David Kamp: “Why Sesame Street Is More Vital Than Ever”

From a Wall Street Journal story by David Kamp headlined “Why Sesame Street Is More Vital Than Ever”:

As the second week of March 2020 neared its end, the producers of Sesame Street were days away from wrapping principal photography on the program’s 51st season. They never quite got there….Sesame Street, like so many workplaces, was abruptly shut down in response to the rapid onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet Steve Youngwood, the CEO of Sesame Workshop, and Kay Wilson Stallings, the Workshop’s creative chief, recognized that their flagship show could not afford to go silent. In moments of crisis, people often gravitate toward the institutions they trust, and few American institutions are more trusted than Sesame Street.

“We needed to move quickly,” Wilson Stallings says, “because we were hearing from parents, caregivers and providers saying, ‘We’re looking for content that can help kids understand what is happening right now. What is happening? What is Covid?’ ”

For all its virtues, Sesame Workshop is not known for moving quickly. In its original incarnation as the Children’s Television Workshop, the organization, co-founded by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, was deliberative by design. More than three years of rigorous field study, cross-disciplinary consultation, test screenings and Muppet tweaking by Jim Henson and his team took place between Sesame Street’s conception and the broadcast of its very first episode in 1969. Even today, a typical new episode spends about a year in the production pipeline before children at home get to view it.

But the arrival of the pandemic afforded no such luxury of time. “I remember very vividly turning on the TV…it was still the teens of March, and seeing some of the late-night people filming from home,” Youngwood says. “You’re like, ‘Huh—if they can do it, why can’t we do it?’ I remember calling up or texting Kay, ‘Get the Muppets home to the puppeteers. Send them some cameras.’ ”

Within 10 days, Sesame Street had posted its first lockdown-specific content to its YouTube channel: a simple one-minute video in which Elmo offered a “virtual hug” to his viewers, the red fur of his torso filling the screen as he merrily hopped forward. Though the Workshop, in the weeks to come, would provide its puppeteers with mini sets and green screens, Ryan Dillon, who performs Elmo, made do with his own wrinkled curtains for a backdrop.

Just three weeks later, the Workshop released a new half-hour special, Sesame Street: Elmo’s Playdate, complete with a Zoom-like videoconferencing interface and scripted technical glitches….Such is Sesame Street’s cultural capital that the Workshop was able to draft Tracee Ellis Ross, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anne Hathaway to appear on short notice and describe how they were coping with sheltering in place.

Sesame Street season 52, which premiered this month on HBO Max, was undertaken entirely in the context of the pandemic, and the new episodes reflect that. The producers shot an uncommon amount of material outdoors. There is a five-episode arc in which Elmo, Rosita, Abby Cadabby, Big Bird, Ernie and Bert visit a real working farm, Harvest Moon Farm & Orchard in New York’s Hudson Valley….

As for season 53, for which shooting is just underway, “Some of these learnings from season 52, we’re looking to adapt,” says Wilson Stallings. “We’re going to do another location shoot, do more with the puppeteers self-shooting remotely in their homes.”

This is all of a piece with the philosophy of Ganz Cooney, the Workshop’s 91-year-old originator and guiding spirit, who has never stopped referring to Sesame Street as an “experiment,” forever in flux. When Latino viewers protested that the show didn’t adequately represent them, the Workshop introduced Sonia Manzano’s Maria and Emilio Delgado’s Luis in 1971. When the original cast member Will Lee died unexpectedly in 1982, Sesame Street considered recasting his Mr. Hooper role but instead decided to confront the issue of death head-on, with Big Bird cycling through the five stages of grief. Adaptability was baked into the program from the start, as was the ongoing quest to determine the best ways to use screens to educate young children.

The cynical take on Sesame Street is that its golden moment has passed, that it will never again enjoy the reach it had in its funky, ochre-colored 1970s heyday, when an entire generation of kids tuned in en masse to watch Stevie Wonder sing “One-two-threeee, Sesame Streeeet” through a talk box. In recent years, however, Sesame Workshop has adapted well to the fragmented media landscape….

Sherrie Westin, the Workshop’s president, notes that much of its international audience doesn’t have the easy access to media that Americans do. “We started using WhatsApp, chatbots, any means possible to get content to that parent alone at home, both high-tech and low-tech,” she says….

The Workshop is not a direct-service organization, so it relies on partnerships to disseminate its content. For Ahlan Simsim, which launched in 2020, Westin approached the humanitarian organization International Rescue Committee. “We determined that IRC would be the best partner for us because [of] their presence on the ground in the Middle East…and they have an entire division focused on early education,” says Westin. The costs of pulling off this joint initiative were underwritten by a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which considers Ahlan Simsim a form of humanitarian aid. On its home turf, the Workshop has a division called Sesame Street in Communities that provides educational tools and programming, free of charge, to children and caregivers facing major life challenges: incarceration, addiction, foster care, homelessness, divorce, death, trauma….

