In November 1969 the world of children’s television was changed forever when a, at that time, completely unknown, television show called Sesame Street first appeared on the airwaves. By 1981, some 12 million children aged six and under were tuned in to see Big Bird and company each day!
In Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street, we discover the origins of this iconic TV show; how it came about, the people behind it, the muppets, the actors, the special guests, the controversy and the sadness.
I remember Sesame Street being shown here in the UK and the one thing that sticks in my mind, even now, above all other memories of the show, is the pinball machine and the song counting up to 12. I was always intrigued as to why it was 12, always 12 and damn if it wasn’t catchy. But you know, in all these years I’ve never once wondered who sang it…turns out it was The Pointer Sisters!
It was Joan Cooney who came up with the idea for Sesame Street and wanted writer/director Jon Stone to head the party. Except there was a problem, Stone had had his fill of children’s television, disillusioned with the amount he’d done and what he saw, that all they were doing were selling toys, chocolate and breakfast cereal to kids.
Cooney however, was persuasive, more than that, she had something unique and her show wasn’t going to be selling anything, quite the opposite. The whole idea behind Sesame Street was to teach children, never talk down to them and provide them with learning outside of school.
Cooney got the idea when psychologist Lloyd Morrisett met her and posed the question: “do you think TV can be used to educate children?”. Cooney already knew the answer, of course it could, she’d seen children regurgitate what they’d heard on TV, particularly catchy commercials, regardless of the product.
Cooney pulled in writers and directors as well as education professionals and created the Children’s Television Workshop to work on the show. This was something that had never been done before, using learning techniques, via the TV, for children.
In 1968 they received a budget of $8 million dollars…to put that in some perspective, in today’s money you are looking at well over $54 million dollars!
As Cooney, Stone, Morrisett and others began workshopping ideas for the show, Stone invited Jim Henson to come and talk to them. Despite what we think of Henson now, prior to this point he’d never worked on anything remotely to do with children.
Henson’s shows were mostly late night, on sketch shows, aimed at teenagers. They were dark and had an edge to them. Anyway, Henson was in, and they began to formulate ideas.
They even tested some early rushes of the show with their target audience, inner city children, particularly from ethnic minorities. They showed them the TV show and, in the corner, they had a slideshow projector that made a loud clicking noise each time a new picture was shown.
The idea was simple, if the children were distracted for long enough by the projector then they knew that what they had on TV simply wasn’t good enough to keep their attention.
The documentary takes us on this fascinating journey as Sesame Street begins to come together, showing us behind the scenes how it’s done, interviews with writers, cast and crew, from Carroll Spinney, who was Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, to Joe Rapuso who composed all of the songs for the show.
We also touch on the moment when the public broadcasting service in Mississippi decided not to show Sesame Street after some there had complained about the amount of ‘coloured people’ on it. Other, commercial, TV companies were aghast and so they showed it, eventually forcing the public broadcaster into a u-turn.
Sesame Street was all about inclusivity, all about teaching children to get along, even if someone disagrees with you (which was the main purpose of Oscar the Grouch), they even dealt with death when long time actor Will Lee sadly passed away in 1982. The scene of Big Bird being told he’s died is very touching.
There are laughs to, lots of them. We see outtakes particularly from Jim Henson and Frank Oz who had great chemistry on set but offset were just very different people to one-another. If something went wrong they would carry on with the muppets, taking the p*ss out of each other.
When Henson passed away in 1990 Big Bird was at his funeral and song the famous Kermit song “It’s Not Easy Being Green”. This is a fantastic documentary, whether you remember Sesame Street or not.
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is out on digital download from 31st January 2022 and is directed by Marilyn Agrelo.
31st January 2022
THE QUICK SELL
Take a stroll down Sesame Street and witness the birth of the most impactful children's series in TV history. From the iconic furry characters to the songs you know by heart, learn how a gang of visionary creators changed our world.