Sesame St S1: Bert & Ernie

Bert complains about Ernie's mess.

Bert complains about Ernie’s mess.

Today we focus on that dynamic duo, Bert and Ernie. I didn’t discuss this in depth before but what makes Bert and Ernie so great, particularly in those years when Jim Henson was still around, wasn’t only Ernie’s ability to drive Bert up a wall but their underlying love for each other, even though that love may not have been as clear or apparent at all times. I’m guessing this was another way that the show deliberately undercut any overly precious or saccharine qualities it otherwise could have had. Classic Sesame Street had a bit of bite to it. You didn’t have to see Ernie and Bert always verbalizing or explaining their friendship to realize there was warmth there underneath the pranks.


Although today many identify Ernie and Bert as a gay couple, the show has never confirmed that identification, but neither has it refuted it. And, either way, no matter how you define it, they do have a marriage of sorts and, fascinatingly, the same was true of Jim Henson and Frank Oz. While neither was gay and they weren’t lovers, many people who knew them at the time described their relationship as a marriage. They had such a strong friendship as well as a professional partnership and were so in synch that they seemed to intrinsically get each other and know what the other was thinking, sometimes without having to say a word. And in their scenes together, they would often cause each other to laugh until they cried.


This chemistry may come across more through Bert and Ernie than any other Oz/Henson pairing, because each character’s personality is in some ways an exaggerated version of the man who plays him. Even Oz admits that, at the time, he took himself very seriously and was quite uptight, whereas Jim was more free-spirited, fun-loving, and easy-going. Jim was shyer than Ernie in real life but also had a similar effervescent spirit, and the way the two of them interacted could often be very reminiscent of Bert and Ernie. It wouldn’t necessarily be true to say Bert and Ernie literally were them but on some level, they were, and so there’s a particular magic to their sketches, and the two loved doing them so much that, no matter what other projects lined up, they would return to New York nearly every year up to and including the year of Jim’s death to record new Bert and Ernie material for the show, which would then be doled out and repeated throughout the year.


Let’s begin with a classic Ernie-and-Bert-bickering scene, posted on Sesame Street‘s official YouTube channel:



As you see, it starts off with Ernie watching TV and refusing to pay attention to Bert, who is tired of watching and wants to do something else, resenting that Ernie won’t give him a turn to choose what they do. Bert wants to play a record instead and finally turns his record on, drowning out Ernie’s show. Ernie retaliates by turning on the radio, and Bert escalates it further by turning on the blender, ultimately culminating in a blown fuse! The scene’s a great example of Bert and Ernie’s dynamic. The two can get on each other’s nerves and/or throats and Ernie can be a bit selfish, just as Bert can be a stick in the mud, but, when all is said and done, they love each other, so they work together to solve the problem, Bert going off to fix the fuse and Ernie turning of all of the electronics. In the end, they apologize and play a nice game of cards.


In another sketch called “Broken A TV,” Bert and Ernie’s TV is doing nothing but blaring the letter “A” over and over, and so Bert tries to fix it. He tells Ernie to reach in back of the set and see if there’s anything in there. Ernie pulls out a bunch of “A” things: an acorn, apricots, an apron, a toy ape, and finally the letter A, which seems to fix the issue…until the TV starts blaring the letter “B” over and over. Bert’s first reaction is to be annoyed, but Ernie actually seems to like it. He says it’s “beautiful,” (he doesn’t link it to being the first letter in Bert’s name, but I think the implication is there) and after a few seconds, Bert starts to see Ernie’s point-of-view. They stare at the screen in silence and lean their heads against one another, almost nuzzling–a rare, extremely lovely moment for the two of them, particularly since Ernie’s wide-eyed innocence actually influences Bert and he lets down his guard for a brief while, too.


But more often, of course, things don’t end up with the two of them being quite so in synch. The most common occurrence is Ernie either doing something to deliberately drive Bert crazy or doing so without even trying. For example, “Ernie’s Quick Clean-Up”:



Bert scolds Ernie for how messy the apartment has become and Ernie responds that he’s the fastest picker-upper in the world. A skeptical Bert then bets him that he can’t clean everything up in time for lunch to begin, telling Ernie he can have his, Bert’s, dessert of ice cream and cookies if he, Ernie, can finish it all up before lunch, in 15 seconds. And, naturally, thanks to the magic of a fast-forwarding video trick, Ernie does (although, amusingly, a lot of his “clean-up” is just tossing things out of sight)! “It’s just not fair,” Bert moans. Although to be fair, Bert really did walk right into that one, and this wasn’t a deliberate prank on Ernie’s part.


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