Text and photo by Bruce Handy, Vanity Fair
Elmos in Times Square.
The recent accusations of sexual abuse against Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash have been tragic for all concerned, especially the alleged teenage victims. But I would be remiss in my obligations as a cultural critic if I didn't take this opportunity to reflect on Elmo himself, who, when it comes to beloved fixtures in children's entertainment, is exceeded in his execrableness only by Woody Woodpecker.
Here are five reasons I hate Elmo. You may well have your own.
- Elmo is a classic example of the phenomenon by which, thanks to the alchemy of creative laziness and enhanced merchandising opportunities, the cutest, most cuddly, least deserving character(s) in a comic ensemble will inevitably come to dominate it. Think of how, in Peanuts' final decades, Snoopy and Woodstock elbowed aside the more emotionally complex but less overtly adorable Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, Frieda, and Pig Pen. Jim and Pam serve much the same purpose on The Office. While Elmo only became a significant character in the mid-1980s, 15 or so years into Sesame Street's run, he is now the show's undisputed star, diverting attention and airtime from former A-listers Ernie and Bert, Grover, and Oscar. Their dramatically compelling psychological quirks and comparative urbanity are nothing next to the toddler-porn of Elmo's closer-set eyes, rounder face, gee-whiz personality, and baby-ish syntax. This process accelerated in 1998, when Elmo began hogging an entire quarter of Sesame Street's hour running time, first with the regular "Elmo's World" segment, then with the new "Elmo: The Musical." And this from a show that ostensibly counts instruction in "sharing" as part of its educational mission. Even Big Bird, whose very name once reflected his centrality on the show, has suffered under Elmo's reign and now appears to be only a hollow, perpetually molting shell of his former self.
- Elmo's high-pitched voice is a sonic desecration. It is the sound of a grown man twisting and straining his vocal chords to imitate a 3-year-old for an audience of 3-year-olds, who, even at that age, should feel patronized. Elmo's is the most piercing, grating character voice in all of children's television -- a genre defined by its piercing, grating character voices. It's what their offspring would sound like if the Gerber Baby were to somehow mate with a Skrillex song. It is the sound of vocal polyps being formed.
- During the recent presidential campaign, Elmo joined rich people, xenophobes, and dislikers of birth control in being pandered to by Mitt Romney. The candidate, you will remember, called out Big Bird during the first presidential debate while pointedly ignoring Elmo's larger role in the federal deficit. This wasn't the first time Elmo got entangled in Republican politics: In 2002, he was invited to testify at a House subcommittee hearing on music education by Congressman Duke Cunningham, who once referred to gay soldiers as "homos" and was forced to resign following a 2005 guilty plea to charges of bribery and tax evasion, for which he was sentenced to eight years in prison. None of which is Elmo's fault per se, but does suggest he has questionable judgment and possibly too much power for a puppet. Does he think of Telly as a moocher?
- Elmo is at the vanguard of Sesame Street merchandising, which is both relentless and does little, from what I can see, to further the show's educational mission. On a recent visit to Toys R Us, for example, I spotted several Elmo items with no pedagogical purpose whatsoever, including Elmo's Cell Phone, Squeeze-a-Song Elmo ("The harder you squeeze, the louder Elmo sings!"), and Baby Sniffles Elmo, an even cuter, googlier-eyed, diaper-wearing Elmo who, when you push his nose in, says, "Achoo! Baby Elmo loves you!" This "Elmoploitation" trend dates back at least as far as the Tickle Me Elmo doll, which was introduced in 1996 and prompted deadly toy store stampedes and a tulipmania-like price bubble due to Christmas shortages. Last year, according to the Licensing Letter, a trade publication, Sesame Street products earned an estimated515 million. (Which put Sesame Street at No. 10 on a list of top-grossing children's properties, ahead of Thomas the Tank Engine and Dora the Explorer, but behind Disney Princesses, Star Wars, and Hello Kitty.) Of that 515 million, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces the series, received $47 million, according to financial statements -- a pretty good royalty for a lot of achoo-ing voice chips and other plastic junk now cluttering up the nation's family rooms and pediatrician's offices. Earlier this year, Playskool released a new version of Tickle Me Elmo rebranded as LOL Elmo, which has the marketing advantage of seeming "with it" as well as, I guess, the educational mission of introducing preschoolers to texting abbreviations. Oh, and Baby Sniffles Elmo does teach toddlers to touch the noses of people with colds, so thanks Sesame Street and Playskool.
- On a personal note... I once bought a Best of Elmo tape for my then-2-year-old daughter, hoping it might be prove the elusive magic bullet that would keep her quiet on car trips. For some reason, however, I didn't quite realize that Best of Elmo meant what it said: a solid hour's worth of pure Elmo, and not just Elmo talking but Elmo singing. To this day, I can't look at a steering wheel or a cup holder without flashing back to being stuck on the L.I.E. and having to listen, over and over, to "Elmo's Rap Alphabet," or, worse, his cover version of "Drive My Car," which had previously been a Beatles' song I liked.
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