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

No Small Matter


Pomp and circumstance.

(2020) Documentary (AbramoramaAlfre Woodard (narrator), Rachel Giannini, Andrew Meltzoff, Alison Gopnik, Rhiann Alvig, Patricia Kuhl, Nadia Burke Harris, Jack Shonkoff, Donnie Poff, Mathew Melman, Deborah Phillips, Myra Jones-Tyler, Shea Gattis, Wahnike Johnson, Shannon Poff, Geoffrey Canada, John Wetzel, Dipesh Navsana, Robert Dugger, Seth Pollak, Rosemarie Truglio. Directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel

 

America, according to all the test scores, is rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in education. There are many reasons for that; some are systemic, others are lifestyle-related and still others have to do with how privileged some of our children have become and how unwilling they are to work. To be blunt, we are reaching a crisis point where jobs are requiring more executive function – the ability to make good decisions, to remain calm under pressure and the ability to solve complex problems. It might interest you to know that all those functions are formed in a child’s brain before they reach the age of five.

And yet we devote only 3% of our education budget to early childhood education. Pre-school teachers are thought to be glorified babysitters and the vast majority of our children don’t get nearly enough stimulation by loving adults as infants, mainly because the economic reality of the modern world requires both parents to work, often multiple jobs, just to tread water. Add a child into the mix with all the expense of child bearing and child rearing and it’s a wonder that any babies are born in the U.S. at all.

This documentary examines the importance of early childhood education and does so with clever animation, colorful graphics and the warm dulcet tones of executive producer Alfre Woodward informing us how neuron pathways are formed in the brain – and how they are shut down. We are shown recent studies mapping the brains of infants and are startled to discover that children literally come out of the womb learning; one doctor recalls sticking his tongue out at a 42-minutes old baby who then imitates him by sticking his/her tongue out back at him. Every experience at that age helps shape our brains.

Economics play a major factor in child development; wealthier parents can afford to spend time with their children more than those who have to work two and three jobs; also wealthier parents can afford top of the line childcare – nannies and tutors. By the time they reach kindergarten, the five-year-old child of a wealthy family can be developmentally two years ahead from less affluent families, and that’s a gap that’s nearly impossible to make up.

We are introduced to Deborah Giannini, a pre-school teacher who is energetic, loving and capable. She helps children develop problem-solving techniques, takes them out of the classroom to help stimulate their minds and imaginations, and is a tireless bundle of energy. We also see her dissolve into tears as she recounts that she can’t afford to live on the salary she makes as a pre-school teacher and has to work a second job to follow her passion. Children who fall behind in early development have a much greater chance of not finishing high school; consequently, they are at greater risk for being locked into a cycle of poverty and developing criminal behavior. Law enforcement and military advocates both agree that money spent on early childhood development would save money on law enforcement and incarceration later on. Although not said overtly, the filmmakers make it clear that rather than spending millions on tanks, grenade launchers and billion-dollar state-of-the-art incarceration facilities, our money would be better spent helping young lives get a head start so that they don’t turn to crime in the first place. Of course, that would take money away from the industrial-military complex as well as for-profit prisons.

The film even admits that improving early childhood development isn’t a panacea that would end crime and make the world a utopia but it would give millions of children whose parents are middle or poverty class an opportunity to better themselves and be productive. New parents should really see this film (hey, the Cookie Monster makes a guest appearance, so there’s that) to help understand their own role in early development and what they can do to improve it at home, as well as alert them to programs that can help them out. Investing in our children, as a wise person once said, is investing in our future. Never has that been more true than now.

REASONS TO SEE: Clever animation (particularly during the opening credits) and enthusiastic testimonies drive the film. Addresses a little-understood need.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes feels a bit too much like every other PBS documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing; requisite viewing for new parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cost of childcare is higher than the cost of attending public college in 28 states.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wired for Life: Early Childhood Education
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Lords of Chaos