction of being the foremost and most highly regarded educator of young people in the world. No television series has matched its level of recognition and success on the international stage.

I love watching Sesame Street with my son. Not only do I have the satisfaction of seeing our 16-month old learn and laugh from the show; I also get a kick out of the awesome childhood reminiscences that the program’s old episodes inevitably bring about. At 34, I am suddenly 7 once again, singing along with the muppets and giggling at all the punchlines.

At the same time, our parent-child Sesame Street video marathons fostered in me a deeper curiosity regarding the show’s most popular characters. I wondered why they are the way they are, how they came to be, what they are supposed to signify, etc. I could not help but read and read until I finally got to know significantly more about our favorite muppets.

How about you? Do you know who are the people in your (Sesame Street) neighborhood? If not, this might help....

Big Bird

America's most famous 8 foot 2 inch big yellow bird, Big Bird, has entertained millions of pre-school children and their parents with his wide-eyed wondering at the world. Originally performed by Caroll Spinney, this big yellow bird can roller skate, ice skate, dance, sing, write poetry, draw and even ride a unicycle — pretty talented for a character described in the TV show's writer's guide as a 6-year-old. But despite this wide array of talents, he is prone to frequent misunderstandings, on one occasion even singing the alphabet as one big long word, pondering what it could ever mean. He lives in a large nest behind the 123 Sesame Street Apartment and he has a teddy bear named Radar.

This character helps children feel okay about not knowing everything because he himself does not know everything, and encourages them to inquire. A common Big Bird phrase in recent years has been: "Asking is a good way of finding things out!". He also teaches other life, alphabet and numerical lessons: "I guess it's better to be who you are. Turns out people like you best that way, anyway."

Big Bird took center stage on Sesame Street in the early 1980s, when the show dealt with the death of storekeeper Mr. Hooper (necessitated by the death of Will Lee, the actor who played the role). Big Bird's realization that Mr. Hooper wasn't just gone temporarily, and Big Bird's acceptance of Mr. Hooper's death, have been hailed as a milestone in children's programming.


Aloysius Snuffleupagus resembles a wooly mammoth, without tusks or (visible) ears, and he is a friend of Big Bird. He attends Snufflegarten and has a baby sister named Alice. For many years, Big Bird was the only character on the show who saw him. The other characters teased Big Bird when he said he had seen the Snuffleupagus, because they didn't believe there was such an animal, often despite evidence to the contrary. This was modeled in part on the imaginary friends some young children have.

By the late-1970s, the storylines had the adult characters becoming increasingly frustrated with Big Bird using Snuffleupagus as a scapegoat whenever something went wrong while they were out of the room. In one episode, newspapers on Sesame Street carried the front page headline, "Snuffy's got to go!"

This running gag ended with the show’s November 18, 1985 episode when the adults finally met Snuffy and apologized to Big Bird for not having earlier believed him. The Children's Television Workshop decided to eliminate the running gag after high-profile stories on pedophilia and sexual abuse of children came out. Concerns were raised that the running Snuffleupagus gag, where the adults refused to believe in Snuffleupagus despite Big Bird telling them about it and despite the fact that children, as the show's viewers, could clearly see that Snuffleupagus was real, could make children fear that they will similarly not be believed and therefore make them reluctant to tell an adult if they have been sexually abused.

Bert & Ernie

Bert is Ernie's best friend and roommate on Sesame Street. The pair share a basement apartment at 123 Sesame Street. In contrast to the practical-joking, extroverted Ernie, Bert is serious, studious, and tries to make sense of his friend's actions. His own passions include reading Boring Stories, collecting paper clips and bottle caps (especially the rare Figgy Fizz), consuming oatmeal, and studying pigeons. While Ernie's best companion outside of Bert is Rubber Duckie, Bert has his pet pigeon, Bernice. True to his detail-oriented, organized mind, Bert is president of the National Association of W Lovers. His signature song is "Doin' the Pigeon." While Ernie has often had scenes without Bert, Bert is seldom seen without Ernie.

Bert and Ernie appear together in numerous skits, forming a comic duo that is one of the centerpieces of the program. In the tradition of many movie comic duos, notably Abbott and Costello, the interplay forms between the mischievous innocent (Ernie) and the world-weary partner (Bert).

The age of Bert and Ernie is regularly discussed on forums. Nothing official has ever been said, but most consider the duo adults, as they do not appear to be highly dependent on others. Helping suggestions of the characters being young is a comment by Sesame Street Live performer Taylor Morgan. Morgan said to the Macon Telegraph that "I just kind of try to think like a 6-year-old or 7-year-old, because that's how old Bert is."

Ernie and Bert are rumored to be homosexual. (In the satirical musical Avenue Q, the character of Rod is based on Bert and is a closeted homosexual.) This rumor has expanded over the years to include the pending marriage of the pair. Sesame Workshop officials strongly insist the characters are asexual, and point out that they are made from cloth and other materials. (The Workshop issued a press statement formally denying that Bert and Ernie were gay or were meant to represent a gay couple. At the end of the statement, one of the Workshop executives asked in apparent exasperation "What's next? Are people going to start saying that Cookie Monster should enter a 12-step program for his cookie addiction?").

