By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009 12:00 AM
Imagine, for a moment, a world without "Sesame Street." Young children would become less proficient spellers, counters and performers of musical odes to rubber duckies. Pampers would be plain and void of images of Cookie Monster and Abby Cadabby. Elmo would cease to exist and, consequently, to be tickled.
Thankfully, this doomsday-for-children's-programming scenario stands little chance of becoming reality. As "Sesame Street" celebrates the big 4-0 today -- an anniversary commemorated with a whole lot of Google-doodle promotion and the release of the new DVD collection "Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days" ($29.93) -- Ernie, Bert and the rest of the gang have cemented their status as the most influential characters in American kiddie culture. Mickey Mouse might need an aggressive makeover from the folks at Disney. But Elmo and Grover? They're still doing just fine with their high voices and fuzzy, scrawny arms, thanks.
The "40 Years of Sunny Days" set is hardly the first collection of previously televised "Sesame Street" segments to make its way to the marketplace; countless "Elmo's World" DVDs -- not to mention two volumes of "Old School Sesame Street" that contained clips and a handful of complete episodes from the '70s -- have previously been issued. But this release is the first to provide a more complete look at the show, with footage that ranges from those early days in 1969 all the way to 2009.
Watching the evolution of pop culture on "Sesame Street" over those decades is perhaps this DVD's greatest, giddy joy. In the '70s, the attempts at currency and hipness translate into cameos from Henry "The Fonz" Winkler, C-3PO and R2D2 (who teach Big Bird to count), as well as at least one foray into funkiness courtesy of a Cookie Monster number entitled "Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco." (Trust me, it's kinda catchy).
The more recent clips bring appearances by Destiny's Child, Neil Patrick Harris and Feist, and an iPod commercial riff that celebrates the letter "D" with footage of a dancing, day-glo Big Bird. And yes, as you might expect, a few of these moments fall into the cringe-worthy category. Honestly, if you can manage not to squirm or cackle when the lead singer of the Spin Doctors sings a modified version of "Two Princes" to an indecisive Zoe ("Two princes ask you for a play date/Let's have some fun now!"), well, congratulations. Your ability to confront the early '90s is far stronger than mine.
But the real genius of "Sesame Street" has never come from its guest stars or musical numbers. It lies in the show's ability to talk to children on their level, without a hint of snark, condescension or dishonesty, something that never shone through more clearly than in 1983, when all the adults in the neighborhood told Big Bird that Mr. Hooper (cast regular Will Lee) had died. That moment -- along with other landmark gems, like puppeteer Kevin Clash's debut in the role of Elmo, or Kermit crooning about how tough it is "Bein' Green" -- are what make "Sunny Days" something special and, for the most part, something special that can be shared with the whole family.
As special as it is, though, this DVD could have been even better if more substantive extras had been included. Roughly 30 minutes' worth of "Behind the Street" featurettes give us all-too-brief glimpses of what goes on behind the scenes, including peeks at Jim Henson and Frank Oz rehearsing as Ernie and Bert, and the initial sketches for Abby Cadabby. Pop-up trivia tracks also provide interesting factoids about some of the characters and episodes, but again, not enough of them.
Like "Old School Sesame Street," what this set really needs is an in-depth documentary that examines the history and legacy of the show. With all the hoopla surrounding this 40th anniversary, you'd think now would be the perfect time for the folks at Sesame Workshop to put one together. But since we'll all probably be asking how to get to their street for at least another decade, maybe they're holding out for that even more significant 50th birthday. Until then, we have the many clips on this collection -- not to mention the sound of millions of tiny, toddler voices singing along with Elmo on a daily basis -- to remind us of the apparently eternal appeal of sunny days.