Dr Lesser has died, but Elmo killed Sesame Street
You were all not doubt saddened to hear about the death of Sesame Street educational developer Dr Gerald Lesser at the age of 84. Well maybe not, but I was.
Anything that represents the decline of Sesame Street upsets me: the death of Mr Hooper, the death of Jim Henson and the rise and rise of Elmo.
Dr Lesser’s death is not only a reminder of the quality of the minds that went into this show, but you also have to question whether a show like Sesame Street would ever get made today.
One of the most intelligent things about Sesame Street is the humanity of the characters. Given that about half of the shows leading characters are in fact puppet monsters this is quite an achievement (a kid in my class once inadvertently engaged in this metaphysical question when, upon hearing of Jim Henson’s death, threw a chair against the wall and screamed “Kermit the Frog can’t die!”).
After watching a few test runs of the show in the late sixties Dr Lesser - a Columbia and Yale trained psychologist - pointed out that everyone was too happy. What he thought he needed was to show children that it was alright for people to be awkward, grumpy and even depressed at times, and they needed characters who displayed these emotions.
Joan Ganz Cooney, the founder of the Children’s Television Workshop which produced Sesame Street, said that some of the most famous characters were Lesser’s creation: a grumpy trash can dwelling monster called Oscar the Grouch and an awkward overly sensitive yellow bird named Big Bird.
“Gerry thought children needed to see some kid that was awkward, but we didn’t want it to be a child,” she told CBS.
Monsters were not only grumpy and awkward, they were prone to sulking, tantrums, crippling self-doubt, squabbling, being slobs and touching acts of forgiveness and kindness. These aren’t only the characteristics of children, they are also the characteristics of adults. This is the key to any good children’s TV show or movie: the characters have to empathy in adults as well as children. If you don’t like them why would they?
You may have noticed I’ve been using the past tense because I believe Sesame Street is well beyond is well past its heyday. Why should a seemingly grown man know or care about such a thing? Well I’m from a family of nine children, so the show was a surrogate parent and educator for myself and brothers and sisters you’d find yourself periodically stuck with.
But observing the show now with nieces, nephews and God children (and honestly by myself) it’s lost its imperfect frailty that made its monsters human and replaced it with boring cuteness. All this can be traced back to one character: Elmo.
Despite being a character since the eighties, the Elmofication of Sesame Street started in the nineties and never really abated. He not only became the focus of the show, but most importantly for the show now, toys and games as well.
This little red menace is now the face of the program and even has the entire last 15 minutes to himself. Not only have more interesting monsters like Herry and Telly been completely sidelined or changed (Telly used to be a neurotic television obsessed monster), but Big Bird, Ernie and Bert, Oscar and Cookie Monster hardly get a look in. There’s also been replaced by boring similarly sickly characters like Baby Bear and Zoe.
Elmofication (not a strictly academic term) turns what was a genuinely interesting show, created by an Havard psychology lecturer and a bunch of odd-ball puppeteers, into a cutesy program where everyone is always nice and loving and the best way to resolve problems is to hug it out. Not only is that not a realistic lesson to children it’s boring television.
Nothing personifies Elmofication better than when Katie Perry’s version of her song ‘Hot N Cold’ was banned recently because parents’ groups thought she was showing off a little too much cleavage to be hanging with the precious Elmo.
There are a few of things wrong with this rationale. Firstly; if you’re worried a kid might notice Katie Perry’s boobs at the age of five then just consider him advanced, because all males do. Secondly this is a show that used to pride itself on being in touch with popular culture, and using it as a fun tool to teach kids (not that Katie Perry is teaching much I have to admit). Thirdly, obviously nobody else has seen the episode where Maria is breast feeding her kid or when Grover tells Madeline Kahn how “highly attractive” she is looking.
The death of Dr Lesser is sad, mainly because it reminds me of the death of the genuinely good show that he once created.
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