HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET ½
2021, PG, 107 mins.
A documentary by Marilyn Agrelo
There were two reassuring and beloved constants in my childhood life that I always could escape to:
STAR WARS in the cinemas and SESAME STREET on TV.
impossible to overstate what a profound influence that this pioneering
children's educational program has had on multiple generations of children
since it first aired on November 10, 1969 and went on to spawn well over
4000 episodes since. Produced
by the Children's Television Workshop and created by Joan Ganz Cooney and
Lloyd Morrisett, SESAME STREET had modest, but far reaching aims: to teach
kids and prepare them for elementary school as opposed to peddling
merchandise to them (as far too many shows of its early era were guilty
of). Based on the book of the
same name by Michael Davis, STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET is a
thoroughly captivating and sometimes moving origin account of the intrepid
group of creators that had a vision for the show and saw it through to
triumphant fruition, but not without some roadblocks and controversy.
In attempting to
engage in some cinematic archaeological work about the show's humble
beginnings, director Marilyn Agrela utilizes the standard accouterments of
the talking heads/archival footage documentary form, but does so with
mostly satisfying and educational results. Obviously, we get modern day interviews with many of the key
cast and crew (including Cooney herself, who looks astoundingly far
younger than her 91 years), but the film also employs older interview
footage of those no longer with us (including the late, great Jim Henson,
whose incalculable contributions to the show are perhaps unequal).
It was Cooney's original mission statement to provide quality
programming to the nation's pre-elementary school youth, and to do so
while appeasing both children and adult viewers while simultaneously
crossing socio-economic divides (which was pretty unheard of for late 60s
kiddie TV). The doc does a
good job early on of establishing the troubling milieu of children's
television of the 60s, which Cooney accurately reflects was cemented in
big commercial networks making ad and merchandise driven product...and
product that was largely aimed at white kids.
Cooney laments, at one point, how children of this era were
watching TV over 50 per cent of any given waking time during their week. So, in her mind, why not make it entertaining and highly
want to produce another dime-a-dozen, generic show for children that had
an unhealthy focus on commercialization.
She wanted a show that would provide beneficial learning tools to
help kids from all walks of life to acclimate for school days to come.
More importantly, she wanted to reach inner city children that
didn't have the same opportunities as the white affluent.
Making a show of this nature had simply never been thought of or
attempted before, meaning that Cooney and her assembled team were facing a
daunting challenge from the get-go. The
chosen creative setting was noteworthy: a New York City block with
ethnically diverse, everyday people (and one big bird and a particularly
grouchy monster living in a trash can), but innovative, outside of the box
people were required to bring this all to a reality.
Of course, there were early hurdles, including one amusing
revelation from an early cameraman that he simply had no idea what on
earth he was shooting, or the fact that when Cooney first met Jim Henson
she disapprovingly thought he was a trouble making "hippie."
focus in STREET GANG about Henson's influence on the show (as well as his
go-to Muppet partner-in-crime in the equally talented Frank Oz) to bring a
new quirky flavor to the educational vignettes via their pupated creations
(Big Bird, Burt and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover, etc. have utterly been
a part of the pop culture lexicon for years).
STREET GANG shows Henson during his pre-SESAME STREET days making
eccentric commercials with his Muppets before taking the call of Cooney
and her squad. After watching
some of Henson's old black and white ads in the film it's kind of
staggering to think how their relatively subversive humor would translate
properly to a children's series, but it showed Cooney's unwavering
convictions to not take the road most traveled.
There would have to be a human element to the show as well to make
it tangibly relatable and grounded, and STREET GANG tracks down many of
the surviving performers that played opposite of Henson's immortal
Muppets, like Sonia Manzano (who played Maria), Roscoe Orman (Gordon), Bob
McGrath (Bob) and Emilion Delgado (Luis), all of whom combined would give
the show its desired racially broad look and feel.
The casting and
overall makeup and approach to SESAME STREET segues into some of the
nagging controversies that the show found itself embroiled in.
It premiered to raving reviews and mass viewer popularity, but the
interracial makeup of the show led to a loathsome move by one Mississippi
station to ban airing any episodes, with them incredulously citing that
today's children were just not ready to be introduced to minorities and
white kids living together in harmony.
This leads into the creation of a black Muppet in Roosevelt, and
although the inception and execution of him was noble minded, the new
character had a less than sterling reception, which culminated in the
original Gordon in Matt Robinson leaving the show and being replaced (he
created Roosevelt and exited on matters of pride and principle).
Still, SESAME STREET wholeheartedly deserved props for championing
civil rights and equality, which is reflected in a memorable 1972 episode
featuring Jesse Jackson (who bares an uncanny resemblance to Anthony
Mackie) leading a mixed group of children chanting "I Am
Still, there were
other behind the scenes controversies, like one revolving around a
seemingly innocuous musical segment about the letter B that was a clever
spoof of The Beatles' "Let It Be" that later sparked a
preposterous $5 million lawsuit from Northern Songs (who then had the
rights to the tune). But
there were other darker undertones to the show, most specifically in the
area of the arduous daily grind of producing it, which took a hellish toll
on many of the creators and cast members (Brian Henson is interviewed at
one point and almost tearfully recounts how he would go several days as a
child without ever seeing his dad). Aside
from the fatiguing extremes of shooting the series and the punishing
effects that it had on families behind the scenes, SESAME STREET was also
forced during its history to address actual loss and death on their show
when one of their beloved recurring characters in Will Lee's Mister Hopper
died in real life (instead of hiding it away from children, the makers
decided to tactfully deal with it on a 1983 episode that explored Big Bird
learning about the realities of Hooper's demise).
Moments like this were ultimately reflective of Cooney's original
mandate of the show to not condescend to its young viewers.
covers a staggering amount of historical ground, players, and events that,
to its discredit, feels kind of padded and truncated to meet the demands
of its relatively sparse 107 minute runtime.
It should also be noted that the doc only really covers the first
ten-plus years of the show, so for those expecting a more long-term and
cumulative portrait of the whole, overarching history of the show may be
in for some disappointment. It's
sometimes hard to overlook how insufficiently short STREET GANG is
considering the vastness of its subject matter. Having said that, thoroughly probing the sheer magnitude of
this series and what it meant for five decades worth of children within a
feature documentary length of under two hours is, to be blunt, impossible.
I could have also used a bit less softening of the edges of the
ongoing grind that typified making this show.
I wouldn't say that STREET GANG falls short as a warts and all
expose, but there's a lot of tougher material here that seems glossed
over. The doc features, at
times, some side splitting outtakes of Henson, Oz and company having their
Muppets spouting out innuendo laced zingers after flubbing lines or
missing marks. I have to
imagine that making these puppets work was mentally and physically taxing,
but STREET GANG seems to imply that the daily production of SESAME STREET
was a tad more fun filled than it actually was.