Sesame St S2: Bert & Ernie

Ernie goes to bed with a basketball.

Ernie goes to bed with a basketball.

I also watched another nighttime sketch called “Putting the Basketball Away”, another one in which Ernie doesn’t mean to bother Bert and yet the very way he lives his life is so different to Bert’s and his philosophy that he inadvertently sets Bert’s teeth on edge. When it begins, Bert has just finished playing a basketball game with Ernie (which, given Bert’s personality, I have my doubts about, but I’ll accept it for the sake of the scene) and prepares to go to sleep but notices that Ernie is lying in bed, still grasping the ball. Bert tries to tell him that he needs to put the basketball away, but Ernie keeps hushing him, because he knows there’s something he forgot to do, but he can’t put his finger on it.


Finally, he listens and realizes Bert was right. He thanks him, proceeding to come up with a mnemonic device for himself to remember to put it away: he remembers with his brain, and his brain is in his head, and his head is round (“Sort of,” Bert interjects), just like the ball! But he gets so distracted with all of that thinking, he again ultimately forgets to do the one thing he was supposed to do…actually put it away. Bert tries to tell him, but Ernie hushes him. He’s trying to remember something he forgot!


Ernie’s unique perspective on life also rears its head in “Here or Not Here”, in which Ernie sneaks up on Bert as he’s reading, startling the unholy you-know-what out of him in the process. A frazzled Bert says to Ernie that he hadn’t realized he was here, which strikes an unusually philosophical chord in our orange friend, who responds, “Maybe I’m not here, Bert…You’re a smart guy, and what you think is usually true.” But then he wonders that if he isn’t here then, “where am I?” Bert, resigned to not being allowed to return to his book, mournfully responds, “Oh, boy, it’s gonna be one of those days.”


Ernie and Bert in the rain.

Ernie and Bert in the rain.

Ernie looks for himself out the window but discovers he’s not on Sesame Street, taking a walk. He wonders if perhaps he’s lost in a “spooky forest” or on a “lonely road” and worries that “I’ll never see me again…I miss me.” Finally, Bert takes out a mirror and instructs Ernie to look inside it, and once Ernie spots his reflection he finally agrees that he is, in fact, there after all. “It’s so good to see me again,” he says. Again, this time around, he really doesn’t seem to have been just messing with Bert. Being a Muppet, sometimes he just does get carried away. Later on that same day, Ernie once again terrifies Bert, sneaking up on him again and telling him it’s time for their checker game. “I’m here!,” he says. But Bert has had it for the day. “You’re here,” he says, “BUT I’M NOT!,” and marches off.


While Ernie was a bit callous there in not letting Bert read, his thoughtlessness reaches possibly new heights in “Feelings in the Rain”. In this sketch, he’s standing outside under Bert‘s umbrella, talking about the various ways the rain makes him feel–he’s happy to think of all of the plants and trees that are getting a nice drink but he’s sad about all the people who will have to cancel their picnics and other outdoor activities and simultaneously angry because he had hoped to go to the zoo today and now can’t–while Bert is nearby him, soaking. Naturally, he continues to talk over Bert whenever his friend tries to ask him if he can stand under it, as well. Finally, he asks Bert why he doesn’t have an umbrella himself. “You have my umbrella,” Bert replies. And Ernie answers, “Thanks, Bert, I’ll see you around!” And off he goes, leaving Bert, drenched and sneezing.


There doesn’t seem to be any intentional cruelty behind this. In fact, he seems extremely genuine in the emotions he expresses about the rain. It’s just that he gets so wrapped up in his own emotions that he fails to notice the plight of his actual friend standing right there. And Sesame Street is intelligent enough to not feel like it has to explain to its audience what’s wrong with Ernie’s behavior there. They allow it to remain, self-evident to anyone with any observational skills. And the neat trick is that, underneath the lesson about how you can have various conflicting emotions about the same thing, it invokes a similar conflicting feelings in us: laughing at Ernie’s behavior but also feeling bad for Bert and perhaps even a little upset at Ernie.


Ernie eats Bert's 5th cookie.

Ernie eats Bert’s 5th cookie.

At the same time, though, this bite is a crucial element that makes it feel like a real relationship, as well as giving the show an edge that most kiddie fare of the time (and even now) doesn’t have. Trusting the child audience to realize that someone can be self-centered at times but that that doesn’t make them a bad person is actually pretty huge.


