The sexual orientation of two puppets has long been the subject of curiosity. And now a longtime “Sesame Street” writer has added more reason for speculation.
“I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them,” he told Queerty in an interview published Sunday.
Sesame Workshop, which produces “Sesame Street,” has long tried to shut down speculation about the characters’ sexuality.
“As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends,” the company said in a statement Tuesday. “They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
That statement is almost the exact same one the workshop released in response to a 2011 online petition asking the show to marry the characters.
On Tuesday evening, Sesame Workshop put out an additional statement, adding: “Sesame Street has always stood for inclusion and acceptance. It’s a place where people of all cultures and backgrounds are welcome.”
The back and forth prompted a broader conversation around representation, particularly for a television program that has been at the forefront of introducing diverse characters, like the recent addition of a Muppet with autism, and difficult topics, such as HIV.
After his interview to Queerty blew up on social media and was picked up by other news outlets, Saltzman told the New York Times his comments were misrepresented.
“As a writer, you just bring what you know into your work,” he told the newspaper. “Somehow, in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay. There is a difference.”
According to the Times, Saltzman — among a group of writers who contributed scripts to the show — said he did not restrict Bert and Ernie to one or any sexual orientation.
Though the show has insisted Bert and Ernie do not have a sexual orientation, that has not stopped pop culture from playing off the speculation about the nature of their relationship.
The musical “Avenue Q” spoofs Bert and Ernie as Rod (who is gay) and Nicky (who is straight). In 2013, Bert and Ernie were depicted cuddling on a couch and watching the Supreme Court on TV on a 2013 New Yorker cover about the landmark decision that struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act.
The cover’s artist, Jack Hunter, originally submitted the image on Tumblr. “It’s amazing to witness how attitudes on gay rights have evolved in my lifetime,” Hunter told the New Yorker. “This is great for our kids, a moment we can all celebrate.”
Saltzman said in the interview with Queerty that “the New Yorker cover was kind of vindication.” He also saw Bert and Ernie as analogues for his relationship with his partner, film editor Arnold Glassman, saying “more than one person referred to Arnie and I as ‘Bert and Ernie.’ ”
He continued: “That’s what I had in my life, a Bert and Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not? I will say that I would never have said to the head writer, ‘Oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.’ ”
Bert and Ernie were among the first Muppets on “Sesame Street,” appearing in the show’s 1969 test episodes. Michael Davis writes in “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street” about the first time Bert and Ernie were picked up by creator Jim Henson and famed puppeteer Frank Oz.
According to Davis, “Muppets most often evolve in an organic way,” and it can take more than a year to figure out their personalities and the right actor to play them. But during one rehearsal in 1969, it became quite clear what personalities Bert and Ernie would have.
“Gradually a relationship emerged which reflected the real-life Jim-Frank relationship,” Davis quotes Jon Stone, writer and director on the show, as saying. “Jim was the instigator, the teaser, the cutup. Frank was the conservative, careful victim. But essential to the rapport was the affection and respect which these two men held for each other. Ernie and Bert were best friends; so it was with Jim and Frank.”
Oz tweeted Tuesday about Saltzman’s comments to Queerty and said “it’s fine that he feels they are” gay. “They’re not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter?”
It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert & Ernie are gay. It's fine that he feels they are. They're not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There's much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.— Frank Oz (@TheFrankOzJam) September 18, 2018
This post, originally published Sept. 18, has been updated.