Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Just another day at the office.

(2021) Documentary (HBO Documentaries) Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson, Jon Stone, Joe Raposo, Caroll Spinney, Holly Robinson Peete, Sonia Manzano, Roscoe Orman, Bob McGrath, Matt Robinson, Frank Biondo, Christopher Cerf, Lloyd Morissette, Nick Raposo, Emilio Delgado, Dolores Robinson, Fran Brill, Matt Robinson Jr., Polly Stone, Kate Stone Lucas Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

 

When Sesame Street debuted on PBS in 1968, there was likely nobody expecting just how massive the seismic shift it was to create in American television would be. Essentially since the moment television began broadcasting kid’s programming, the soul aim for those shows was to sell breakfast cereal and toys to kids.

But there were visionaries who thought TV could do more. Producer Joan Ganz Cooney and director/writer/producer Jon Stone thought that kids – who already by then were spending an enormous amount of time glued to the boob tube – could be educated instead of merely regarded as mini-consumers in the making. And it was their bright idea to use the same sorts of techniques that Madison Avenue was using to sell kids on learning the alphabet, their numbers and important life lessons.

This was a revolutionary change in thinking and this documentary shows how they came to accomplish just that. Utilizing a well-regarded but largely unknown puppeteer named Jim Henson and his Muppet creations – which had been used for adult humor on late night TV, or to sell beer (and they show the hilarious clips of the Muppets doing just that) – and a perfect symbiosis was created. Because this was theSixties, Cooney was very invested in the Civil Rights movement and wanted to show an integrated neighborhood, and because her program was aimed at lower-income children who were at a disadvantage when it came to getting a good education, the setting was one her target audience could relate to – an urban street.

With a wealth of behind the scenes footage as well as contemporary and archival interviews, we hear from the principle players including composer Joe Raposo who wrote the iconic “It Isn’t Easy Being Green,” and the human actors who played the adult residents of Sesame Street. Their recollections are tinged with nostalgia and a hint of rose-colored glasses filtering out the more unpleasant things, but it was obvious that these people and the dozens who worked on the show cared very much about the show’s mission, and ultimately for each other. They refer to it as a second family, and that is obvious in the care taken with the work.

There are some hilarious moments of backstage tomfoolery, as well as moments of pathos – the cast explaining to a distraught Big Bird that one of the characters, Mr. Cooper, had died which he is at first unable to understand. It is a bittersweet moment and for Da Queen and myself, incredibly moving. It was obvious that the cast was deeply affected because the actor who played Mr. Cooper, Will Lee, had himself passed on and in a way, they were able to process their own grief by helping Big Bird with his own.

The movie essentially covers the 20 year period from the show’s inception to Henson’s funeral in 1990, so there are a lot of characters and things not covered here. The tone is more than a little hagiographic; even the one instance where there was some negativity – the first actor who played Gordon, Matt Robinson (father of Holly Robinson Peete) had developed an African-American muppet named Eugene, who spoke in what could be termed a “ghetto dialect.” This proved to be unpopular – surprisingly enough, with the black demographic – and the character was quietly phased out. Matt, stung by the rejection, eventually exited the show.

But mostly all is sunshine and rainbows on Sesame Street. For those who grew up watching the show, this is bound to bring the warm fuzzies, particularly since many of those who grew up with the show then got to experience it again as parents with their own children, as Da Queen did (she was four years old when the show came out and firmly in the target audience).

While television continues to use it’s vast power mainly to sell to consumers, Sesame Street became the rare instance of committed people with a good idea shepherding the idea to fruition, and having that idea make a big difference. Three generations of kids have learned their A-B-Cs at the lap of the show, and new episodes continue to be filmed for HBO, the company who made this documentary so I suppose the positive tone would be inevitable. However, the documentary is extremely informative and will bring out fond memories for anyone who found out how to get, how to get to Sesame Street.

REASONS TO SEE: Will definitely have all the feels for people of a certain age group. Gives a great deal of insight into the making of the show. Very emotional in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much on the hagiographic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mississippi’s public Television station initially refused to air the show because it depicted a racially mixed neighborhood. A commercial station picked up the show which proved to be extraordinarily popular with the local children, forcing the PBS station to relent.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: <em?97% positive="" reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Lily Topples the World

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