The original cast of Sesame Street. Groovy times.
Within the first few pages of Michael Davis's Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, I was faced with a dilemma--should I quit on the book right now or plow on through to the end?
It's hard to decide whether to quit on a book or keep going. I always try to stick with even the most problematic book to the end, because I want to feel that I've given it a fair chance. In many cases, the decision to bail out is determined by how far I am into a book. If I'm more than halfway into it, I'll go on; if I'm within the first few chapters, I may give myself permission to walk out on it (though I'll still feel guilty).
I don't think the temptation to give up has ever come earlier than it did with that feeling I had on about page three of Davis's book. It was one sentenct that did it. I returned the book to the library, so I don't have the exact quote, but it was something to the effect of, "Sesame Street was born during a unique time when people with good jobs who lived in comfortable neighborhoods took an interest in people less fortunate than they were." I read the sentence over and over (the exact one, though the above is a pretty close rendition) with a sense of staggering disbelief--was Davis really suggesting that the late 1960s were the only time in American history when the upper middle class were involved in trying to improve the lot of their social inferiors? What about the progressive era of the late 19th/early 20th century? Or the abolitionist movement in the 19th century? The vanity and eternal self-congratulation of the Baby Boomer generation is both mind-boggling and awe-inspiring.
An early Ernie and Bert are...pledging allegiance? Or just unsure what to do with their awkward, rudimentary hands?
After reading this, I wondered if I wanted to go on. Sure, a friend and I had recently been talking about Sesame Street, and I had thought it would be interesting to learn more about the influential show's history. But was it worth sitting through that kind of writing? I coldly assessed the situation. I was on the train, had a lot of train rides coming up in the next few days, as well as downtime during performances of the play, and I had no time to get to the library again for about a week. It was either this book or pick out something at home to reread. I optimistically decided to keep reading, but in retrospect, perhaps I should have waited until I got home and pulled out the Proust again.
"Street Gang" concentrates mostly on the early years of "Sesame Street." The show came about when a number of people involved in television in the '60s decided that TV could do more than sell products to children--it could educate them. Using government money and grants from private institutions like the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation, the Children's Television Workshop brought together educational researchers and alumni of other children's television shows like "Captain Kangaroo" to create a show that would help children learn while also entertaining them enough to keep them away from commercial TV.
The show's tone came from several sources. A Carnegie Foundation exec noticed that his three year old daughter had effortlessly memorized every commercial jingle she heard--if kids that young could memorize a cereal ad, then they could also learn numbers and letters if they were put into a similarly catchy form. It was decided that each episode would include "commercial breaks" made up of quick-paced images and songs featuring that day's number or letter; instead of selling a toy or snack, these would sell the alphabet. The fast-paced, anarchic structure of the show came from popular programs like "Laugh-In" and "Batman;" although much of the satire in these shows went over the head of small children, many noticed that kids watched anyway, captivated by the comedies' bright colors, music, and general silliness. Jim Henson's Muppets, who already had a reputation for cool, cutting edge comedy, were brought in to provide the kind of humor that could appeal to children on one level and their parents on another.
I loved the pratfalling baker in the Number song.
The decision to put the show into an urban setting came both from prodding by McGeorge Bundy, then at the Ford Foundation, who envisioned the program as an extension of the government's Head Start program, and a public service announcement about urban decay which showed the kind of crumbling city streets where the CTW's staff thought their core audience lived. An extensive effort went on before the show's premiere to create awareness of it in the inner cities, and the cast was chosen to represent a careful mix of minorities.
