Sesame Street Ep #131

Gordon interrupts Ernie and Bert's argument.

Gordon interrupts Ernie and Bert’s argument.

As I alluded to in previous posts, when the already monumentally successful Sesame Street returned for its second season premiere on November 9, 1970 (available for purchase as part of the Sesame Street: Old School Volume 1 DVD set), it featured some changes that came about as a result of discovering what worked and what didn’t during their first experimental year. One of the most instantly striking features about this episode is just how big and full the street now seems. Compared to the small handful of people who greeted viewers in the first aired episode, the first pan shot of this episode is stuffed with characters: adults, children, and perhaps most importantly, Muppets.


The show’s already come a long way from its initial hesitancy to feature imagination on the street itself. At the end of that first shot, we see Bert and Ernie in another relatively rare exterior appearance, which seems to be designed to stress how important the Muppets are to the series, and soon afterwards, Big Bird, and later, Oscar show up. And, as we first saw on Flip Wilson yesterday, while the former’s voice is still a little dopier than we’re used to, his eyes now look expressive, rather than dull, and he has more feathers on top, both of which make him seem brighter and more aware. Meanwhile, it seems like Henson’s Muppet building team, headed by Don Sahlin, were still tinkering with Oscar because although he was finally green on Flip Wilson, his face looked strange, and here, about a month later, he is more recognizable as our favorite Grouch. The design has returned to something closer to how he originally looked, albeit green and with sharper features.


What isn’t immediately apparent, however, is that one famous Muppet is actually missing, and that’s Kermit. And this was also by design. Although Hey Cinderella! was filmed in 1968, it didn’t air on American TV until 1970, and when it did, one vocally prominent critic accused Jim Henson of selling out and crassly commercializing Sesame Street by featuring one of “their” characters on network TV. Now, this was uninformed for numerous reasons: Kermit appeared on Sesame Street but was, of course, around long before it, often in commercials selling thingsHey Cinderella!, again, was also filmed long before and had no connection to Sesame Street; and no mention of Sesame Street was retroactively added to this broadcast. But Jim became sensitive about the accusation and so wanted to distance the frog from the PBS show, and in Season 2, Kermit was gone, his former “lecture” spots taken over by a new character called Herbert Birdsfoot (performed by Jerry Nelson), who failed to catch on with the kids. By Season 3, the frog was thankfully restored to his proper position.


Big Bird sticks his beak into the conversation.

Big Bird sticks his beak into the conversation.

As a sidenote, Sesame Street became such a huge success for Henson Associates that they started to scale back on doing commercials and eventually cut that out of their business almost all together, other than a few scattered campaigns that Jim particularly believed in, because that income stream was no longer needed. The Muppets were finally paying the bills on their own (by the mid-’70s, Sesame Street merch was bringing in nearly $10 mil) and doing so via a fully positive, altruistic source, which is pretty incredible.


And now, returning to this episode, after Gordon welcomes us back to the street, he happens upon Bert and Ernie, who are having a bit of a squabble over who is taller, which essentially amounts to Ernie realizing he’s actually shorter but sometimes wishing he weren’t. Gordon, however, tells him that he can grant this particular wish, and he stands up behind him, puts his arms underneath his and lifts him up, first so that he’s higher than Bert and then higher than even himself, prompting the ticklish Ernie to initially giggle before finally looking around and saying in awe, “I’m taller than everybody!” That is until Big Bird pokes his head out of his home and says, “Not quite everybody! Hi, itty bitty Ernie!” before placing a gentle kiss on his head–a lovely example of Sesame Street teaching by showing rather than telling or condescending. Instead of obviously instructing about scale and relativity, the message of “tall,” “taller,” “even taller” is clear.


They then reinforce the lesson through an odd, out-of-nowhere bit with Laugh-In‘s Arte Johnson as his famous-at-the-time German soldier character, talking about the difference between tall and short. Tall people hit their heads more often, you see. And then after a quick detour via a cartoon about a journalist interviewing the letter N and learning what it spells, the big/little demonstration appears again in an even subtler way, via one of the more well-known Sesame Street bits I fondly remember from childhood, “Doll House,” a short film/song about two little girls (significantly of different ethnicities, one white, one Asian, again furthering the show’s diversity message) playing with their dolls in a dollhouse filled with pairs of two: two dolls, drinking tea at a table with two place settings–two plates, two spoons, etc.–afterwards lying down in their two beds.


The niftiest part, though, is the twist ending, where suddenly two real cats invade the dollhouse, knocking everything over and causing havoc. So although the film’s main message is teaching about 2s and pairs, it also indirectly weaves in another lesson about size, but one that’s obscured underneath gentle humor and whimsy. And for some fun trivia: the dollhouse featured in this short was actually designed and built by Jim Henson for his daughters, Lisa and Cheryl. Furthermore, it was filmed in their actual room, with the Henson family’s actual cats!


A Henson family cat in the dollhouse!

A Henson family cat in the dollhouse!

The destruction and mayhem wreaked by the hapless kitties then dovetails nicely into Mr. Hooper accidentally spilling milk in his shop, which leads into Big Bird singing the first-ever rendition of Jeffrey Moss’ classic Sesame Street song, “Everyone Makes Mistakes,” another great lesson for kids packaged in a fun, bouncy song, and leading everyone in a parade that ultimately culminates with him accidentally stepping on a “J” hidden in his nest. But Gordon supportively reassures him, “I’ve stepped on my J many times!” You can watch this sequence at Sesame Street‘s official site.


Incidentally, although the show still isn’t featuring plotting or narrative arcs, as it would in later years, this episode is much better paced than anything in Season 1. There’s a quick, zippy build, flow, and sense of momentum that launches us from one sequence to the next, making the show feel much more alive with life, music, and fun than any of the first season episodes I watched. From the first scene all the way through to this point, I never noticed myself once getting antsy or bored (admittedly, that happens a few scattered times later in the episode, but never for long). They also seem to have dropped the theoretically-neat but lethargic-in-practice live animal demonstration sequences, which was a wise move, because for some reason, trying to get those inner city kids to seem even slightly interested in unusual animals was an uphill battle every time.


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