It goes without saying that, lately, we’ve been preoccupied with what we’ve lost.
The immediate reaction is sadness and anger, but lingering behind that is a wistfulness, especially if you broaden things from the personal to the universal; when you think about what we’ve lost as a culture.
Alex Trebek, Regis Philbin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Lewis, and, just this last week, Larry King, Hank Aaron, Cicely Tyson, and Cloris Leachman. Different pop-culture projects have brought renewed focus to the deaths and legacies of Fred Rogers, Robin Williams, and Whitney Houston. These are people who have been icons across generations.
When Trebek died, it stung so deep because it reminded us how few institutions like him there are left. He was a titan of industry to whom people had an intimate, emotional relationship with across their entire lives, just as their parents and, in some cases, grandparents or children did. In a fractured cultural landscape, it’s no longer possible for something that beautifully resonant to exist—a cultural connective tissue between us.
That is all to say, it couldn’t be more reassuring at this moment in time to take a visit to Sesame Street, and learn about the infrastructure that was put in the place from the moment the show was conceived over 50 years ago to ensure its product would outlast changing times, and even its creators—whether those involved knew it or not.
The new documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street premiered Saturday at the Sundance Festival, ahead of its airing later this year on HBO.
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo and inspired by Michael Davis’ bestselling book, it centers on the first two decades of the show’s rise, from its inception as a renegade disruptor, to ideas about how to talk to and educate kids, to its bronzing on the cultural pedestal: a solidified institution in its own right, but one malleable enough to remain as relevant 20, 30, 40, and, now, over 50 years after its debut.
Watching Street Gang is an emotional experience for many of the reasons mentioned above. It’s rare to have an opportunity to pause and reflect on the ways in which something formative like Sesame Street shaped who you are and the way you see the world; how it bonded you to friends, family, and, maybe most importantly, outsiders; and how much your relationship to the show’s characters and the lessons you learned meant to you, even if you had no idea the ties ran that deep.
The inherent fascination behind a documentary like this is learning what went into creating something so profound and lasting: what the creators went through to get the thing on-air in the first place, and the toll it took on them to get keep it sharp, entertaining, and in conversation with the evolving needs and curiosities of children as the years went on.
Over 20 original cast and creators are interviewed for Street Gang, which is abundant with archival footage of the show’s early days and old news reels revealing how those behind the scenes reacted to its popularity and, in some cases, its controversy in real time.
You might know how to get to Sesame Street, but it’s a trip to find out how it got put on the map in the first place.
The creation of Sesame Street was a radical act, one born out of counter-culture, Vietnam War protests, and the civil rights movement. In the late-1960s, the revolution was televised, but so was the commercialization and—when it came to certain populations of kids—stagnation. One of the pivotal inspirations for Sesame Street, believe it or not, was beer commercials.
Street Gang introduces the viewer to the two people who, outside of Jim Henson, are most responsible for the identity and the mission that would define Sesame Street.
Joan Ganz Cooney was a media executive who had started working in public television, driven by the climate of dissent and social consciousness at the time. At a dinner party she threw, she was approached by Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist at the Carnegie Foundation who was focused on the socioeconomic gap in schools. He wondered if television, which kids at the time were starting to watch in record numbers, could be used to help close that gap. But, he says, “Academics weren’t interested in television. They didn’t have it in their homes. It was the boob tube.”
His musings were music to Cooney’s ears, who had made adjacent observations, but not that connection. “Every child in America was singing beer commercials,” she says in the documentary. “Now where did they learn beer commercials?” The answer, of course, was television. They were walking into supermarkets and identifying products after seeing commercials on TV. “Kids adored the medium, so why not see if it could educate them?”
She commissioned a feasibility study in 1966 called “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education,” finding that children between 3 and 5 watch television one half of their waking time. The only thing that exceeded it was sleep. If these kids are going to watch that much television, why not find out what it is that they like to watch, then what is good for them to watch, and put the two things together?
