Sesame Street’s Head Writer Explains the Show’s Viral-Video Dominance

It’s awfully unlikely for a 41-year-old show to become one of the most buzzworthy things on the Internet, but Sesame Street has achieved just that over the last year. Whether the PBS show is producing spot-on cultural parodies of Mad Men, True Blood, and The Closer, spoofing the famous “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” Old Spice ad with Grover, earning plaudits for a video called “I Love My Hair” (starring an African-American Muppet), or attracting controversy with a cameo from an underdressed Katy Perry, Sesame Street has become a hit again with adults who thought they’d outgrown the show decades ago. Vulture rang up the show’s head writer, Joseph Mazzarino, to find out how Sesame Street did it and what he makes of some of the attendant controversy.

Did you see all this newfound buzz for Sesame Street coming?
I have to say, no. Especially with “I Love My Hair,” I was just hoping kids would see it, but I had no idea there’d be an adult response. My executive producer actually reminded me, “We should have thought about this, because if you remember the day we shot it, all the African-American women who work on the show came down [to watch it].” Everybody’s kind of jaded about puppet stuff and we don’t really run down to see a puppet unless it’s standing next to Brad Pitt or something, but everyone came down to watch it, so we should have had an inkling that this would be big.

Have you seen the “I Love Your Hair” mash-up with Willow Smith’s song, “Whip My Hair”?
I have! I love when they do that with Muppet stuff, because with the lips, you can match just about anything if you edit it really well.

I saw that and thought, If they had just given Sesame Street a few more weeks, I’m sure you guys would have come up with your own version.
[Laughs.] Yeah, we probably could have, but I love it. Whoever posted it, I thought it was hilarious.

Tell me how you came up with “I Love My Hair.”
My wife and I, we adopted our daughter from Ethiopia, so we’re two white parents raising an African-American daughter. We knew issues of skin color would come up, and then hair came up a bit last year when she wasn’t really loving her curls and wanted to have long, blonde, straight hair. She would put on wigs, she would want her hair like her mom’s or a Barbie, and I thought maybe it was an issue because she was being raised by white parents and she sees us every day. But then when Chris Rock’s film Good Hair came out, I was talking to my executive producer about it and I realized, “Oh, this is a bigger issue. This isn’t just my child, it’s [happening with other] African-American girls.” So I asked my executive producer, “Hey, can I take a shot at writing something for this?” because we had finished our writing season and we were into shooting the show and we had nothing really left to write or even slots left to shoot it in. So I quickly sat down in my office and thought about what I say to my daughter, and we wrote this song … then I had to direct a day of inserts, and somewhere in between “The Closer” and “True Mud,” we got to stick this in.

Does your daughter have any idea how big the reaction to it has become?
There was a piece on Diane Sawyer that had pretty much the only picture [of her] released, because I want to keep her away from the media, but her friends were saying, “I saw you on TV last night!” So she thought that was cool, but I’m not letting her watch any of this yet. I’m asking our press department to put it on a DVD and when she gets older, I’m going to share it with her and show her how it took off on YouTube and stuff.

How long do these sketches take, from conception to shooting to being released? For example, talk me through the making of the Grover/Old Spice spoof.
Oh, the Grover/Old Spice bit is a pretty funny story. Jay Milligan, who works in our interactive department, came into my office to pitch me “Abby’s Flying Fairy School,” and he said, “Can I just show you something?” And he threw me a script that was a parody of the Old Spice ad, and I said, “Jay, this is great. How do we shoot this?” It wasn’t really right for the show, but if we got it online, I said that people would love it. So I started calling around and interactive scraped together some money somehow with the help of PR, and they shot it and put it up and that was maybe three weeks altogether. That was way different than anything we’ve ever done … I said that maybe it could be a promo. First it was about “on” and “is,” and I said, “If you tag it at the end with ‘Catch Sesame Street, only on PBS,’ maybe we can get PR to fund it.” And that’s what happened, it became a thing to try to drive people to the show.

What did you make of the Katy Perry controversy? Did you think her outfit was inappropriate?
I was there, and she had this mesh thing on top of it and I didn’t even notice. I didn’t think anything of it, and I’m pretty sensitive to things my daughter sees and it didn’t even strike me as anything. My daughter was there on set with us and she thought [Perry] looked like a Barbie doll, she thought she was beautiful and she loved to watch her. Not to say I don’t see other people’s point of view — I get it — but it didn’t hit me at first, at all.

