Since its premiere episode Nov. 10, 1969, the “Sesame Street” theme song, with its mellifluous timbre of children’s voices, has echoed throughout kid-filled households across America.
At this year’s Daytime Emmys, the most famous street in the world (co-productions of “Sesame” play in more than 140 countries) is being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award for pioneering and providing 40 years’ of unmatched excellence in family entertainment and preschool education.
“What started as a simple experiment has turned into the No. 1 informal educator of children around the world,” marvels exec producer Carol-Lynn Parente. “We do what is best for the children. It’s all part of the mission.”
The brainchild of founding co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett (key creatives include Jim Henson, Jon Stone and Joe Raposo), the socially progressive teaching curriculum of “Sesame Street” has routinely featured puppets (Grover, Kermit), parodies (“Thirty Rocks,” “Desperate Houseplants”), letters of the day (“We’re an equal opportunity alphabet employer,” jokes Parente of tricky ‘X’ words) and a steady rotation of celebs (Robert De Niro, Ray Charles).
But the biggest stars on “Sesame Street” are the Muppets themselves (Henson’s trademark puppet creations) — multicolored creatures of felt and fur that collectively promote the show’s overarching message of racial and ethnic diversity.
“It’s all from Jim Henson’s point of view,” says Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo, likely the most famous redhead — save for Lucille Ball — in the history of American television. “He wanted a rainbow of characters to represent everyone.”
Adds Parente, “Puppets are really great ambassadors. They open doors that are nearly impossible for other groups to open up.”
The Muppets’ personalities reflect human faults and foibles. The Count is obsessed with numbers; Oscar the Grouch is a misanthropic curmudgeon. Conversely, Bert and Ernie are based on the old school comedy routines of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Rosita, a feathery blue Spanish-speaking Muppet from Mexico, helps keep the show culturally ripe.
“The puppets are truly remarkable creatures,” says Sonia Manzano, who joined the cast in 1970. “Their characters are so fully formed it doesn’t take you long to get involved in their world.”
Over the years the Muppets have served as envoys through which “Sesame Street” explores sensitive (and often taboo) issues affecting young people and their families, including death.
When longtime cast member Will Lee (“Mr. Hooper”) died suddenly, “Sesame” producers responded with the show’s landmark November 1983 “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” episode.
“It was my proudest moment,” recalls Manzano of the show, in which Big Bird grapples with the loss of his friend. “I really felt that I was with a superb organization.”
“Sesame Street” producers work constantly to refresh the show’s ever-evolving style. Where originally its magazine format mimicked “Laugh In,” today it’s now got more of a hip-hop flavor.
“Most shows haven’t had a 40-year run with new production each year,” notes Parente. “The one thing ‘Sesame Street’ has been over each of these 40 years has been relevant.”
The new season features a save-our-Earth nature curriculum where Jason Mraz sings “Outdoors” (a send-up of his hit single “I’m Yours”) and Cameron Diaz talks about the environment. Other firsts include an Abby Cadabby CGI segment and a clever parody of “Mad Men” (the Muppets are angry, very angry).
“Sesame’s” consistent genius has always been its writers’ ability to mesh kid-friendly content with adult comedy.
“When you think about it, there’s very little about ‘Sesame Street’ that’s a children’s show,” proffers Parente. “We have the best comedy writers in the business.”