On TV: Secrets of Sesame Street | Essay | Chicago Reader

On TV: Secrets of Sesame Street 

Its popularity is largely due to its clever use of double encoding--its ability to serve two very different audiences with the same message.

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The Marxist critic Walter Benjamin once suggested that the era of mass communications would democratize culture by destroying the aura of unique works of art--as culture is mass-produced, so it is also made common, and therefore rendered more accessible to a wider public. With the benefit of decades of TV to learn from, Andy Warhol knew better: "Fame is when you market your aura," he once said, in a comment that illustrates the continuing reification involved in mass communications. Perhaps he was anticipating the techniques of Sesame Street Live--the extravaganza that passed through the Rosemont Horizon not too long ago. Celebrating the TV show's 20th anniversary, it consisted of 90 minutes of song, spectacle--and star presence. Let's face it, there's nothing Warhol could teach Jim Henson about marketing auras.

The thrill of Sesame Street's live shows is exactly the same as the rush of watching live rock shows. Kids and grown-ups alike are amazed to see Big Bird and Bert and Ernie and Cookie Monster standing right there in front of us. In the fur, as it were. Just like the rock stars who step off the tube to breathe the very same air as us, the Sesame Street puppets give the excitement of seeing media stars in person. Look, there's an enormous blue Cookie Monster suddenly emerging from the audience. Hey, isn't that Prairie Dawn skipping along the aisles? And yes, there's Bert being wheeled out onstage in his bath. ("Oh, how cute!" gasped a mom to my left.) When Bert patted the head of my three-year-old son, I was absolutely thrilled. What can I say? Is it really any different from reaching out to touch John Cougar Mellencamp's fingers?

The producers of the Sesame Street TV show no doubt attribute its success not just to Muppet power, but to its generous doses of liberal multiculturalism. The Street is a haven full of individuals from different ethnic groups earnestly respecting each other's dignity and engaging in heavily signaled bouts of CO-OP-ER-ATION.

Sesame Street is designed to entertain your children without boring you or making you feel guilty about parking them in front of the box while you scramble some eggs. You assume, correctly perhaps, that it won't scramble their brains while you're on nutrition patrol. Yet the popular success of Sesame Street is probably due as much to another feature: its clever use of double encoding--that is, the ability to serve two audiences simultaneously with the same message. In this case, the two audiences are kids and their parents, and Sesame Street's genius is its clever appeal to us grown-ups.

You knew that Sesame Street really had this down when it began producing skits aimed at yuppies--the brilliant Springsteen parody "Born to Add" and the marvelously hip Miami Mice sequences, for instance. At the live show the adults lapped it all up every bit as hungrily as my three-year-old did. All around me moms, dads, and grandparents displayed beaming childlike faces--just the kinds of expressions you see on the faces of teenagers in the front rows at a rock gig. "Hey, this is a blast," said the dad sitting behind me. "It's 8:30 and I'm not even tired yet!"

This appeal to parents is partly encoded across generations--the show is even seen by parents who watched as children and presumably get a kick out of seeing some of the old sequences. And it's certainly hard to resist the wit of some of the material, which puts a lot of prime-time writing to shame. Bert and Ernie might function for the kids as two lovable pals, but for us adults they are clearly Reason and Disorder embodied in a few bits of colored fabric. (At last year's live show, poor old Bert sang "Hip to Be Square" as a testament to his thoroughly down-to-earth view of life.) Bert and Ernie should go down in history with George and Gracie and Lucy and Ricky as one of the great TV double acts.

But Sesame Street also has a progressive agenda, one that assumes no division between learning and pleasure and that routinely parodies dull teaching. One of its finest TV segments features a young countercultural Muppet producing all kinds of colors and patterns on our TV screen with his imagination, while a pedantic teacher tries in vain to make him stick to the mundane task of copying simple shapes.

In Sesame Street Live, it is TV executives rather than teachers who are set up as the enemies of creative learning. The linking story of the show goes like this: Big Bird notices that little Elmo (yes, the pathetic, irritating one) is spending more time watching TV than learning the alphabet. Elmo prefers puppets to education. So Big Bird hatches a great idea: "We could teach the alphabet and all kinds of things in a TV show and have puppets and dancing and all kinds of things." Bert, ever pragmatic, agrees: "Then kids can watch TV and learn something at the same time." As if to prove the point, they teach us a song called "C Is for Cookie Monster."

