The winning result, “Green Eggs and Ham,” met the bet — with only one of its 50 words longer than five letters, to boot. Published in the summer of 1960, Seuss’s literary tract of gastro-aggression vs. intestinal fortitude became his best-selling book ever.
As Netflix launches its “Green Eggs and Ham,” expanding the 64-page book into a 13-episode animated series, a reader might wonder: Why does this story, which boils down to a conversational food fight, persist in popular culture?
In the story, as you’ll recall, the character Sam-I-Am is so enthused about his food that he wants others to enjoy his ham-and-eggs combo. He continually pesters a pal — in the Netflix series, a character called Guy-I-Am — to take a taste test. The friend refuses to try it in an array of rhyming scenarios (“in a box,” “with a fox”), until finally relenting.
“We’ve all been the guy who won’t eat green eggs and ham,” Jones says. “Maybe we don’t want to try something new — like a new experience or food or TV show — and are absolutely resolute in our thinking, convinced no one will ever change our minds, until of course someone does.
“And we’ve all been Sam-I-Am, excited about something — an experience, a food, a movie — and want someone else to love it as much as we do, following them to the ends of the earth trying to convince them to just watch ‘Mad Men,’ for gosh sakes,” Jones continues. “It’s totally relatable, no matter which side you’re on — and we’ve all been on both.”
On one hand, Geisel began creating children’s books in an era when reading primers like “Fun With Dick and Jane” were overly simplistic, as well as deadly dull. Geisel might have kept the vocabulary simple, but the late author liked to say that he wrote “for people,” not only children, and that he was fond of “subversive as hell” messaging.
Sometimes, that meant writing gleeful, color-saturated books that told overtly moralistic tales amid all the catchy rhymes. Geisel, who had worked as a political cartoonist during World War II, tackled social themes in such works as “The Lorax” (environmentalism) and “Yertle the Turtle” (fascism).
Yet the beloved “Green Eggs and Ham” has generally been placed on the tamer side of the Seuss shelf, with its warm general message that experience can alter belief and misperception.
As Netflix’s “Green Eggs and Ham,” from creator Jared Stern, spins true to the whole Seuss universe — featuring an all-star voice cast led by Keegan-Michael Key, Michael Douglas and Adam Devine — it keeps messaging in the realm of universal appeal, as it explores more deeply the personal histories of Guy and Sam. They go on a road trip, allowing the series to introduce a range of new characters and their stories, including bean counter Michellee (Diane Keaton) and her daughter (Ilana Glazer), a henhouse-guarding fox (Tracy Morgan) and a creature collector (Eddie Izzard).
Yet part of the cultural relevance of “Green Eggs and Ham” is how much can be read into its tale of motivational persuasion. “Green Eggs” has frequently been cited in the business world for Sam’s effective sales techniques, inspiring principles around his ability to stay persistent and confident and not take rejection personally.
And in 2013, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) read “Green Eggs and Ham” during his marathon speech in the Senate chamber to oppose President Obama’s health-care plan. (Some rumors of the book being banned at times have gone unfounded, but the fact that these “urban legends” have been spread as credible speaks to the enduring power of Seuss’s prose.)
Yet as Jones notes, “Green Eggs” is about seeing a debate from two sides, which manage to come together. That’s an especially intriguing message considering that the team behind the series includes executive producer Ellen DeGeneres, who last month defended socializing with former president George W. Bush at an NFL game.
“I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have,” DeGeneres said amid the firestorm. “We’re all different and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different.”
DeGeneres may let the series’ messaging speak for itself, but she did let Seuss’s work take another recent political twist. As Key promoted the Netflix series on her talk show, he read “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” — while impersonating Obama.
Proving yet again that Seuss is ever adaptable.