Years of evolution has all-but-erased Sesame Street‘s psychedelic foundations. It was conceived as a much, much weirder show than its current incarnation, which is so often merely a vehicle for that cloying furry menace, Elmo and whatever flavor-of-the-week celebrity is looking to expand their fanbase to the preschool demographic. This is not to say Sesame Street never trafficked in star power—from the very first season in 1969, the show boasted among its visitors Burt Lancaster, James Earl Jones, Carol Burnett and… Grace Slick.
Yes, the voice of Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane (and other, less noble projects) was featured in nearly every episode of Sesame Street‘s debut season in 1969, singing absolutely deranged counting songs over psychedelic free jazz and groovy animation. I’m not sure if it taught any kids their numbers, but it’s sure as hell hypnotic. Slick’s role in the show was preceded by her recent participation in the Jim Henson-produced documentary, Youth 68—a study on the exploding 60’s counterculture.
The premise of the 1975 Sesame Street cartoon “Crack Master” AKA “Cracks” sounds like a bad trip. A girl lays on her bed staring at cracks on the wall. She imagines them into a menagerie of playmates—a camel, a monkey and a hen become her new friends. But wait—there is another animated crack—The Crack Master—who bears only ill will towards our protagonist and her comrades! The Crack Master eventually collapses from his own hatred, but it’s hardly a resolution that inspires optimism. A girl lives in a dilapidated building full of animated, sometimes malevolent indicators of rot, and her only hope for defeating these monsters is the further deterioration of her home? What the hell?
The short developed an infamous reputation, due to both the impression it made on a myriad of distressed young viewers, and the early withdrawal of the cartoon—it was only shown eleven times before disappearing from public view for years, breeding rumors that it had been banned. In 2009, a dedicated citizen named Jon Armond managed to get a copy from a very anonymous source under two conditions: the source’s identity must be kept an absolute secret, and the cartoon must never be distributed. In a (pretty funny) audio narrative Armond says the source claimed the cartoon wasn’t banned for its ominousness, merely retired. Sesame Street has a bit of a reputation for litigiousness when it comes to copyright, but they’re a product of public television, so why all the cloak and dagger? It’s possible the show is still a little embarrassed by the short’s inadvertently dark tone.
Now of course, the infamous is available on YouTube, so watch—if you dare.
Look, we’ve all had our suspicions about Bert and Ernie. It’s hardly nosey to question the nature of their relationship—right? They live together, take baths together and they bicker like an old married couple. We’re all adults here!
The 2002 short, Ernest and Bertram does a little bit of speculative fiction on their very special relationship—lifting dialogue from Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour, in which two two boarding school headmistresses are accused of having a lesbian affair. Bert has been outed by the tabloids—who are guessing, but it’s enough to put him in a terror, and motivate his girlfriend (Miss Piggy), to pack her bags. What follows is a confrontation and confession by Ernie, who questions the truth in the rumors—it ends in a (strangely moving) tragedy!
Sadly, the (surprisingly litigious) folks at Sesame Street served filmmaker Peter Spears with a cease and desist order for copyright violation. It’s a real bummer, because the film is funny (the Spartacus poster in Bert’s home is a nice touch), and Sesame Street is such a gay-friendly institution at this point it’s silly not to acknowledge this parody as a valid cultural contribution—the film was a hit at Sundance! You can compare it with the scene from The Children’s Hourhere.
Don’t worry, this homoerotic Muppet contraband is all psychological and safe for work—we’re not that sick!
The shorts consist of the movement of six circles (each with a different color of the rainbow) that are formed by and split up into various geometric patterns. Glass’s music underscores the animation in a style that closely resembles the “Dance” numbers and the North Star vignettes written during the same time period as his Einstein on the Beach opera.
Below, all four of the “Geometry of Circles” animations produced by Glass and The Children’s Television Workshop:
Sesame Street has always dealt with social realities with a frank and sympathetic voice, from folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie explaining breastfeeding to Big Bird, to Jesse Jackson’s impassioned “I am Somebody” speech (seriously, that one’s a kick right in the old working-class ovaries). A few days ago the beloved children’s institution released an online toolkit for educators and families to help children deal with having a parent who is incarcerated.
The American Prison Industrial Complex (which is becoming quite a cash cow for a select few 1%ers) holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, though we only make up 5% of the world’s population. We jail more people than any other country in the world. One out of 28 children in America have a parent in prison, and it goes without saying that it’s both traumatic and difficult for a child to understand.
It would seem that helping a child deal with that sort of trauma would be a completely unobjectionable project, but Meredith Jessup at Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze, seems to think Sesame Street failed by not explicitly portraying law-breakers as wrong-doers.
As Liz reported yesterday, PBS’ “Sesame Street” is moving on from ABCs and 123s to offer its young audience bigger life lessons, including coping strategies for when mom and/or dad winds up in the slammer.
At the show’s site, “tool kits” offer tips for caregivers, including explaining the concept of incarceration in a kid-friendly way. I was particularly struck by this one:
“When explaining where an incarcerated parent is, you can say, “Daddy is in a place called prison (or jail) for a while. Grownups sometimes go to prison when they break a rule called a law.”
Is it me or does this make it seem like jail time is par for the course?
It’s nice that Sesame Street has stepped forward to try and help kids left behind by parents serving time. Being removed from a parent can be seriously traumatic for kids and lend itself to developmental problems of their own. These are kids who need support.
That said, however, I’ve watched each of the videos produced by Sesame Workshop for the campaign. It strikes me that there’s no real advice offered for teaching kids lessons in right vs. wrong; there’s no guide for driving conversations about what crime has been committed and/or how mommy or daddy could have acted differently. Instead, the focus seems to be on alleviating the stigma attached to having a parent in prison.
Which would be absolutely terrible, wouldn’t it?
It’s essential to be supportive of innocent kids caught in these terrible situations, but I think it’s just as important to make sure they have the tools needed to avoid the same fate as their parents — a moral education and established expectations of responsibility. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem like we’re doing this kids any great service.
Oh, for sure. Discussing a complex and incredibly unjust legal system that disproportionately jails black, Latino, and/or poor men is totally appropriate for an eight-year-old. Destigmatizing incarceration would simply make the child feel better about themselves and their family, and we can’t possibly have that, now can we? We should really be pulling children aside and calmly explain to them that their Daddy is a terrible person because he got caught with a baggie of weed.
Congratulations, Meredith Jessup, you are officially the worst person in the world (at least for this morning).
Herbie Hancock demonstrates his Fairlight CMI on Sesame Street circa 1983.
The Fairlight Computer Music Instrument (CMI) was a state-of-the-art Synthesizer/Sampler workstation when it hit the market in 1979 and its rep has endured. Finding one today for sale is nearly impossible. They’re highly collectible among people who collect such things.
The little girl whose voice is being sampled, Tatyana Ali, went on to star on The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air.