Sesame St S6: Bert & Ernie

"The Blackout"

“The Blackout”

Today, we once again reach a slew of Bert and Ernie sketches. As I’ve probably said at some point before, while I couldn’t possibly cover the entirety of Sesame Street on this blog, I try to do as much of Bert and Ernie as possible, since they were not only performed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz but the characters were very much based on Jim and Frank’s actual relationship, Jim being the more playful one and Frank often being a bit more of a fussbudget.


In a great many of the Bert and Ernie scenes, Ernie would playfully and intentionally drive Bert up a wall, often feigning innocence. In “The Blackout”, our first sketch today, however, Ernie does seem genuinely heartfelt, albeit thoughtless. Ernie wakes up in the middle of the night to discover that it’s darker than usual. Not only is his nightlight off but, when he looks out the window, he discovers that all of the lights are off on Sesame Street, and so naturally he feels the need to awaken Bert in order to tell him how dark it is! Bert explains to him that there must be a blackout and then what a blackout is, at which point Ernie lists a number of things that they could do, such as watch TV, listen to the radio, or play a record, each of which Bert strikes down, explaining that they all require electricity. In the end, Ernie decides to call someone else up on the street to tell them what’s going on but unwisely chooses Oscar, who yells at him for waking him up, at which point Ernie pretends to be Bert, hangs up the phone, and runs back to bed.


A few things about this sketch: firstly, it’s another example of Sesame Street teaching a valuable lesson that isn’t related to simple letters and numbers but is more an aspect of modern society/technology that will come up at some point in children’s lives, namely introducing the concept of a blackout and what causes it, and even a bit about how electricity works, or at least that electricity is required to operate many of the things we use in our daily lives. What I love about the various things Ernie wants to do to pass the time is that, despite being in my mid-30s, whenever a blackout happens, my first impulse continues to be to do pretty much all of those things. “Bored now. Oh, I know! I’ll watch a movie–oh, right. Ok, then, let’s turn on some musi–oh, right…” Only now it’s “My laptop’s still charged! Let’s watch some Netflix. Damn it, no Wifi!” All of these years later and I still haven’t taken Bert’s lesson to heart.


Most importantly, however, I feel that the key to the sketch’s success is in Ernie’s lack of malice. He’s not trying to upset Bert, bother him, or ruin his sleep. He can just be a bit of a kid and in this case, one who is afraid of the dark and just wants some company. He’s not taking Bert’s feelings into consideration but, again, that’s how kids are with their parents and in many ways, Bert is Ernie’s beleagured caretaker.


"Imaginary Glass of Water"

“Imaginary Glass of Water”

This follows through in the next sketch, “Imaginary Glass of Water”, in which, while Bert is trying to sleep, Ernie repeatedly complains about being thirsty, smacking his dry lips until Bert suggests there’s something he could do about it. Ernie at first tries to imagine drinking a glass of water, but that doesn’t work. Then Bert tells him that he doesn’t have to be thirsty, which inspires Ernie to strike upon the ingenious idea of asking Bert to get him a glass of water! Bert responds that he can get his own. Brilliant!


So he goes and does that, making an enormous amount of noise in the bathroom as he fills a glass from the tap and proceeds to glug it down, then getting himself a second cup, preventing Bert from going to sleep all the while with the racket he’s making. Finally, he returns to bed, no longer thirsty, now theoretically all ready to go to sleep…except now he’s hungry. While Ernie could be deliberately annoying Bert here, this one feels like another where it’s more a by-product of Ernie being childish. It’s even possible that Jim and Frank were playing a bit of reverse psychology here by showing kids how disruptive they can be to their parents when stalling bedtime. Is it possible they wanted children to try to put themselves in Bert’s (and thus their parents’) shoes for even a brief moment?


And wouldn’t you know, that’s the exact theme of our next sketch, “Role Reversal”, in which after Ernie interrupts his sleep one too many times, Bert finally lets him have it, telling him that he couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be him, constantly being bothered every single night when he’s trying to sleep! And Ernie wonders if maybe he isn’t being fair to his good old buddy, so he tries to imagine what it must be like to be Bert. The screen goes wavy and suddenly he has traded places with Bert! He as Bert keeps trying to get to sleep while Bert as Ernie keeps bothering him with a litany of inane things, squeaking his rubber ducky, and eventually even laughing like Ernie! Finally, Ernie understands how horrible he has been to Bert all of these years. And so, of course, a moment later, he awakens a deeply-sleeping Bert to inform him that he’ll never disturb his sleep ever again. Wocka wocka.


"Role Reversal"

“Role Reversal”

Now, in order to not only maintain character but also to end on a punchline and make sure things don’t get sappy (because, despite what many might assume, Sesame Street was always very subversive and rarely used sentimentality without undercutting it shortly afterwards), the end that occurs is practically required. Ernie can’t really change. But even just the fact that he tried to empathize with Bert for a short time demonstrates progress and, for that fleeting moment, he does mean what he says. He does feel bad for his behavior and doesn’t want to upset Bert again, the irony of course being that he doesn’t even realize that his subsquent declaration to Bert instantly breaks his commitment. But this is also very in keeping with how a child’s mind works as well. Wanting to behave more thoughtfully is the first step to doing so.


And I also have to mention the throwaway gag at the very beginning in which Bert is exercising before bed, does two push-ups and then says, “That should be enough,” because it is perfect.

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