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How Sesame Street’s Mr. Noodle Teaches Kids, Annoys Grown-ups

The extended Noodle Family includes, clockwise from upper left: Daveed Diggs, OG Bill Erwin (featuring Elmo), the late Michael Jeter, and Ilana Glazer. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and PBS

This is what happens when Mr. Noodle demonstrates how to eat a banana. First, he does the ol’ banana-as-a-telephone. Then, he tries to play the piece of fruit like a horn. Next, he stands at a desk, pulls a tiny lamp out of his baggy pants, and begins to dip the banana in ink to write with it. This is about the point where a grown-up might shout at the screen, “Goddammit Mr. Noodle!” Finally, with a chorus of offscreen children cheering him on and correcting him on each try (“No, Mr. Noodle, that’s not right!” “Try again, Mr. Noodle!”), Mr. Noodle successfully unpeels the banana. Then the banana flies up in the air, out of frame, before he can take a bite.

If you’re not part of the population deeply familiar with the options of guilt-free children’s educational television these days, Mr. Noodle is a Sesame Street character who appears during the “Elmo’s World” segment of the show, a human mime who goofily demonstrates the wrong way to do something before he gets it right. For instance, before he uses the right tool for the job, he attempts to hammer a nail using first a rubber chicken, a hockey stick, and an umbrella. This bit may fail to make you smirk, but it had my kids howling with laughter.

The Mr. Noodle character originated on Sesame Street in the late ’90s, played, as he still is today, by actor and trained clown Bill Irwin — at least sometimes. An interesting wrinkle in Mr. Noodle’s Sesame Street longevity is the fact that a number of performers over the years have played him. Technically they’ve played his brothers, also named Mr. Noodle, or his sisters, Miss and Ms. Noodle, but the family resemblance is so strong as to render distinctions among the Noodles irrelevant, outside of the recognizable (to adults, anyway) faces playing them. The extended Noodle family currently includes Kristin Chenoweth, Sarah Jones, Daniel Koren, Daveed Diggs, Ilana Glazer, and the late Michael Jeter.

Chenoweth, who does not have big hair or wear a wig as Ms. Noodle, worked to find her own look when she began playing the character in 2001. “Once I put on the costume and the shoes, I become the character, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with her hair,” she wrote over email. “I had pigtails and I decided the [koosh] balls that Rosie O’Donnell threw into the audience at the top of the show would be my hair accessory, and that’s when I knew Ms. Noodle was born.”

Even with small variations, however, all of these seemingly disparate actors simply get Mr. Noodle’s vibe. Despite the range of age, color, size, and gender among them, each embodies the character, who is good-naturedly foolish, enthusiastic, physical, and predictably, satisfyingly ridiculous.

It takes a certain type of performer to commit to big, ridiculous things. In Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 Years in the Street, Louise Gikow observes that the Noodle character belongs to the tradition of “great silent-film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.” When Chenoweth’s Ms. Noodle finally figures out what firefighters wear (after appearing first in a football uniform and a suit of armor), she lifts a dry hose to her face to investigate what’s wrong with it. There’s a certain musicality to the pacing: We know exactly what’s going to happen, yet we still lean forward, and then feel a sense of resolution at the silly, wet payoff.

“Elmo’s World” was scaled down from 15 minutes to five minutes in 2016, meaning the Noodle bits have to convey a lot in a short time. So the writers choose a topic or goal for Mr. Noodle to focus on. “The critical part is coming up with the question that’s germane to the topic, but doesn’t lead you to the solution,” says Sesame Street executive producer Ben Lehman. If the topic is playing ball, Elmo may ask Mr. Noodle what kind of ball you use to play soccer. “He’ll bring a football that’s not the right shape, or that’s too small. Then you can be super-surprising and the third thing is an anvil. Then it’s like you hit maximum ridiculousness and that leads to a lot of laughter,” says Lehmann. “We like for him to get it wrong three times and then succeed,” he adds, citing the classic comedy rule of three.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Noodle segments are “tightly scripted,” says Lehmann. In ordinary times, before the COVID pandemic shut down the Sesame Street’s New York studio, a series of five or six segments would be shot in a day. The actor who plays Elmo stands off-camera to read the prompts (“That’s not it, Mr. Noodle!”) so Mr. or Ms. Noodle has someone to respond to. Then in post-production, parts of the sketch will be sped up, silent movie style, to “get to the various mistakes.” The finishing touches are silly sound effects, liberally added by Dick Maitland, a sound editor who has been with Sesame Street since the late 1970s. “It’s obviously a lot of slide whistle,” says Lehmann.

It all may seem uncomplicated and repetitive to adults familiar with such classic comedic rhythms, but children get a lot from those scant seconds of silliness. “I think what works for kids is that you’re expressing so much nonverbally,” says Lehmann. “Kids develop differently. Some kids have verbal abilities very early on and some take longer to develop them.”

