What Will HBO’s Sesame Street Look Like?

Sesame Street is now on HBO. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

In August, PBS made a surprising announcement: It was handing over the reins of its iconic children’s show Sesame Street to HBO, where new episodes will begin airing this month. To outsiders, the idea of putting Big Bird and Elmo on the same shelf as Game of Thrones and Cathouse: The Series seemed odd — not least because, as many pointed out, Sesame Street’s mission at its founding in 1969 had been to serve underprivileged city kids, not those in possession of premium cable. But internally, HBO was seen as a kind of salvation: For the past several years, the brand had been struggling, and the new network promised not just financial security but creative independence. And it wasn’t as if the underprivileged kids had been left totally behind — a deal had been worked out wherein, after a nine-month delay, PBS would air the episodes too.

But even before the Champagne dried on their Muppet snouts, a second piece of news circulated through Muppet World that sent a chill down their furry spines. “After almost a year of battling for what I believe is the heart and soul of the show,” wrote Joey Mazzarino, ­Sesame Street’s head writer, in a Facebook post announcing his departure in ­September, “I lost the war.”

This was big. While people on the outside maybe knew the names of Kevin Clash — the “Muppeteer” who became famous for launching Elmo to stardom (and later infamous for facing allegations of sex abuse) — or Caroll Spinney, who has been Big Bird since 1969, for people on “the Street,” as it is colloquially known, “Joey Mazzarino is the fucking man,” as one former employee put it. Mazzarino had come to the show in 1989, after a chance encounter with a Muppeteer who performed a character named Meryl Sheep, which piqued his interest. His own audition, in which Mazzarino had introduced a trenchcoat-wearing, side-talking sheep detective named Colambo, was the stuff of legend. Over the years he’d carved out a reputation for himself as a devoted Muppeteer, a songwriter — his “I Love My Hair,” inspired by his adopted Ethiopian daughter’s curls, went viral — and especially as a crafter of the pop-culture parodies the show has long made to entertain parents watching with their kids. “I remember picking up one of his scripts after I started,” says a former employee. “It was called ‘Bird Men,’ about pigeons who wore suits in New York, and it was making fun of Mad Men, and it was just like, Man, this guy is ridiculous.”

In his role as Murray Monster, the news-reporter Muppet whose show-opening “Word on the Street” segment involved interviews with real-life New Yorkers, Mazzarino interacted regularly with the show’s fans, an experience that Jeremy Slutskin, the freelance producer who accompanied him, says was inevitably emotional. “The reaction was always through the roof,” he tells me. “With Murray, I have seen grown firemen cry. Because everyone, pretty much every living person on the street, has a connection to Sesame Street. Like, a deep, profound connection.” Once, they’d interviewed Alan Gilbert, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, who played “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” for the Muppets. “And later I asked him, you know, why did you pick that piece?” says Slutskin. “And he said that the first time he’d heard it was on ­Sesame Street.

Knowing how important Sesame Street is to viewers gives employees a sense of purpose. Sesame Workshop, the umbrella organization, doesn’t just license children’s television and fluffy toys; it also makes special programming for kids whose parents are incarcerated or in the military. As such, the mind-set of the people who work there is more closely aligned with the nonprofit world than the entertainment industry. “The attitude is like, ‘I don’t care about money, I just love what is happening here so much,’ ” the former employee said. 

Like Mazzarino, many have been there for decades. “It’s a very unique show in that it’s a family environment,” explains Carol-Lynn Parente, the senior vice-president of Sesame Workshop, who has worked there for decades. At the offices by Lincoln Center, the walls are decorated with drawings of Muppets, the conference rooms are named after them, and the socks themselves are hallowed. “You aren’t allowed to take pictures of the Muppet suits without people inside of them,” says the former employee. “Or even, like, look at them.” Kindness, ­sincerity, and respect rule. “Everyone’s so nice it’s almost disgusting,” says the former employee, who claims that for his first few weeks of employment, a higher-up went over each of the emails he sent out. “To make sure my salutations were warm enough.”

In the shared kitchen, a current employee tells me, someone is almost always making toast. “It’s really a comfy place,” she explains.

For four decades, Sesame Street had operated more or less in this comfort zone. More recently, the political will to support its mission eroded, to the point that candidates have made Big Bird a symbol of bloated federal spending. And the competition, which had already steepened with the rise of cable networks like Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, exploded with the advent of the internet and particularly the tablet, which empowered even very young children to make their own programming decisions. Sesame Street may still have been a ­sentimental favorite of adults, but it was clear this loyalty was not inherited by their children. Licensing revenue dropped from the “Tickle Me Elmo” era. Sesame Street, which had for so long been a paragon apart, was suddenly like everyone else in media, adrift on a leaking ship in a sea of cheap content. And it was a big ship. “Sesame Street is the world’s most expensive show to produce,” says Sonia Manzano, who played Maria, one of the show’s only flesh-and-blood characters, for 45 years before retiring last year. The loving detail that goes into the program — the careful research behind each episode, the set out in Queens — doesn’t come cheap. “And now it’s competing with all of this 15-minute ­animated stuff,” she says. “And here comes Sesame Street: ‘Well, we need to have Itzhak Perlman on …’ ” She sighs. “It’s just, like, a grander vision.”