An internet rumor has been spread that Ernie will be dying in an incoming episode or has died already. Fueled by Jim Henson’s death in 1990, Ernie was said to be facing his demise from an AIDS illness. The storyline supposedly would come to an end with the characters dealing with their emotions following Ernie's "death." However, Sesame Street has already presented a story acknowledging the death of Mr. Hooper, the friendly grocery store owner played by actor Will Lee, who actually did die.

Oscar the Grouch

Oscar the Grouch is one of the major characters on Sesame Street, and has been on the show since the first episode. His initial greeting succinctly summed up his personality as it would remain for over 30 years: "Don't bang on my can! Go away." He has a green body, no visible nose (one episode explained that he has a "cute" nub hidden amongst the fur), and lives in a garbage can. His trademark song, explaining his passion for refuse, is "I Love Trash".

According to Sesame Street Unpaved, "The character of Oscar was inspired by a nasty waiter from a restaurant called Oscar's Tavern in Manhattan. Jim Henson and Jon Stone were waited on by a man who was so rude and grouchy that he surpassed annoying and started to actually amuse both Jim and Jon. They were so entertained that going to Oscar's Tavern became a sort of masochistic form of luncheon entertainment for them, and their waiter forever became immortalized as the world's most famous grouch." In the Ask web column, Jim Henson Company Archivist Karen Falk said that the restaurant was named "Oscar's Salt of the Sea" -- and went on to say, "Some of the designs that we have in the Archives were done by Jim Henson on Oscar's paper placemats!"

While Jim Henson's first Oscar sketches were colored purple, the original Oscar puppet was orange. After the first season, the original puppet was torn apart, and a new puppet was built. This one was green, which remained his color. The green Oscar debuted on The Flip Wilson Show, and Oscar's explanation for was that he had vacationed at Swamp Mushy Muddy, where the dampness had turned him green overnight.

Cookie Monster

Cookie Monster is a voracious monster and one of the main characters on Sesame Street. Covered with blue fur and possessing a pair of "googly eyes," Cookie Monster has an insatiable appetite. As his name implies, his primary craving is cookies, but he can (and often does) consume anything and everything, from apples and pie to letters, flatware, and hubcaps.

Cookie Monster has a deep, growly voice, and generally speaks with a simplistic diction (e.g., "Me want cookie!"). He occasionally displays an unexpectedly complex vocabulary, however, and is at his most gentrified when in his Alistair Cookie persona, hosting Monsterpiece Theater.

In his early appearances on the show, Cookie Monster seemed somewhat scary to younger viewers, as he personified the childhood fear of "being eaten by a monster" -- which is somewhat ironic, since during the show's first season, he mostly played the role of a toddler who got in the way of everything without thinking, acted fussy when he didn't get his way, and was scolded by Kermit whenever he ate Kermit's property. However, this contradictory image did not last long, and Cookie Monster quickly became one of the most popular and beloved characters on the show. Cookie Monster's theme song, "C is for Cookie," is one of the most famous songs from Sesame Street.

In Sesame Street Magazine issue 144 (May 1985), CTW's research director Dr. Istar Schwager allayed the fears of some parents about Cookie Monster's bad habits: "Each of the characters on Sesame Street is designed to exaggerate a familiar human foible, and Cookie Monster is babyishness personified... When parents object to Cookie Monster's grammar, we remind them that children learn from a variety of sources -- including other Sesame Street characters who speak properly. Cookie's eating habits, too, are a point of concern for some parents. The inedible things that Cookie eats (a car fender!) make it clear to children that his behavior is out of the ordinary. Other characters, such as Captain Vegetable, of course, are vocal advocates of good eating habits."

Since Sesame Street's format changes in the 2002-2003 season, Cookie Monster has hosted a regular segment called "Letter of the Day." In each episode he is presented with a cookie, upon which is written the letter of the day, in icing. Despite his best intentions, and various implausible schemes, he always succumbs to temptation.

To counter concerns that the character encourages poor eating habits, a number of "Healthy Habits for Life" segments and plotlines were introduced in Season 36, in which Cookie encourages viewers to eat a balanced diet, and enjoy cookies as a "sometimes food." However, the idea of Cookie Monster setting a good example for children with respect to their eating habits has been used since the 1970s, with public service announcements and individual sketches.

Count von Count

Count von Count is a purple Sesame Street character, loosely parodying the popular conception of Count Dracula and other sterotypical Transylvanian vampires. He first appeared on the show in episode 0406, the Season 4 premiere.

The Count's main purpose is educating children on simple mathematics concepts, most notably counting. The Count has a compulsive love of counting (arithmomania); he will count anything and everything, regardless of size, amount, or how much annoyance he is causing the other people around him. When he finishes counting, he laughs and announces his total, and lightning flashes in the sky with booming thunder. The number of the total would often appear on screen as this happened.

According to Sesame Street Unpaved, the Count is 1,832,652 years old.

When the Count sings, the background music resembles Roma music, no matter what the song.