Yet those early seasons were the product of a more politically progressive climate in which Sesame Street received half its annual budget from the federal government, a nonstarter in today’s Washington. Youngwood and Wilson Stallings make the case that their partnership with WarnerMedia, the parent company of HBO, and a newer alliance with another streaming service, Apple TV+, have let the Workshop pursue a Marvel Cinematic Universe–like expansion of its programming slate….

Soon these series will be joined by HBO Max’s animated Mecha Builders, which is aimed at kids ages 3 to 5, a little older than Sesame Street’s target demographic, and is organized around a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum….

WarnerMedia also owns CNN, a bit of synergy that facilitated the most socially significant Sesame Workshop programming of last year, its Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism town hall. The special aired on CNN on June 6, 2020, less than two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, as Black Lives Matter demonstrations were happening across the country. The news network’s Erica Hill and Van Jones presided over an array of guests that included Big Bird, Elmo, Rosita, Abby Cadabby, Sonia Manzano and her fellow old-school human cast member Roscoe Orman (who played Gordon for more than 40 years), Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and various scholars and children, all of whom helped provide parents and young children with the vocabulary and framework to discuss racism….

Last October, the Workshop released another quick-turnaround special, The Power of We, in which a pre-existing Black Muppet, Gabrielle, was joined by a new character, her cousin Tamir, who explicitly defined racism to Elmo and Abby as, “You know, how people that look like me and Gabrielle can get treated unfairly because of the color of our skin.” The curricular advisers had introduced another word into the Sesame Street lexicon, upstander, as in someone who actively stands up to prejudice and bullying. “[Kids] can be upstanders for themselves, but they can also be upstanders for others as well,” says Wilson Stallings.

The Power of We culminated in an anthemic new song, “Listen, Act, Unite!,” written and co-performed by Christopher Jackson, the actor, singer and songwriter best known for his collaborations with Lin-Manuel Miranda on In the Heights and Hamilton. Sesame Street’s musical director is Bill Sherman, a fellow member of the Miranda mafia; he co-orchestrated the score of In the Heights, produced the original cast album for Hamilton and, like Jackson, is a member of the improvisational hip-hop group Freestyle Love Supreme.

“I have this roster of composers and songwriters with specific talents that I liken to a Navy SEAL team,” Sherman says. “I have the one who does the vaudevillian stuff, the one who does the more moderny hip-hop stuff, the country people.” The Power of We script, which specifically called for a song using the words listen, act, unite, brought Jackson to mind.

“I called Chris for two reasons,” Sherman says. “One, he has that voice. Two, he had written lyrics for Sesame Street before, [which] is very difficult. There’s so much critique: grammar police, ethics and moral police, a lot of police. Chris gets that…. In a Sesame Street song, for example, all of the syllables are accounted for. There’s not a lot of held notes because we don’t have the time.” The resulting song, a succinct hybrid of hip-hop and campfire sing-along, checked all the boxes. Sherman believes it has the staying power of other songs in Sesame Street’s canonical rotation, alongside Joe Raposo’s “Sing” and “C Is for Cookie” and Jeff Moss’s “People in Your Neighborhood” and “Rubber Duckie.”

Tamir too will become a Sesame Street regular. The show does not expand its Muppet roster cavalierly; its last big addition to the core cast came four years ago, when Sesame Street viewers were introduced to the orange-haired, yellow-skinned Julia, an autistic girl—who, at the time, was the Street’s first major new Muppet regular in a decade. But the recent spate of highly visible acts of anti-Black and anti-Asian violence prompted a recognition by the Workshop brass that they could be doing more to counter bigotry. They are executing their vision in signature Sesame Street fashion: through positivity and puppetry. Racial justice will be a curricular pillar of season 53. While those episodes are about a year away from being viewable, on Thanksgiving Day the Workshop is releasing a new PBS special, titled See Us Coming Together, that celebrates Asian-American and Pacific Islander cultures. The program, which will be available via HBO Max and Sesame Workshop’s YouTube and social-media channels, will be anchored by the long-serving human cast member Alan Muraoka, who is Japanese-American, and will introduce viewers to Sesame Street’s first Korean-American character, a Muppet girl named Ji-Young.

“She’s spunky, she’s 7 years old, and she can shred on electric guitar, so we’re going to see her play in the big song at the end,” Wilson Stallings says. (Sherman is working on Ji-Young’s showcase song with the Chinese-American musician and comedian Jen Kwok.) Ji-Young, like Tamir, will live on in the Sesame universe beyond her inaugural appearance. “We don’t want to use these characters only in racial-justice story lines,” Wilson Stallings says. “We want to use them because they’re now part of our Sesame Street worldand community.”

Indeed, one of the most enduring legacies of the original version of Sesame Street is its depiction of an environment where diversity is a given, not a provocation or an abomination. Many adults of color, Wilson Stallings included, describe the show’s lived-in, hustle-bustle street set as the first place in American popular culture where they felt valued and seen. Fifty-two years on, the content-delivery systems have changed, but the need for Sesame Street hasn’t. It is still the aspirational place where the air is sweet—where adults send their children to glimpse a fairer, better, more conscientious world than the one they live in now.


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