When you have a celebrity on the show, how collaborative is it? Do you reach out for someone to begin with, or do you write a certain sketch for someone and then go after them?
We reach out to them and ask if they want to do the show, or people with kids call us and they want to do the show, and when we go out to L.A., we can really get a bunch of celebrities at one time. I think we reached out to Katy and said we’d love to do something with her, and when we did, our writer Melinda Ward said, “I’d love to do ‘Hot and Cold.’” I said, “Great,” and she wrote a parody of it. In terms of costumes, if it had been shot in New York, we would have done it different and costumed her. We didn’t have a costume department out there [in Los Angeles], and that’s one of the reasons that happened.

Anyone who’s turned you down that you still really wish you could get?
Personally, I want Springsteen, but that’s just me because I’m a huge Bruce fan.

Bruce Springsteen turned down Sesame Street?
We went after him years ago, and I’ve always dreamed that he’d come on the show. I don’t know if we’ve reached out to him lately, but when he had little kids, I was like, “Try to reach out to him now, he’s got little kids!”

Have you heard from any of the shows or ads you guys have parodied?
I think the creator of Mad Men was really excited about it and actually wanted the Muppets. We were like, “Oh, those are our ‘Anything Muppets,’ they’re sort of our stock players. We can’t really sell them.” I have a friend who’s in The Closer and he was in Hairspray with my wife, Corey Reynolds, and I actually texted him and said, “Corey, I’ve got a Muppet of you on the set right now!” He was so excited. It was his Facebook avatar for months!

Obviously, these are very toned-down, kid-friendly versions of adult shows, but is there any parody you guys have rejected because the association seemed too beyond the pale?
No, not during my tenure here as head writer. I remember years ago, when the Red Hot Chili Peppers were on the cover of Rolling Stone [in the nude] and they wanted to do the show, and the executive producer at the time said no, but that’s the only thing in my memory where we said, “No, that’s inappropriate.” I remember, actually, when James Gandolfini and Edie Falco came on, people were giving us a lot of flak about that, but in the context of our show, they weren’t doing anything even related to The Sopranos. They weren’t violent or derogatory, they were just being themselves, so I didn’t understand the controversy over that.

I think the argument is that if there’s a spoof of something like Mad Men or True Blood, then if a kid sees those shows while scanning the dial, they might be more inclined to watch them.
I think there’s no way for a kid to run into True Blood on the air. I mean, that’s on HBO really late at night and they’d really have to search it out, and if their parent lets them watch HBO On Demand on their own, that’s sort of out of my hands. I think Mad Men, too, is on at night, and frankly I don’t think a kid would make it through Mad Men. It wouldn’t be, “Oh man, I can’t wait to see this!” It would be “Everyone’s talking, I need to go.” So I don’t worry about that. I don’t think it’s a real concern.

I wonder if with all these parodies, you’re all just thwarted writers for Robot Chicken, deep down.
[Laughs.] No, no. Those parodies really are there for the parent watching. We love to have co-viewing here on Sesame Street, because there’s no better way for the child to get the concepts we’re giving them than when they’re sitting down with their parents, watching. As a parent myself, I can say that if you’re sitting down for a lot of kids’ shows, you kind of tune it out a little bit or get bored, but if all of a sudden there’s a Sookie muppet up there [from True Blood], you might think, “Oh, that’s pretty cool. That looks just like her.” I think that’s what it’s there for.

You’ve been writing for Sesame Street since 1990. Has the show always been doing material like this, and people are only just now paying so much attention?
We’ve done parodies, but back then, it was more like “Monsterpiece Theater,” The King and I, Oklahoma … parodies of older stuff. What we’re trying to do now for these parents who might not have those classic or musical references is to reflect what’s more out there now, because that’s what they’re seeing. It’s a different media landscape than it was twenty years ago. The best way to get attention from a parent is to do something that’s current, and not do a Casablanca spoof in 2010.

Sesame Street’s Head Writer Explains the Show’s Viral-Video Dominance