‘Sesame Street’ Draws in Adults with Pop Culture Parodies

Showbiz spoofs help encourage parental co-viewing, keep brand name vital with older demos

Sesame Street” scored a viral-vid hit this week with its cheeky take on “Homeland,” which is just the latest in a string of pop culture parodies that the venerable kidvid franchise has produced in recent years.

In addition to “Homelamb,” which drew instant industry attention after its release on Monday, “Sesame Street” has offered its take on series ranging from “Mad Men” and “Desperate Housewives” to “30 Rock” and “Sons of Anarchy.” The show has also produced movie spoofs and music video parodies for hits like Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

The PBS mainstay is obviously aimed at a demo that isn’t old enough to stay up for “Homeland,” et al. So why make references that only their parents would understand? “Sesame Street” executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente says it’s all about dual engagement.

“We’ve been dealing with writing on two levels from the very first season of the show and that’s, by design, an educational tool we use to draw the parents into co-view, because we know the educational impact is deeper when parents are co-viewing,” she said. “If we can just hook them and get their attention long enough to draw them in and watch the show, it’s better.”

The adults are enjoying it too, and they’ve even gotten some high-profile fans. Though Parente said they typically don’t contact the subject of their parodies beforehand, they made an exception for their “Law & Order” parody, “Special Letters Unit,” to make sure they could use the show’s trademark “chung chung” sound.

“To really make the parody work, we didn’t want to make a sound,” she said. “We wanted the real thing, and we had to get their permission.”

Not only was permission granted, but the show’s creator, Dick Wolf, loved the video so much that he showed it to journos attending the Television Critics Assn. press tour last year.

Another thumbs up came after they released their “Sons of Anarchy” parody, “Sons of Poetry,” turning the brutal motorcycle crew into passionate poets. The show’s creator, Kurt Sutter, famous for being unabashedly irritable, tweeted his approval.

The parodies don’t always come easily for “Sesame Street,” however. The show’s budget is tight. In the case of their parody of “The Voice,” monetary concerns forced them to forgo a puppet version of Adam Levine, as the judges’ chairs were too expensive to make. They also have to make due in terms of puppet creation.

“We don’t have the money to sculpt those characters to really look like each actor. They’re just kind of put together with existing assets,” she said. “The puppet builders are really amazing artists because they build those characters, and you really feel like they are the actor.”

“Sesame Street” also branched out into movies, releasing a new segment called “Cookie’s Crummy Pictures.” In it, they produce parody movie trailers with the help of the Cookie Monster. “The Karate Kid” turns into “The Biscotti Kid,” while “The Hunger Games” becomes “The Hungry Games.”

Though “Sesame Street” may be in its 45th season — meaning that the first generation of viewers to grow up with the show are on their way to becoming grandparents — the YouTube-friendly parody vids help keep the brand name vital with older demos.

“That’s the beauty of what we have in social media now,” she said. “We never intended it for that, but we’ve been the benefit of some great viral hits.”

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