When you become a parent, or at least an involved parent (fuck you, mom! You were never there for me!), your life and priorities and rhythms change so dramatically that it’s almost as if your very brainwaves shift dramatically. It feels like being a parent affects you on a cellular, physical, as well as intellectual and emotional level. Perhaps that explains why, two years into beginning the magical adventure of parenthood (and though I write this on a site devoted to comedy I am not kidding, as I am hopelessly sincere in my parenting) Sesame Street is rapidly threatening to replace The Simpsons as my all-time favorite show and the show I am most influenced and obsessed with.
My love of Sesame Street borders on unhealthy and pathological. I already sense that I am enjoying the show more than my two-year-old son Declan. He’ll start wandering away after the third episode in a row and I’ll be all, “Come back! They haven’t done ‘Elmo’s World’ yet! Don’t you want to see what Dorothy the Goldfish imagines Elmo as? I bet it’s adorable.”
At this point I know “Elmo’s World” the way Trekkers know Spock and Captain Kirk. I can time down to the split second all of the segment’s various features, from Elmo asking a pre-verbal baby the question of the episode, then wandering away satisfied despite the tot doing nothing but gaze fondly but uncomprehendingly at him, to the moment late in the show where Elmo’s pet goldfish Dorothy imagines what Elmo would look and sound like if Elmo were a wide variety of people, animals, creatures, and things.
I’ve watched “Elmo’s World” enough to realize that while the show is educating small children (its target demographic is kids ages one to three) about simple topics and counting it’s also a miniature museum of different, anachronistic forms of comedy. Elmo is a three-and-a-half-year-old red monster child with the sense of humor of a 57-year-old white dad/vaudevillian. He is forever cracking corny jokes and indulging in eye-roll inducing wordplay. Elmo is always cracking up at himself like a monster version of a young Adam Sandler. In his quest for knowledge, Elmo asks a member of the Noodle family, a group of silent physical comedians, all played by Tony winners, a simple question they answer enthusiastically but incorrectly, because they appear to be mentally challenged and have a terrible time grasping even the most basic adult concepts. The Noodles are a throwback to vaudeville but they’re also mimes in the ancient and annoying tradition.
There’s also a strong streak of absurdism coursing through “Elmo’s World.” Every episode ends with a merry sing-along in which Elmo insists that his silent yet extremely important pet goldfish Dorothy wants them to sing a song to the melody of “Jingle Bells” (more or less) but lyrics that consist of one word or phrase repeated over and over again, to the point of madness. And this is no stranger than anything else on the segment.
“Elmo’s World” is not exactly “funny” but a lot of Sesame Street is genuinely amusing, and not just by the lenient standards of children’s entertainment. Chances are good that many of your favorite comic performers have already appeared on Sesame Street, and in roles and contexts that sometimes reference their real-world fame. I’m thinking specifically of Will Arnett, who plays the hapless Max the Magician, a subtraction-based sleight of hand artist who, in a capper the average Saturday Night Live writer would murder their mother for, gets frustrated and climactically disappears and returns to his own realm, as he’s somehow both a terrible magician and genuinely magical.
Popular favorites like Samantha Bee, Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Peter Dinklage, Donald Glover, Jimmy Fallon, Ryan Reynolds, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and many, many more have appeared on the show, sometimes in mere cameos, sometimes in more ambitious roles, as when Dinklage played THE imperious “Simon” of Simon Says fame and Glover appears as a one-man burlesque of the two-man party-rocking dynamo that is LMFAO.
Sometimes Sesame Street manages to get the hot young stars of today before they become famous. Before Hamilton made him the most important artist alive, Lin-Manuel Miranda was a song-writer for Sesame Street and turned in a memorable guest appearance as a rapping, magical real estate agent for birds who doesn’t stop hard-selling Big Bird until he’s prepared to say goodbye to Sesame Street for a new habitat in the rain forest. Not every episode features a rapping magical bird real estate salesman, but that level of absurdism is in keeping with the tone of the show, and its flexible approach to reality.
Sesame Street catches flak for being more airbrushed and commercial and tidy than it was back in the 1970s, when the show was so gritty and authentically urban that in some episodes, if you look closely, you can actually see some of the extras rolling doobies in the background. The “Street” element now is more metaphorical than real and as a Gen-Xer I miss Kermit the Frog just as much as everyone else does.
