All the important things I learned in my childhood came from a few specific sources: Mr. Rogers taught me kindness and acceptance; the Berenstain Bears always had a practical lesson to dish out, whether about fiscal responsibility or how to create a tree fort; and for anything else I needed, “Sesame Street” was the perfect destination.
The Count gave me the lowdown on basic math, which helped me later on with multiplication and long division and also made vampires not seem so scary (although no, this doesn’t mean I’m Team Edward). Bert and Ernie showed the importance of cooperation, which benefits my roommate, who appreciates that I wash the dishes, take out the trash and share my 14 monthly magazine subscriptions. And I still fully support the Cookie Monster’s philosophy on baked goods, even though he now tells kids they’re “a sometimes food.” Childhood obesity is awful, but, hey — me want cookie.
“Sesame Street” had been on television for nearly 20 years when I made my own debut, but with the Tuesday, July 13 DVD release of “Sesame Street: 20 Years … and Still Counting!” ($10.99 on Amazon), a special about the show that was released in 1989, it’s easy to see why. Though the show is still on today, this is the “Sesame Street” people of my generation remember, with characters and cast members we recognize and adore. The show as depicted here is insightful and charming, educational in the most straightforward and comforting of ways.
The special, introduced by creator Jim Henson and narrated by Bill Cosby, describes how the show rose to prominence from 1969 to 1989, growing to be broadcast in more than 80 countries and translated into numerous languages. And you can’t help but shake your head at the as-yet-unrealized dream of Joan Ganz Cooney, the show’s first executive producer — “My dream is one day [Arab and Israeli children will] be at a negotiating table together … and one of them will say to another some line of Bert and Ernie’s … and peace will break out in the Middle East.”
And Cosby and Henson break down not only what defined the show — including its multicultural neighborhood, with families of various ethnic backgrounds like the black Robinsons and Latino Rodriguezes — but also what drove its evolution over the decades. Originally thought of as a way to educate inner-city children before they entered preschool, the show’s reach expanded into the suburbs and outside the U.S. border, making Sesame Street the “most famous street in America, maybe even the whole world,” according to Cosby.
As the years passed, the show changed with the times, morphing to be more in line with research about childhood education. When scientists showed kids needed to learn more about science, “Sesame Street” added geology to its curriculum; when the country’s immigration patterns indicated that knowing Spanish would be a major asset, the show began teaching conversational phrases. Whatever benefited children was worked into the show, all in an effort to try and educate current and future generations, Cosby and Henson explain during the special.
All this background is well and good, but the most touching part for the viewer is being able to reconnect with all the characters tasked with teaching us these concepts, like the 8-foot-2 canary Big Bird and polite, bashful Kermit the Frog, who charm children everywhere with their comfortable presence and ability to put anyone at ease. Whether Kermit is shown conducting interviews with people on the street about what draws them to the show, or Big Bird is frolicking, singing about his love of sleeping (“Naptimes are my favorite/I’m really at my best,” he explains in a montage), they’re familiar images that tug at something in your memory and something in your heart.
And so will scenes of Bert and Ernie in their apartment, the Count in his castle, Grover mugging for the camera, the Cookie Monster eating the letters of the word “Food” and Oscar the Grouch mocking Cosby with the insult “Ph.D.-head.” The sweater-wearing one replies only with a laugh — and for anyone nostalgic for their formative childhood years, “Sesame Street: 20 Years … and Still Counting!”, is just that easy to enjoy. Just make sure you have some cookies on hand. It’s what vintage Cookie Monster would want.
Written by Express contributer Roxana Hadadi
Photo courtesy Lions Gate Entertainment