The Word On The Street

In an effort to address every fear or negative repercussion that might somehow arise from inventive and playful programming, I think Sesame Street lost some of its irreverence. More important, in making these kinds of changes, the show didn't give kids the credit they deserve for being able to separate what's real and what's not.
02/27/2012 02:02 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2012

Parenthood makes me nostalgic for all the things I loved as a kid. Butterscotch Krimpets. The Rescuers. Running through the sprinkler. Choose Your Own Adventure books. Jiffy Pop. The Hall of Justice. Mr. Bubble. Cooties. Summer vacation at the Jersey shore. Mini powdered donuts. The Greek myths. Catching fireflies.

Once I had my son, my childhood memories came flooding back. Things I had forgotten took on a new importance and I wanted to expose Little Dude to the foods, games and experiences I enjoyed as a kid. It didn't take long for me to realize, though, that some of these treasured memories don't really have a second act.

Early Disney movies? They're like slideshows compared to Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. Krimpets? Processed butter, fake scotch. Sprinklers are cold and neither Little Dude nor I like how slimy the grass feels about thirty minutes after we turn the thing on. Jiffy Pop, however, is almost as much fun as I remember.

Despite my disappointments, I held out hope that one thing would remain unchanged, one thing would bridge the generations, one show would be as perfect as I remembered.

Sesame Street.

I was raised in the pre-Elmo years when bellbottoms were the rage and before Sesame Street went global. Count von Count taught me numbers, Kermit introduced me to the alphabet, and Grover helped me figure out the difference between "near" and "far." I would sing along with Prairie Dawn and watch Big Bird waddle around big city streets. I wanted Little Dude to meet these people and love them too.

In that, at least, I was not disappointed. Little Dude loves Sesame Street and, for the most part, I'm excited by what they've done with the place. Oscar and Slimey still live in the same old trashcan, but Super Grover has been upgraded to Super Grover 2.0 (which, as far as I can tell, means he gets a cool new costume and fancy monster car). Mr. Hooper passed away (sadness), but so have the bellbottoms (hooray!). I'm oddly fond of new characters like Rosalita, Zoe and Murray, and want to meet the geniuses behind the parodies of Glee, The Closer, and True Blood.

Sesame Street remains a paragon of children's television despite the criticism the top dog always takes. For his part, Mitt Romney wants to end Sesame Street's 40 year commercial-free run and pimp out Big Bird. "We're not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird is going to have advertisements." Thanks Mitt! I'm looking forward to losing one of the few shows that doesn't expose Little Dude to ads for candy, theme parks and an avalanche of toys, which is why we don't let him watch the bulk of what's on TV. I'm more sympathetic to people's concerns about the lack of breastfeeding moms on the show. I'm on board with putting the boob back in early morning TV. Unless the boob is Mitt Romney.

To be fair though, Sesame Street isn't exactly the way I remember it, and I'd like some answers. Specifically, what happened to Cookie Monster and Snuffleupagus?

Once a hedonist of the highest order, Cookie Monster is now the poster child for healthy eating. The former addict eats lots of vegetables and advocates a well-balanced diet, making cookies "sometimes food." I now have no defense when I eat an entire box of Thin Mints.

Then there's Snuffleupagus. That's Snuffleupagus with a "p." You can call him Snuffy. The thing I loved most about Snuffy was his secret-agent-like ability to disappear whenever a grown-up arrived. This left Big Bird in the unenviable position of trying to convince everyone that Snuffy was more than an imaginary friend, but it was great comedy. For those of us born in the 70's, it's a central tenet of the Sesame Street faith that Snuffy is invisible to everyone but Big Bird.

Except now, everyone can see Snuffy.

Is nothing sacred?

I'm sure these changes are well-intentioned. I have no doubt that the powers that be at the Children's Television Workshop did their homework and held focus groups before tearing apart the fabric of my childhood. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Cookie Monster's new love of multiple foods was inspired by a desire to improve children's nutrition and encourage healthy snacking.

I've heard that the good folks at the CTW made Snuffy visible because they were concerned that if grown-ups on Sesame Street didn't believe Snuffy was real, a kid watching the show who could see Snuffy might draw the following scary conclusion: I can't confide in adults because they won't believe what I'm seeing. I've tried really hard to wrap my head around what seems to be a very weird cause-and-effect argument because I love the CTW and don't want to beat them up on this. (Also, in reality, Little Dude sees a lot of stuff that I can't see because he likes to make up crap.)

But I just can't do it. I think Sesame Street got it wrong.

In an effort to address every fear or negative repercussion that might somehow arise from inventive and playful programming, I think Sesame Street lost some of its irreverence. More important, in making these kinds of changes, the show didn't give kids the credit they deserve for being able to separate what's real and what's not. As Frank Oz said, "Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is." They are capable of handling a little cognitive dissonance. That's why the original Snuffy and Cookie Monster were so great. Snuffy's secret existence gave children a glimpse of the ridiculous, and highlighted the separate planets on which adults and kids live.

Cookie Monster was extreme, but I'm sure I wasn't the only kid who knew she couldn't limit her diet to cookies because our favorite monster did. I trust kids to get that joke -- they're pretty sophisticated. Cookie Monster tore through cookies with two shaggy fists, trying to pump them into his mouth so fast that they crumbled before they got there. No kid ate cookies like that -- it defeats the whole purpose of eating cookies if they never make it to your mouth! Trust me, they got the joke.

What's next? Will Oscar have to bring in a biohazard unit to fumigate the trash can and make sure he models the proper level of cleanliness and respect for a tidy home? Will Bert's love of pigeons force Ernie to find his own place so Little Dude and his pals aren't exposed to unhealthy co-dependent relationships?

The possibility of a crafting and maintaining a "perfect" children's show would require losing all the quirks and oddities that helped make Sesame Street an icon during the decades that followed its debut in 1969.

I know that Visible Snuffy is here to stay. And although I'm disappointed that my son won't get to experience the Sesame Street of my childhood, he'll never know what he's missing. He's too busy enjoying Abby's Flying Fairy School. I'd like to suggest, however, that everyone keep a close eye on Cookie Monster. On February 18th he tweeted that he's having a "stuntmuppet" eat his vegetables. Monsters these days.

Clips Mentioned In This Post:

Great Sesame Street Clips