But if the grit and grime and some of the soul of the old show has been sacrificed in the shiny new incarnation, a lot has been gained as well. Spoofs of Boardwalk Empire and Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark are undoubtedly targeted more at parents than children excited for Elmo to help teach them how to count. But if Sesame Street routinely does more than just wink at the grownups in the audience, these relatively hip, contemporary references do not feel like they are coming at the expense of both entertaining and educating children.
In its contemporary iteration, Sesame Street does a fine job of appealing to both children and parents. This is not one of those noxious CGI cartoons that spends so much time desperately pandering to children and adults alike that they end up insulting both groups simultaneously. No, it’s a show that respects children enough to speak up, rather than down to them, but it also respects the adults in the audience as well and makes sure they’re not forgotten.
Sesame Street features celebrities at their charming, kid-friendly best, although it can be weird seeing noted creeps like Terence Howard (who may be a fine actor, but has a lot of horrible ideas about women, and a terrible way of acting them out) palling around with Elmo and, in a particularly nightmare-inducing tableau, wearing a full-on Elmo costume. But I am happy to report that Howard is the exception rather than the rule and that on the Street of Sesame even Adam Sandler is once again a lovable man-child goofball rhyming sort-of words with a delighted Elmo and not the soulless husk of a man perpetrating The Ridiculous Six and Grown-Ups 2 and The Cobbler on a world that has done nothing to merit such abuse. Well, I guess we are thinking about electing Trump president so maybe we do, actually, deserve such torment.
Sesame Street is understandably subtle and understated in its politics, although I can imagine Trump flying into one of his patented rages if he knew just how extensively the show celebrates being Hispanic and Mexican culture and multiculturalism in all its forms. Sometimes, however, the show is accidentally both political, prescient, and even satirical and cutting in its genial, perpetually family-friendly and family-oriented comedy.
That was the case in episode from over a decade back where an incongruously suit-clad Oscar (why bother with appearances when you literally live in a trash can?) and his fellow grouches excitedly and grouchily await the arrival of their hero and role model. And who do these miserable grouches revere? Why that would be The Grump himself, or as he is otherwise known to his deplorable fans, Donald Grump.
Donald Grump is famous for having the most trash of any grump in the world, and there’s a blunt if forceful bit of sledgehammer satire endemic in replacing money, which Trump swears to God he has, and seems overly proud to possess, in excessive amounts, with, literally, garbage, rotten eggs, dirty diapers and everything else we throw away for a reason.
“His name is on every piece of trash in town!” Oscar crows of his role model, which could also describe Donald Trump’s longstanding strategy when it comes to naming his buildings. Then Donald Grump appears sporting a weird orange thing on his head that sort of resembles both a glob of hair and also a small woodland creature, and introduces himself by sneering, “I’m Donald Grump and I have more trash than all of yous, so nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah!” which is really not that dissimilar from Trump’s appeal to voters.
The segment is a parody of The Apprentice that finds Donald Grump arbitrarily firing people who aren’t even in his employ yet. Then Elmo, that furry little red ball of sunshine, swoops in and wins the game by throwing himself guilelessly into the competition while the grouches bicker counter-productively.
While simultaneously teaching counting and spoofing one of the biggest shows on the air at the time, the show illustrates allegorically how pandering, self-aggrandizing evil can be defeated not by good people lowering themselves to the level of the evil in their midst but rather by holding onto their values and innate goodness. Alternately, they can fight awfulness with awfulness, as the other grouches do when Donald Grump finally seeks their approval and they, in keeping with their grouchy nature, tell him “You’re fired.” And as if that isn’t impressive enough, there are incisive gags that cut even deeper now, like Donald Grump’s followers and worshippers and wannabes not understanding a college word like “Apprentice” so they substitute “helper” instead. It’s kind of sad, if not particularly surprising, that when it comes to speaking truth to corrupt power, Jimmy Fallon has nothing on Elmo.
Sesame Street isn’t just maybe the best kid’s show of all time and arguably a third parent to my two-year-old son. It’s also genuinely funny and engaging and has helped make being a father such an utter joy.