At first, Oscar the Grouch is the only party pooper to denigrate the possibility that education and television might go together. But soon our gang of pedagogic puppets encounters a TV producer by the name of Tedious J. Molehill. Molehill's office is adorned with ratings charts and the like, and he promptly informs Big Bird and the gang that kids only want jokes and superheroes. In search of the latter, the Sesame Street crew produce the forlorn figure of Super Grover (this marvelous Superman parody is my personal favorite), to Molehill's incredulous line: "But where's his subsonic laser crossbow?"

Of course Molehill the hardheaded TV exec rejects the show; so Big Bird returns to Sesame Street, where the gang gets the idea of doing the show in its own neighborhood. "Do the show from just right here?" says Big Bird, proceeding to produce a wonderful moment of that famous double encoding: "It's so crazy, it just might work!" (My son wanted to know why I was laughing--that's the only drawback with double encoding. "Er, they made a joke, Jamie.") The characters finish singing their very own theme tune, with "ON AIR" flashing above them. Educational TV defeats the combined forces of Oscar the Grouch and the broadcasting establishment--or are they the same thing?

Sesame Street has certainly succeeded in fostering TV-can-teach propaganda in its audience. When Tedious J. Molehill said, "Kids just want to be entertained; they don't want to learn, they don't want to think," a little boy near me yelled out, "Yes we do!" And when Molehill went on, "They just want to watch little fuzzy guys rushing around and being cute," a young girl shouted passionately--"No!" It might have been an impressive display of the TV show's success, except that in the pantomime atmosphere of the live show, such statements were transparently required. Because, well, the appeal of the live show is the little fuzzy guys rushing around being cute.

Sesame Street may be an aid to basic literacy and numeracy, but what does this mean? By what right does it make its boasts about TV and learning? It is certainly not without its critics. In one of the more acute sections of his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman puts his finger on the problem: "Sesame Street encourages children to love school only if school is like Sesame Street. . . . [It] does not encourage them to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television." And so it is that teaching becomes, in Postman's words, "an amusing activity," a job that subordinates learning to entertaining. (Try pitching this argument in a classroom or lecture theater--the violence of the student opposition suggests there might be some truth in it.)

If Sesame Street, basing itself as it does on the notion of very short attention spans, teaches the recognition of letters and numbers at the expense of developing that attention span, and via a simplistic, unidirectional model of how we learn, then its blessings might be mixed. Worse than that, Sesame Street is clearly founded on the basic unit of currency in American culture--the TV commercial. In the recent NBC program celebrating the show's anniversary, host Bill Cosby was quite explicit about this: "Kids love commercials," he proclaimed (he should know). Ergo we should educate them through "commercials" and teach them that you can only learn through commercials? While we grown-ups eagerly lap up Sesame Street's latest TV parody, the irony is lost on our children, who only learn that the frenetic pace of TV culture constitutes the pulse of learning.

Does this mean that parents now have to worry about good old Sesame Street, as well as those racist, sexist, war-mongering imperialist swine? (You know who I mean--He-Man, She-Ra, the Thundercats, the Gobots, GI Joe, Captain Power, Transformers, Barbie, Superman, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, and--yes--Mickey Mouse, who was recently revealed to be a racist bigot in his earliest comic strip.) I don't think so. Sesame Street does need to be viewed critically, but Postman's arguments depend on the questionable assumption that the existing pedagogy in our education system is superior to TV.

And arguments about the effects of TV on literacy and education are more complex than they seem. As usual, it depends who's watching. One important critical line on Sesame Street concerns its cultural imperialism--foreign-language versions like Plaza Sesamo are now exported to 83 countries around the globe, and some analysts believe they carry American ideologies with them. But if you're a poor inner-city parent, there are worse things your kids could be doing than watching TV all day. In that context, Sesame Street might be a real boon. And those kids whose attention spans have outgrown the demands of a blipvert, and therefore Sesame Street-style learning, will no doubt find something else to do. You can't make kids watch TV. They move on, whether you like it or not--even if, in the video age, they only move on to the narrative pleasures of full-length cartoons and action movies.

So blanket condemnations and blank-check celebrations are equally inappropriate. You need to worry about kids' TV in general, or Sesame Street in particular, only if you think that TV has its antenna lodged directly in your child's soul. Most of the research, however, shows that parents continue to have special access to that particular hot line. What you tell your kids about TV is more important than anything TV tells them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Heather McAdams.

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