Capital Notions

by Belle Waring on February 24, 2004

When I was a kid, I really liked Sesame Street, and now that I have a little girl, I still like it. Timothy Burke, for one, finds it a bit too cloyingly pro-social (he complained of this in a comments thread that I am too lazy to find here). One of my favorite animated bits as a child was one in which three plainly dressed workmen emerge from, clean, and retreat into a giant letter I, accompanied by the following song in a minor key: “We all live in a capital I/in the middle of the desert, in the center of the sky/and all day long we polish on the I/to make it clean and shiny so it brightens up the sky.” Imagine my surprise when I read Ulysses at 17 (yes, I was trying too hard; don’t worry, I re-read it later) and found the following passage:

(He points to the south, then to the east. A cake of new, clean soap arises, diffusing light and perfume.)

We’re a capital couple, Bloom and I;
He brightens the earth, I polish the sky

Those jokers at the Children’s Television Workshop. I have also always liked the look of it. Even when I lived in NYC in a terrible place between Amsterdam and Columbus on 109th — I recall holding the phone out the window for my brother to hear the small arms fire before I retreated into the tub — I was always tickled by the resemblance to Sesame Street. Only there were fewer muppets and more crack dealers.

Finally, they sometimes address the big issues. On a recent episode, Big Bird and Snuffleupagus were investigating whether various things (toasters, plants, small children) were alive or not. By the end, they had worked themselves around to some serious questions. Is the letter “A” alive? No. Is the Children’s Television Workshop alive? Indeterminate. Is the word “alive” alive? No, because it doesn’t grow or change. Take that, Platonism!



harry 02.24.04 at 2:14 pm

Michael Thompson has a fanastic paper on how hard it is to define ‘alive’ in the festschrift for Phillipa Foot that Warren Quinn and Rosalind Hursthouse edited. Maybe they read it.

I’ve been put off SS by a searing essay by Kay Hymowitz in Liberation’s Children. Her complaint is exactly the opposite of Timothy’s — it is steeped in commercial and popular culture, and trains kids for its consumption (mock commercials, short attention span etc). I find it very hard to watch now. But if I discovered that they read Michael Thompson I might be converted…


theCoach 02.24.04 at 2:30 pm

For a defintion that I think works for alive, I would go to something along the lines of:
the product of natural selection that reverses entropy within a boundary.


John Isbell 02.24.04 at 2:33 pm

Thank you for this beautiful essay. For years I have considered SS as clearly the best thing on TV, partly as a matter of principle. My favorites have to be Oscar’s garbage can and Count von Count counting peanut butter sandwiches. But Ernie asking Bert for a bedtime glass of water is hard to resist. And the opening song always haunted me: it should be so easy to get there! It’s right there on TV daily!
I heard SS finally caved and tied to McDonald’s. But I think modern parents have a greater grasp of how hard it is to escape commercialism than I do. My poor niece was raised by my communist brother-in-law and became as materialist as you could wish, after his tyranny. Breakfast cereal? Ha!


dsquared 02.24.04 at 2:37 pm

If I remember correctly, Tom Lehrer wrote the songs …


Rich Puchalsky 02.24.04 at 2:49 pm

What I think would be interesting, for slightly older kids in the U.S., would be to watch Children’s Television Workshop productions made in non-English-speaking countries and then translated back into English. CTW produces versions, written by local writers, that are supposed to be appropriate to the local scene; for instance, I’ve heard that the Russian one has some kind of tree spirit rather than Big Bird, and a discarded, wrecked car lying in the middle of the street. Presumably you could learn a lot about other cultures by seeing how the familiar Sesame Street is changed.