Sure, there are times that Ernie can be extremely self-motivated. In “Four Cookies”, he can’t help himself and nibbles a tiny bite out of one of 5 cookies Bert had waiting for himself on a plate for when he gets home, and then of course, because it doesn’t look even enough, he continues to nibble…and nibble…until the cookie’s finally gone. When Bert returns and notices that one of the cookies is missing, Ernie begins to rearrange them a few times, each time hoping it will magically make the number of cookies change but it doesn’t. Bert then tells him that he doesn’t want 4 cookies–that that’s actually the last thing that he wants. So Ernie helps him out…by eating another cookie, so there’ll only be 3!


On the one hand, yes, Ernie’s a bit of a mischievous brat here, but on the other hand, Bert’s being more than a bit obstinate. Yes, Ernie messed up and ate a cookie he shouldn’t have, but all in all, one less cookie really isn’t the worst thing in the world, and Bert probably should have just appreciated what he had, rather than walk into such an obvious set-up. One of the embedded messages of the Bert/Ernie relationship is that sometimes Ernie’s shaking-up of Bert’s tidy little universe is the best thing for him. Because there’s being very particular and then there’s being such a fussbudget that you never allow yourself to have any fun, which Bert is sometimes in danger of becoming without Ernie there to ruffle his feathers a bit.


Ernie gets Bert to pretend.

Ernie gets Bert to pretend.

And all right, Ernie’s behavior might be a bit less excusable in “Ernie Has Bert Pretend to Be Mad”. In this one, Ernie asks Bert to demonstrate what being angry looks like, complimenting him on how great he is at it. And the best part of it is that Bert takes it as a huge compliment, practically blushing! But Bert also tells him he can’t just pretend to be mad at the drop of a hat. He needs to have something to pretend to be mad about. So Ernie tells him to pretend that he took Bert’s “favorite paperclip collection” out to play and accidentally dropped it irretrievably down the sewer. And Bert internalizes this information, responding by getting so over-the-top angry that his eyes nearly bug out. Remember, things like bottlecap and paperclip collections are Bert’s very heart and soul! And Ernie compliments him on how great he did. And he’s right. Really most impressive! And then asks him to do it again. And after some cajoling and Ernie reigniting the fires of (pretend) anger in him, Bert does it again.


The third time, however, Bert tells him he’s so exhausted now that he couldn’t recreate it a third time, and this is when Ernie springs the truth on him: he actually had dropped his paperclip collection down the sewer…and by this point, Ernie has drained his reserves so much that, rather than yell, he just gives up and faints. Again, Ernie is in the wrong, but (a) he’s also undeniably freaking hilarious here and (b) more seriously, Ernie didn’t intentionally hurt Bert. The loss of the paperclip collection was an unfortunate accident. And from an Ernie point-of-view, you could even see how he saw this as a way to prepare Bert for the blow he knew he’d suffer at the loss of his precious paperclips while also saving himself the brunt of Bert’s inevitable explosion. 


Ernie borrows Bert's basketball for a bath.

Ernie borrows Bert’s basketball for a bath.

The last clip I have for this season is “Ernie Prepares for His Bath” and what I love about this one is that it’s an example of how not only does Ernie not usually set out to antagonize Ernie but sometimes the very world itself seems to be conspiring to justify Ernie’s more whimsical behavior and tease Bert. At the start of this sketch, Bert sees Ernie getting a bar of soap, then a towel, and then his rubber duckie, and so guesses that he’s about to take a bath. But then Ernie gets out a flashlight, an umbrella, and finally Bert’s bowling ball, at which point Bert stops him and asks what he’s doing. He tells him he’s taking a bath after all! The flashlight is in case the power goes out, the umbrella is in case it starts to rain in the bathroom (wouldn’t want Rubber Duckie getting wet from anything but bath water!), and the bowling ball is in case someone wanders in and asks to borrow one. Bert puts his foot down and refuses to let Ernie have the bowling ball.


So Ernie simply starts his bath with the other items in tow, and Bert decides he has to go in and see what’s going on in there. (Sure, Bert, you tell yourself that that’s the reason you want to barge in on Ernie’s bath. *whistles innocently*) And sure enough, within moments, the power goes out–on goes the flashlight–a heavy downpour of rain starts to fall in the bathroom–out comes the umbrella–and then, you guessed, a man wanders in and asks to borrow a bowling ball. A defeated Bert leads the way. Sometimes Bert has to just accept it’s Ernie’s world and he’s just living in it!


And before I sign off for today, a brief announcement: I’m actually going to be away in England for the next 2 1/2 months, and although I will be continuing to blog from there, I won’t have as much time for it as I usually do, so I’m going to be cutting back to about 2-3 posts a week, through the end of February. I hope to see you back here on Tuesday for my coverage of the first-ever, rarely-seen Muppet holiday special, The Great Santa Claus Switch!


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