Wordless clowning has long been a feature on Sesame Street, going back to Sonia Manzano portraying Charlie Chaplin and the counting chef falling down the stairs with his creations. It’s this clowning tradition that connects the various actors who play Mr. Noodle. Chenoweth, Jeter, Jones, Diggs, and Irwin are all Tony-award winning stage actors, with plenty of experience playing big to an audience. “Early on in acting class, we had a whole section dedicated to mime and to work without words. I think that helped prepare me,” says Chenoweth. “I think my many years of being a ballerina when I was younger also helped prepare me to think about how to act through only movement.”

Ilana Glazer and Daniel Koren, more recent additions to the Noodle family, honed their comedic chops with performances that proved they could grab viewers’ attention with their big gestures and expressive faces. “I assumed that it’s because of my infantile persona or something like that,” says Koren, an Israeli musician and comic who has played Mr. Noodle’s brother Mr. Noodle since 2017, after Sesame Street producers and writers became aware of his work and invited him to audition. “I’m really comfortable with physical comedy and all that, and I assumed [the producers] noticed that.”

Grown-ups may just see silly clowning, but limiting Mr. Noodle’s performance to gestures and non-verbal communication allows children to focus on facial expressions and body language to interpret his ideas and message, says Jennifer Walsh, MS, MSW, LCSW, a school social worker and behavioral specialist in Evanston, Illinois (and the mother of two young kids). “This is an effective way to communicate, as children are drawn to these large and overt expressions. Adult brains are hard-wired and less flexible. They seek communication as they are used to experiencing it.”

But mindless as it may seem to adults, Mr. Noodle’s style of non-verbal communication is “a key in childhood development,” according to Walsh. “Infants and young children scan faces to determine if they are safe, if they are cared for, and to develop an attachment relationship that allows them to venture out and explore their larger world,” she says. “Young children can glean a tremendous amount of information through reading these nonverbals that we as adults may not realize we are even sharing.”

The actors in the Noodle family also all share the character’s indefatigability, which is key to both his personality and his educational value. If you’ve ever tried to work with an aggravated kid who melts down over a mess-up, there’s a lesson in how Mr. Noodle never gets mad about his failings. Plus, Elmo, love him or hate him, remains encouraging along with his chorus of children: “Try again, Mr. Noodle!” “You’ll do it this time!”

Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noted that even in infancy, children begin to note trial and error. “You can think about a baby shaking a rattle and hearing the sound it makes,” says Walsh. “They may drop the rattle and see that Dad comes over to pick it up. Now this has become a fun game — I can make dad pick this up when I drop it. I can watch how dad responds. These seemingly small events are actually key to cognitive and social emotional development.”

Not everyone enjoys Mr. Noodle’s simple experiments, however. In my very informal surveying on the topic of Mr. Noodle, while some parents, like me, enjoy and appreciate Mr. Noodle, other grown-ups sometimes describe him as “creepy” and “annoying.” One Redditor even put forth a theory that Mr. Noodle is actually in hell. “I always like that Mr. Noodle teaches kids to be patient with people, and also gives them confidence that they can be right and can contribute to an adult’s life,” says Heather Cocks, co-editor of Go Fug Yourself and the mother of two sons. “Even if that adult is a dumbass.”

But kids get a lot from this dumbassery. “The feeling of mastery over a task, building a new friendship, trying something challenging, or even separating from a parent is crucial in a child’s ability to build their psychological muscles and to learn about their world,” says Walsh. Watching an adult “fail” at a task and try again can be entertainment, but it also serves to provide the message that it is okay to fail and keep on trying. “These messages that Mr. Noodle is sharing with children may seem silly to us as adults but are crucial to developing resiliency, stick-to-itiveness, and grit.”

The Sesame Street team is aware that adults may find Mr. Noodle less endearing than Muppet stalwarts like Grover or Cookie Monster. “We know that, anecdotally and through research testing, parents are aggravated or just don’t get Mr. Noodle,” says Lehmann. “They don’t get why he messes up things so many times in a row.” But it’s not for them — it’s for the kids who get something out of being smarter than Mr. Noodle. “Kids love to have mastery. When you see an adult who is supposed to know more than you, when they know less than you, that’s delightful. That’s the genius of Mr. Noodle.”

Adults can hate all they want on Mr. Noodle, but he’s not going anywhere. Lehmann, who has been with the show 18 years, was present for the “Elmo’s World” overhaul a few years ago. “At development meeting number one, there was never a question that [Mr. Noodle] wouldn’t be a part of the segments,” he recalls. “That has the highest engagement with kids.”

Mr. Noodle went through an existential crisis in 2019, though, as the writers and producers debated whether to include him on the 50th anniversary episode — outside of an “Elmo’s World” segment. “This is a hotly debated world, believe it or not,” says Lehmann. “‘He lives in Elmo’s imagination. He cannot be on Sesame Street.’”

Ultimately, Lehmann says they decided that it wouldn’t be the end of the world to go against Mr. Noodle canon. “It’s the 50th anniversary special, it’s an experience for fans as well as for young kids, so we’re deliberately breaking that rule for this one instance.” At the finale of the song “Welcome,” the cast joins together and Irwin’s Mr. Noodle shows up at the very end to finish the song on a trumpet. Out of tune, of course.

How Sesame Street’s Mr. Noodle Teaches Kids, Annoys Parents