The power of inventive children’s programming has never been, and I hesitate to add never will be topped by Jim Henson’s Muppet miracle. While I must say that the more cutsey recent additions to the Sesame Street stable, Baby Bear, Abby Cacabby and Elmo have, to me, blunted the subversive edge to The Street that made it so much fun to watch for adults and kids alike, even the post-Henson era Muppets have maintained a wonderful wit with a focus on cooperative learning.
Okay, have to nerd out with a couple of recent examples of must watch. First is their very recent Mad Men takeoff to help explain emotions—any children’s programming that uses the words “sycophants” is gold, as far as I’m concerned.
Next, on the too-soon-forgotten Muppets Tonight, they play on both the monkeys typing Shakespeare and 2001: A Space Odyssey for this absolutely classic gag.
But the Muppets have always been about much more than just ABCs and 123s and arcane pop-culture crossovers. What has made the Muppets stand out was their ability to, though their own goofy prism, teach really amazing values. My first inkling toward vegetarianism came as a kid, as I watched an episode that had little Robin singing a rendition of the anti-war classic “Stop, Listen, What’s That Sound” but instead of soldiers, the man with a gun over there were hunters. A brilliant use of the Muppets to give animals voice on this issue, whatever your take on it.
Of course, the most ingenious moral teaching of the Muppet gang is the acceptance of differences. Sesame Street used birds, monsters, grouches, human form Muppets, and real humans of all backgrounds to really show that people should not be judged by the color (or relative furriness) of their skin, but the content of their character.
That brings me to this must-read article in the Washington Post about efforts to bring Sesame Street to Afghanistan. A few points that really struck me:
“Afghan television is filled with U.S. imports featuring characters searching for ever more elaborate ways to pummel one another, such as the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons and World Wrestling Entertainment matches.”
“The childhood classic has been adapted in about 140 countries, from India to Israel.”
“The Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind “Sesame Street,” produced a 2004 Afghan “Sesame Street” test video series shown in schools and women’s centers. Grover wore a sparkly kurta (a long shirt), pajamas (baggy cotton pants) and an Islamic prayer cap. It also had a playful hot-pink female Muppet who couldn’t decide whether to be a pilot or a doctor. That was a controversial message in a country where girls had been forbidden to go to school under Taliban rule.”
“In South Africa, an orange Muppet named Kami is HIV-positive. Her appearance sparked controversy in that country, where AIDS is rampant but too socially taboo for its leaders to discuss publicly.”
“The great thing is the Sesame model does not club you over the head. It’s subtle and often humorous,” said Michael Davis, a former preschool teacher and the author of “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.” He added: “Jim Henson had a theory of sublime silliness as a way of getting a lot of serious business done.”
There’s much more in that article, so do go give it a read. That last line from Michael Davis about Jim Henson, however, does say it all.
Miss you Jim, but glad your amazing work lives on to touch more lives.