Her pitch won her an original $8 million budget, the bulk of it from the government’s Office of Education. That check alone had The New York Times predicting that she would be one of the most powerful women in television.
Off the bat, she built an unconventional staff. Not only did she hire writers and producers, but educators and child-development researchers, and teamed them together. That enterprise, which had never been done before, became known as the Children’s Television Workshop.
It was writer and the show’s original director Jon Stone, the other pivotal trailblazer at the focus of much of Street Gang, who suggested bringing Jim Henson into the workshop. At the time, Henson’s troop of puppeteers were a high-minded group of beatniks performing edgy late-night comedy sketches on variety shows, determined to prove that their shtick ranked above the children’s birthday party hacks that their art form was most associated with. But Cooney and Stone’s vision for this still-germinating new show intrigued him.
“Much of our work was sophisticated and had this black humor kind of quality,” Henson says in an old interview. “And a lot of our audience was really college-aged. So this would be the first time we ever worked for children. When I first heard about it from Jon, I loved the idea, the whole idea of taking commercial techniques and applying them to a show for kids.”
That word—”commercial”—became the cornerstone of Sesame Street’s pioneering brilliance. The show would treat the young audience the same way a commercial enterprise would if it was developing an ad campaign directed at them. As executive producer David Connell says, “We’re trying to sell the alphabet to preschool children.”
But there was more about its inception that represented a marked shift from how things were done in children’s television. Cooney was inspired by the civil rights movement and, especially after that first dinner-party conversation with Morrisett, wanted to ensure that her program speak specifically to—and entertain—inner-city children and children of color, the demographic so often left out of children’s television development and at an academic disadvantage when they reach school age.
It was commonplace at the time for a children’s show to be set in a cute treehouse or clubhouse, or a fanciful fairyland. Stone didn’t want that for his homebase. The lightbulb moment happened while watching a commercial for the Urban Coalition, which was filmed on location in Harlem.
“As soon as I saw it I knew exactly where we ought to be on this,” Stone says. “I wanted to capture that New York energy, because to the 3-year-olds cooped up in the room upstairs, the action is on the street.”
It’s rare that a nuts-and-bolts look behind the curtain is as fascinating as the one in Street Gang. Then again, of course it’s interesting. This is Sesame Street—that meticulous and accessible look at how the world works is baked into each episode.
You’ll be rapt as researchers discuss how they tested out the content to determine what balance of education and entertainment to keep, or as the comedy writers talk about being schooled themselves on the differences between concepts like counting and enumeration, so as to properly script an impactful scene featuring the Count.
You’ll be in awe, of course, at the puppeteers, but also marvel at the ways in which the show’s human performers broke boundaries when it came to diverse casting.
There’s in-depth discussion about the impact race had on the show and its legacy—and the unease certain markets had about that—as well as the darkness that could at times loom over creators of a show that had so much content to produce in each episode, and such a high bar and worthy mission to live up to each week.
You’ll revisit seminal moments, like the landmark episode in which, following the real-life death of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, Big Bird and the audience at home learn what death means and how to process it, and you will likely cry again like it was the first time you saw it.
All of this is to say that the more you learn about the fabric of the show that was so carefully and passionately woven by these creators in those early years, the less of a surprise it is that it has managed to remain essential and, in terms of viewership and merchandise revenue, blockbuster entertainment all these decades later.
There’s a portion of a chat between Cooney and Henson on the show’s 20th anniversary, one year before Henson’s tragically early death, that the documentary re-airs.
“What’s interesting about it from both of our viewpoints is that it’s a sort of form of immortality. Because if you think about it, Ernie will live forever,” Cooney says.
“Does this mean that I can stop doing Ernie?” Henson laughs in response. “No, it doesn’t,” Cooney says. “But it means that 200 years from now, people will be looking at Bert and Ernie and Kermit the Frog.”
In such a rapidly changing world, it’s remarkable—and perhaps more poignant than can be expressed—to have such certainty in her being absolutely correct in that prediction.