The Count bears a noticeable resemblance to Bela Lugosi as Dracula in voice and appearance, but the character has never been specifically labeled as a vampire, and unlike the traditional horror monster, the Count enjoys sunlight.

The Count lives in an old, cobweb-infested castle which he shares with many bats. Sometimes he counts them. Some of the pet bats are named, including Grisha, Misha, Sasha, and Tattiana. He also has a cat, Fatatatita, and an octopus named Octavia.

In his earlier appearances in 1972, he was slightly more sinister than he later became. He had hypnotic powers, and was able to stun people by waving his hands. After counting, he uttered a villainous laugh as the thunder crashed. Later, he became frendlier, dropped the hypnotic powers, and his laugh was changed to a Dracula-style laugh.

The Count's most recent girlfriend, Countess von Backwards, is known for counting backwards. He had previously been linked to Countess Dahling von Dahling. His brother and mother have made appearances on the show, and he also has an Uncle Uno.

In Season 33, the Count received his own daily segment on Sesame Street called The Number of The Day.

The Count's New York license plate number (as seen in Follow That Bird) is 12345678910.

In a Number of the Day segment for 0: "Oh hello, it is I, The Count. I'm called The Count because I love to count. That, and I inherited my father's royal title."

His favorite TV show is 24.

Kermit The Frog

Kermit the Frog, arguably Jim Henson's most famous Muppet creation, was the star and host of The Muppet Show, played a significant role on Sesame Street, and served as the logo of The Jim Henson Company. He continues to star in Muppet movies and make numerous TV appearances.

Kermit has commented on many occasions that "as a tadpole in the swamp, he had 3,265 brothers and sisters!" Miss Piggy insists that she and Kermit got married in The Muppets Take Manhattan and that they're very happy. Kermit disagrees, claiming that it was just a movie and that in real life, they have a "professional relationship".

Kermit's most well-known catchphrase is "Hi-ho, Kermit the Frog here!" Kermit's most famous role on Sesame Street is his role as a news reporter for the Sesame Street News Flash segments, interviewing characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

Sesame Street Unpaved jokes that Kermit's birthday is on Leap Year Day, but Kermit's official birthday is May 9th.

Unlike other Sesame Street characters, Sesame Workshop never had any ownership of Kermit the Frog. Because of this, Kermit has rarely been part of Sesame Street merchandise. He has appeared in many Sesame Street videos and his songs have also appeared on many Sesame Street albums. The only Kermit toy that was labeled as a Sesame Street toy was the Magic Talking Kermit toy, released in 1999.

Although the rights to Kermit the Frog are owned by The Walt Disney Company, and the rights to Sesame Street are owned by Sesame Workshop, Sesame Workshop currently has permission from Disney to show old Kermit segments in current episodes of Sesame Street, as well as in home video and DVD productions. However, old Kermit segments are not shown very often in current episodes.


Grover describes himself on Sesame Street as a "cute, furry little monster." Grover does not use contractions when speaking, giving him a distinctive vocal pattern in comparison to most television characters. His character is multi-talented, taking on many different roles and professions throughout the series' run. It is said that Grover is written to represent the psychological age of a 4 year old.

Grover, along with Elmo, is one of the more popular characters created during the show's run, partially for his silly manner of speaking and also for his numerous imaginary adventures that children can easily identify with.

For many years, because of the consistency with which they would appear in skits together, Grover and Kermit the Frog had been considered close friends despite the annoyance of "Froggy Baby" (as Grover would call him... followed by a slap on the back).

At a Museum of Television and Radio seminar in 1992, Frank Oz described his personal affection for the character: "I like Grover because really, he's wiry. He's tough. He gets emotional. But also he tries very hard to help people, and do things right, to the extent that he doesn't use contractions in his words. If there's apostrophes in the script I get, I make the separation, because he doesn't say 'can't'. He says 'can not'... Grover came about organically. I worked on Cookie Monster, I worked on Bert. Grover just kind of happened. I guess that's why I like him."


Elmo is a furry red Muppet monster with googly eyes and an orange nose. He currently hosts the last full segment on Sesame Street, called Elmo's World, which is aimed at toddlers. He is accompanied by his goldfish, Dorothy, and silent Charlie Chaplin–like character named Mr. Noodle.

He started out as an unnamed monster used for the song "Near and Far". The puppet has been around since the early 1970's, when he was called Baby Monster, and was performed by Caroll Spinney.

The character is supposed to be about three and a half years old, and characteristically refers to himself in the third person. As with many children of his age, he is seen somewhat infrequently with a favorite toy of his: an orange monster-like doll named David, whose namesake can be found in the former proprietor of Hooper's Store.

A popular doll called the Tickle Me Elmo was manufactured in his likeness, and became the must-have toy during the 1996 Christmas season.

So now you have learned more about your friendly, loveable neighborhood creatures.

Stop. Look up.

It’s a sunny day, sweepin’ the clouds away. Everything’s a-ok. Better be on your way to where the air is sweet…

You know the rest.


Anonymous said...

Reading this gave me an instant flashback to my childhood! CooL! I never knew some of those stuff about the characters. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I have been wondering how oscar became green, thanks for the info.