Although CTW's plans had been greeted with some skepticism, the first episodes received generally positive reviews. There were a few negative notices--one complained about how the show's fast pace was detrimental to children's attention spans, another about how the show gave parents an excuse to abdicate their resonsibility to teach their own children to read. Generally, though, it was a sensation, making stars of many of the people both on camera and behind the scenes (Joan Ganz Cooney, one of the primary creators, became the go to person for any question about education for a while). As it became more popular and more established, though, the show became the target of various groups--Hispanics complained that they were underrepresented on the show (this was easily remedied with some new cast members); feminists complained that the show did not have strong female role models (including a lead female Muppet); government watchdogs complained that the show spent federal money cavalierly and excessively. Henson felt trapped in a children's show (he broke out eventually with "The Muppet Show" and Muppet movies; always a shrewd business man, he made sure he didn't give the rights to his characters to CTW). Later, the show suffered from competition from new television shows such as PBS's terrifyingly sweet and slow Barney, and all the shows on Nickelodeon. Henson's death was a blow from which the show never seemed to recover--the Sesame Muppets were now part of the establishment, not satirical and cutting edge; new Muppets were introduced not as a result of careful creative development but through focus groups and carefully planned marketing. The show still is running, but is not a cultural force like it once was, nor is it as influential in the lives of young children who are exposed to so many other forces from parents excessively anxious about their children making all the right kinds of educational progress.
Kermit the Frog with an early Grover. I always had kind of a crush on Kermit.
The biggest problem I had with Davis's book was, well...there's no nice way to say this--I just thought the writing was terrible (look, I understand that no one reading this is going to give me any prizes, but I'm not getting paid to spend months crafting a piece of nonfiction). He has a fondness for bad puns--while (pointlessly) discussing how Joan Ganz Cooney served a dish from one of Julia Child's cookbooks at a dinner, he throws in a line about how Child was the sauce who brought the Sesame family together (or something like that). He says that Catwoman, played by Julie Newmar, on the Batman series, gave many a teenager a case of cat-scratch fever. Yuck. Much of the book is based on interviews Davis did with the main players, which should be helpful. Instead, Davis presents the information in a hagiographic, worshipful tone. Yes, "Sesame Street" was a groundbreaking show, but you would think sometimes that he was writing about, I don't know, the planning of D-Day or something. There's a grandiosity and portentousness in his pronouncements (and there are pronouncements) that just made me roll my eyes. In one section, he describes the successful partnership of puppeteer Frank Oz and Jim Henson as something like a "holy" connection that was "touched by God." I shudder to imagine how he would describe Churchill and Roosevelt. I'm not sneering at the importance of programs for children or making fun of it by comparing them to war, but I just mean...for god's sake, calm down a little.
The worst part is that despite all this, Davis doesn't give any real insight to many subjects--he says Henson and Oz are touched by God, he compares them to Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello, peanut butter and jelly, and so on and so on, but it's all just a bunch of analogies. There are a few anecdotes here and there, but nothing that made me really understand what made Oz and Henson work better together than say, Henson and anyone else. Am I making any sense? It just feels like a lot of the book is made up of strings of adjectives and metaphors. There also are too many inexplicable loose ends--people are mentioned and then disappear, things that seem important or potentially interesting are glossed over. The strangest was the way that Davis casually mentions that the actor who played Gordon had been replaced with another actor. Davis had spent pages telling how the first Gordon, Matt Robinson got the role, and gave a lot of space to a mini-biography of Robinson. But then, unless I missed something, his leaving the show isn't explained (it is possible I missed something--I was pretty bored by the last 75 pages or so and zipped through them kind of quickly).
The book isn't without value--if you want to know the basics about how "Sesame Street" came about, then this book is fine. It includes some interesting background on children's television up to that point. There are some interesting facts, for example, the way the show's name came about by default--basically no one suggested anything better (the title "123 Avenue B" was shot down as too New York-centric; however, it seems perfect for the show's mission and it was a shame they passed on it). If you can get through the writing style, or if you're just less picky than me (and I confess to being too often too bratty about things like this), then you'll be fine with this book. As for me, well, I'll remind myself of this experience the next time I get a bad feeling on page three of a book and maybe then I'll be smart enough to take the warning signs seriously.
Now excuse me while I go sing "It's Not Easy Being Green."