It was increasingly clear that it wasn’t going to be a vision PBS was able to keep, not without taking drastic measures. So in the fall of 2014, Sesame hired Jeffrey Dunn, the former CEO of Nickelodeon, to lead a reorganization of the network that involved splitting the philanthropic and the commercial organizations, and streamlining its operations so they might better compete in this new era. “We’re going to attack it all,” he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview, noting that there were no “sacred cows.”

Whatever feelings you might think people from PBS have about executives from a commercial network like Nickelodeon and vice versa, well, you would probably be correct. To the gatekeepers of Sesame Street, it was as though a developer of luxury condos had arrived to raze and replace shabby but beloved walk-ups. Dunn’s costume at the annual Halloween party said it all: He was the Count, all about the sheer numbers.

And if Dunn’s comments about sacred cows gave Gladys (“the most famous of ­Sesame Street’s many cows” — Muppet Wiki) pause, she was right to be concerned. One of Dunn’s first moves was to bring in Brown Johnson, the powerhouse behind Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer, as a creative director on season 46, which begins airing January 16. One of her suggestions was paring down the number of Muppets the show featured. This was something the writers had been told before. Sesame Street has hundreds of Muppets, who have traditionally drifted on and off the show, and the sheer multitude can be confusing for very young children, who over the years have emerged as the show’s core audience. “When you look at the competition, they all focus on a single character or a small group of characters,” says Carol-Lynn Parente. “From a child’s perspective, if you love Cookie Monster, you want to tune in and know you are going to see him.” In the past, the writers had committed to making the show “more like Friends,” as Manzano put it, with the main Muppets that testing told them children liked best. But inevitably, the Muppets the writers liked best always  sneaked back in. Mazzarino loved writing for Grover and Telly, an endearingly neurotic red monster in the mode of George Costanza. (“I don’t understand why kids don’t love Telly more,” he wondered on the Tough Pigs website, one of several Muppet-obsessive sites for adults.)

Now they no longer had the option. Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Abby Cadabby, Rosita, Elmo, Grover, and Oscar — the Muppets who test well — were getting the main story lines. And the new team freshened up their environment, too. While the original Street “was designed to be gritty in the early days,” says Parente, with “gray and brown so that the color of the characters popped,” it had come to look a little “too gritty,” she says. So: “We went to the same neighborhoods and looked at how they had evolved, and we hired a new set designer.” They built a community garden for Abby Cadabby and a visible nest for Big Bird and moved Elmo into the brownstone previously occupied by humans Gordon and Susan. Manzano moved out, and “Nina,” a young, bilingual character who resembles a living Dora the Explorer, moved in. And they cut the show to a half-hour. “That was from testing too,” says Parente. “The audience was younger and younger, and they would have this fatigue.”

Where this audience was also experiencing “fatigue,” they found, was with the parodies. At this point, Mazzarino had elevated them to an art form: In addition to the Mad Men parody, the show has produced “Game of Chairs,” a Game of Thrones redux in which Muppets played musical chairs, and “House of Bricks,” a retelling of the Three Little Pigs in which Frank Underwolf threatens to blow down the White House. “People love them, we love producing them, they get a lot of attention,” says Parente. But, she says, “if you really are thinking kids first — and it’s very clear from all of our research that they are making the viewing choices — the kids never got the parodies.” Which meant, according to the new regime, they had to go.

For Joey Mazzarino, the sidelining of Telly, the shortening of the show, the reorienting of the episodes to what Parente and Brown called “child-relevant topics” like boo-boos, and the loss of parodies were things he could not bear. To him, this extra layer of sophisticated humor was what separated it from the Nickelodeons of the world. “Joey believes that what makes Sesame Sesame are the pop-culture references, the mania, all of the Muppets,” says a friend of Mazzarino’s. (The show says the parodies will still be produced for online.)

Ironically, at the moment Sesame Street was closing on a deal to be acquired by the network whose work he had so charmingly parodied, the chasm between the Muppeteer and his new masters grew too wide to bridge. Sesame Street’s Culture of Kindness mandates mean that the parties involved won’t say much about what happened. “Creative people are very passionate. When you can’t get someone onboard for your vision, things happen,” says Parente, who disagrees that the “heart and soul” of the show are at stake. Since the beginning, Sesame Street was meant to be an “experimental” show, one that changed in response to its audience. “Change is hard,” she says. “The trick to evolution is making those changes but not changing the essence of who you are.”

Not everyone is sure that this time they’ll be able to pull that off. “I think that Sesame Street has always reflected the times that it existed,” says Manzano. “When it came out in ’69, the whole country was idealistic. Now we’re living in very coarse, harsh times. Everything has a bottom line, and I think that the show reflects that.”

Still, there’s always hope that the sun will come and sweep the clouds away. The first week of January, the same week the remaining members of the Sesame Street family gathered to toast the launch of the new season and their new partnership with HBO at the Langham hotel in Pasadena, Mazzarino emailed to say that he had “nothing but goodwill toward the Street.”

“I think the people in charge right now are from a completely different culture and don’t fully understand what they’ve been put in charge of,” he said. “Hopefully, in time, and by being surrounded by all that fur and all those googly eyes, they will somehow have a Road to Sesame awakening where all the comical throwable rubber fish scales fall from their eyes and they can see clearly which way the Street runs.”

*This article appears in the January 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.