on digital video! Break out some Keebler products, fire up the DVD
player and prepare for the exquisite pleasure-pain of top-shelf
Just don't bring the children. According to an earnest warning on
Volumes 1 and 2, "Sesame Street: Old School" is adults-only: "These
early `Sesame Street' episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may
not suit the needs of today's preschool child."
Say what? At a recent all-ages home screening, a hush fell over the
room. "What did they do to us?" asked one Gen-X mother of two,
finally. The show rolled, and the sweet trauma came flooding back.
What they did to us was hard-core. Man, was that scene rough. The
masonry on the dingy brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, where the
closeted Ernie and Bert shared a dismal basement apartment, was
deteriorating. Cookie Monster was on a fast track to diabetes.
Oscar's depression was untreated. Prozacky Elmo didn't exist.
Nothing in the children's entertainment of today, candy-colored
animation hopped up on computer tricks, can prepare young or old for
this frightening glimpse of simpler times. Back then — as on the
very first episode, which aired on PBS Nov. 10, 1969 — a pretty,
lonely girl like Sally might find herself befriended by an older
male stranger who held her hand and took her home. Granted, Gordon
just wanted Sally to meet his wife and have some milk and cookies,
but . . . well, he could have wanted anything. As it was, he fed her
milk and cookies. The milk looks dangerously whole.
Live-action cows also charge the 1969 screen — cows eating common
grass, not grain improved with hormones. Cows are milked by plain
old farmers, who use their unsanitary hands and fill one bucket at a
time. Elsewhere, two brothers risk concussion while whaling on each
other with allergenic feather pillows. Overweight layabouts, lacking
touch-screen iPods and headphones, jockey for airtime with their
deafening transistor radios. And one of those radios plays a late-
'60s news report — something about a "senior American official"
and "two billion in credit over the next five years" — that conjures
a bleak economic climate, with war debt and stagflation in the
The old "Sesame Street" is not for the faint of heart, and certainly
not for softies born since 1998, when the chipper "Elmo's World"
started. Anyone who considers bull markets normal, extracurricular
activities sacrosanct and New York a tidy, governable place — well,
the original "Sesame Street" might hurt your feelings.
I asked Carol-Lynn Parente, the executive producer of "Sesame
Street," how exactly the first episodes were unsuitable for toddlers
in 2007. She told me about Alistair Cookie and the
parody "Monsterpiece Theater." Alistair Cookie, played by Cookie
Monster, used to appear with a pipe, which he later gobbled.
According to Parente, "That modeled the wrong behavior" — smoking,
eating pipes — "so we reshot those scenes without the pipe, and then
we dropped the parody altogether."
Which brought Parente to a feature of "Sesame Street" that had not
been reconstructed: the chronically mood-disordered Oscar the
Grouch. On the first episode, Oscar seems irredeemably miserable —
hypersensitive, sarcastic, misanthropic. (Bert, too, is described as
grouchy; none of the characters, in fact, is especially sunshiney
except maybe Ernie, who also seems slow.) "We might not be able to
create a character like Oscar now," she said.
Snuffleupagus is visible only to Big Bird; since 1985, all the
characters can see him, as Big Bird's old protestations that he was
not hallucinating came to seem a little creepy, not to mention
somewhat strained. As for Cookie Monster, he can be seen in the old-
school episodes in his former inglorious incarnation: a blue, googly-
eyed cookievore with a signature gobble ("om nom nom nom").
Originally designed by Jim Henson for use in commercials for General
Foods International and Frito-Lay, Cookie Monster was never a
righteous figure. His controversial conversion to a more diverse
diet wouldn't come until 2005, and in the early seasons he comes
across a Child's First Addict.
The biggest surprise of the early episodes is the rural — agrarian,
even — sequences. Episode 1 spends a stoned time warp in the company
of backlighted cows, while they mill around and chew cud. This
pastoral scene rolls to an industrial voiceover explaining dairy
farms, and the sleepy chords of Joe Raposo's aimless
masterpiece, "Hey Cow, I See You Now." Chewing the grass so
green/Making the milk/Waiting for milking time/Waiting for giving
Oh, what's that? Right, the trance of early "Sesame Street" and its
country-time sequences. In spite of the show's devotion to
its "target child," the "4-year-old inner-city black youngster" (as
The New York Times explained in 1979), the first episodes join kids
cavorting in amber waves of grain — black children, mostly, who must
be pressed into service as the face of America's farms uniquely
on "Sesame Street."
In East Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1978, 95 percent of
households with kids ages 2 to 5 watched "Sesame Street." The figure
was even higher in Washington. Nationwide, though, the number wasn't
much lower, and was largely determined by the whims of the PBS
affiliates: 80 percent in houses with young children. The so-called
inner city became anywhere that "Sesame Street" played, because the
Children's Television Workshop declared the inner city not a grim
sociological reality but a full-color fantasy — an eccentric scene,
framed by a box and far removed from real farmland and city streets
The concept of the "inner city" — or "slums," as The Times bluntly
put it in its first review of "Sesame Street" — was therefore
transformed into a kind of Xanadu on the show: a bright, no-clouds,
clear-air place where people bopped around with monsters and didn't
worry too much about money, cleanliness or projecting false cheer.
The Upper West Side, hardly a burned-out ghetto, was said to be the
People on "Sesame Street" had limited possibilities and fixed
identities, and (the best part) you weren't expected to change much.
The harshness of existence was a given, and no one was proposing
that numbers and letters would lead you "out" of your inner city to
Elysian suburbs. Instead, "Sesame Street" suggested that learning
might merely make our days more bearable, more interesting, funnier.
It encouraged us, above all, to be nice to our neighbors and to
cultivate the safer pleasures that take the edge off — taking baths,
eating cookies, reading. Don't tell the kids.