×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

What Trump Could Learn From ‘Sesame Street’ (Column)

With the introduction of autistic character Julia, perhaps we'll find that even bad guys like Ronald Grump can be softies

It’s been frequently observed that Donald Trump, the former host of “The Apprentice,” ascended to the White House by using the rhetoric, logic, and naked shamelessness of reality television. But perhaps we should have been watching our “Sesame Street”: Trump is just a real-life version of a villain from a children’s story.

Sesame Street” made “Ronald Grump,” a rapacious, orange-wigged land developer, into their villain on three separate occasions — in the ’80s, when Grump tried to evict Oscar; in the aughts, when an “Apprentice”-inspired Grump heartlessly fired Elmo; and in the ’90s, for the show’s 25th anniversary special. (That last appearance is especially prescient; Grump, played by Joe Pesci, replaces his doorman with an automated system, hits on a reporter played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and is only defeated by a march of all of Sesame Street’s residents, led by Big Bird. It’s possible Trump has been using this episode as a manual.)

Consider the facts: He’s absurdly orange, predictably shifty, and not above gloating in his gilded penthouse. With his constant contradictions and well-known speaking tics, he basically is a cartoon. Add a couple of schemes that are so ridiculously mean-spirited they make the Big Bad Wolf look cuddly, and you have yourself some great kids’ TV.

Trump’s proposed budget is, of course, no exception. In between persecuting immigrants and race baiting, the president has unveiled a plan to ax all federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. What the CPB does is commonly misunderstood; it does fund programming, but it mostly funds the upkeep for rural local stations — stations like WCTE in Cookeville, Tennessee, as Variety’s Cynthia Littleton reported last week. For many in this part of impoverished Appalachia, WCTE is the only station they can afford to get.

WCTE sits in solid Trump country — more than 45-point margins delivered these counties to the president. “Sesame Street,” which is now funded by HBO, and PBS Kids’ “Curious George,” co-produced by Imagine, WGBH, and Universal, would both still get made. But under Trump’s plan for the CPB, this programming would not be able to make it out to Cookeville — because under Trump’s plan, WCTE would cease to exist.

Which is especially (cartoonishly?) ironic, because on March 19, Sesame Workshop indicated that they were about to become more vital than ever; the show will introduce Julia, a 4-year-old character with autism on April 10. In terms of timing and content, it could not be more appropriate; the disorder has become a much-discussed topic, especially with regards to children, as awareness has risen in the past several years. And in terms of scheduled marketing rollouts making a mark on public politics, it could not be more coincidentally or deliberately well-timed. (Sesame Workshop has been developing autism-specific programming for some time; Julia first appeared in an animated short in 2016.)

As a relevant and necessary educational tool, it’s difficult to imagine a more universally positive example of the show’s energies, which have long been proven to be remarkably effective for children. It’s further difficult to imagine a situation that would make Trump look even more like Ronald Grump than grousing about the undeserved funding of an adorable 4-year-old Muppet with special needs.

There is also more to this well-timed rollout than the purely symbolic opposition between a Muppet David and a presidential Goliath; President Trump has demonstrated specific and repeated interest in autism. Granted, one of this political moment’s foundational “alternative facts” is a scientifically inaccurate theory that claims vaccines cause autism. Although that theory has been widely debunked, it has proven remarkably persistent, and like many conspiracy theorists, Trump latched onto it. In January, the then-president-elect floated the idea of a “vaccine safety commission” headed by noted skeptic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

But the interest has appeared in other ways, too. In February, Trump asked the principal of a special-needs school about the increase in autism, suggesting, “maybe we can do something.” His questioning came from a place of misinformation (it’s not that autism rates are rising, but instead that we now know more about how to identify and diagnose autism), but also uncharacteristic concern.

Allow us to follow the logic of children’s television for a moment: If he really cares about autism, maybe Julia’s presence on public television will move him to reconsider his budget. As we’re told, even the bad guys have hearts.

More TV

  • Adam Lambert, of Queen, performs at

    Adam Lambert Back to 'Idol' to Mentor Finalists Through Queen's Catalog

    Adam Lambert famously launched his career on “American Idol” a decade ago performing a brilliant audition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He wrapped that amazing eighth season performing with the band on the season finale, and years later earned his current spot as the front man touring as Queen + Adam Lambert. On April 28, Lambert comes full circle as he steps [...]

  • Lily Tomlin SAG Lifetime Acheivement Award

    TV News Roundup: Netflix's 'Laugh-In' 50th Anniversary Tribute Sets Premiere Date

    In today’s TV News roundup, Netflix sets the premiere date for its 50th anniversary special of “Laugh-In.” DATES “Laugh-In: The Stars Celebrate,” the 50th anniversary tribute to the original series by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, will premiere on Netflix on May 14. The special, which was taped at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, pays [...]

  • Texas Tech's Norense Odiase (32) shoots

    Live+3 Ratings for Week of April 8: NCAA Championship Game Dunks on Competition

    The final of the 2019 NCAA basketball tournament, in which Virginia triumphed over a spirited Texas Tech team, unsurprisingly finished way out in front in the Live+3 ratings for the week of April 8. Although the sports broadcast’s scripted competition made some gains, its 5.4 ratings still more than doubled that of “Grey’s Anatomy” in [...]

  • Mueller Report Release Draws 11 Million

    Mueller Report Release Draws 11 Million Total Viewers Across TV News

    Coverage of the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into whether President Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice unsurprisingly caused a ratings bump across TV news yesterday. In terms of overall viewership, around 11 million people tuned in to see Attorney General William Barr’s news conference regarding the report’s release, and the news coverage surrounding it. According [...]

  • Neilsons Measurment Problems TV Digital

    WarnerMedia Pulls Out of Audience-Targeting Alliance Open A.P.

    WarnerMedia is going its own way when it comes to helping advertisers find specific groups of TV-watchers. The company, a founding member of the audience-targeting media alliance known as Open A.P., said Friday it would withdraw from the group, citing its desire to pursue its own strategy under owner AT&T. AT&T purchased Time Warner in [...]

  • BLESS THIS MESS - "The Chicken

    Listen: Lake Bell, Dax Shepard on Returning to Broadcast TV With 'Bless This Mess'

    Welcome to “TV Take,” Variety’s television podcast. In this week’s installment, Variety’s executive editor of TV, Daniel Holloway, chats with Lake Bell and Dax Shepard, stars of ABC’s “Bless This Mess,” which debuted on Monday. The show centers around a newly married couple, played by Bell and Shepard, who decide to ditch their shoebox New York City [...]

  • superstore renewed season 3

    'Superstore' Showrunner Justin Spitzer Steps Down as He, Gabe Miller, Jonathan Green Renew Overall Deals at UTV

    “Superstore” executive producers Justin Spitzer, Gabe Miller and Jonathan Green have all renewed their overall deals with Universal Television. In addition, Miller and Green will take over showrunner duties on “Superstore” while Spitzer — who also created the series — will shift to develop new projects for the studio beginning with the 2019-2020 season. “I [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content