Russell Arben Fox 02.24.04 at 2:58 pm

Belle: I don’t think Sesame Street is nearly as cool as it used to be. Not too many years ago, Kermit, Ernie & Bert, Big Bird, et al, were navigating a safe but still strange world, where everybody loved each other and treated each other well (except Oscar, who was manipulative and cruel), yet still recognized the existential dread of happenstance: at any moment, something (a blackout, SuperGrover accidentally falling from the sky) could blow everyone’s well laid plans for the day completely to hell. When we’ve allowed our children to watch it lately, we find most of the inventive cartoons of old gone, the program ordered explicitly around a rigid pedagogical structure (10 minutes for Elmo’s World, 5 minutes for Journey to Ernie, etc., etc.), and the whole thing rathered tired. Not surprisingly, they don’t go for it. But I blame this on Children’t Television Workshop’s submission on ham-fisted education “experts,” not the project of educational, “pro-social” television itself.

Rich: the German Sesame Street, “Sesamstrasse,” actually is, or at least was, pretty darn great. Our oldest daughter ate it up when we lived there in 1999.


humeidayer 02.24.04 at 3:01 pm

Michael Thompson has a fanastic paper on how hard it is to define ‘alive’ in the festschrift for Phillipa Foot that Warren Quinn and Rosalind Hursthouse edited. Maybe they read it.

Next week on Sesame Street: Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela further investigate meaning of life with Big Bird. Lynne Rossetto Kasper follows up with tasty cornbread stuffing recipe. (“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize to all ornithophiles… Those responsible have been sacked.”)


ironsides99 02.24.04 at 3:46 pm

I loved, loved, loved, the ‘I-polishing’ song. Still do. If I had a kid, it would get a lot more play, but I have never been able to find it.
I’m no Joyce fan, but it’s neat to read about SS quoting him.


tps12 02.24.04 at 3:55 pm

Even when I lived in NYC in a terrible place between Amsterdam and Columbus on 109th

You’re kidding, that’s where my girlfriend lives. Remember the number?

Also a block away from where my car was broken into on two successive nights.


Timothy Burke 02.24.04 at 4:36 pm

Actually, weirdly enough, the old prosocial expert mafia always hated Sesame Street, seeing its fast pace and broken-up segmentation as a form of subtle preparation for commercial-laden television.

That’s nonsense, but I do agree with Russell that Sesame Street these days feels tired. It hasn’t figured out how to capitalize on the narrative-based learning structure of something like Blue’s Clues, and when it tries, as with “Journey to Ernie”, it comes off very poorly. There’s also mounting evidence that Sesame Street actually hasn’t had much of an impact pedagogically–that all it teaches is a kind of surface, rote fluency in letters and numbers, not the literate usage of letters or the mathematical utility of numbers. SS produced a generation of kids who could count to ten but who had no idea what counting to ten was for. That appears to be something that the situational, narrativized structure of Blue’s Clues does better, or at least the research suggests this. (If you want to see a PBS program that I really do think is pedagogically effective, as well as self-confident, on the model of early Sesame Street, watch “Between the Lions”, which I really like.)

Not that I’m terribly concerned about whether Sesame Street or anything else teaches well. That goes back to my lack of interest in aggressively proclaimed “educational” agendas for kidvid. The best thing about Sesame Street back in the day was always the characters, the stories, the situations–even the pedagogical bits I liked best were the narrativized ones, like the guy who keeps bringing out piles of pies, counting how many he has, and dropping them. (The pie counter has been exiled from the current show, from what I can see.) The less educational the show was, the more charming it could be.

The characters that I particularly love then and now are Oscar (whose screen time seems reduced of late) and Cookie Monster. Cookie Monster in particular if you listen to him says a huge number of very “adult” things: he’s the primary vehicle for winking at the adult audience. (He’s very prone, for example, to psychobabble of various kinds.) Elmo has kind of forced most of the monsters, including Oscar and Cookie Monster, off-stage; Ernie and Bert also largely subsist on old segments because of the (entirely funny) suggestion that burbled up into mass culture that they’re a gay couple, which led CTV to cut back on them a bit. (Ernie still gets a decent amount of play in new segments, but usually by himself or in relation to non-Bert characters.)


Jeremy Osner 02.24.04 at 4:43 pm

Hi Belle — I lived on that same block of 109th in 89 — small world. Sesame Street is no go at our place because Sylvia finds it scary. She liked it for a little while but then decided she didn’t like Count, then Oskar, and then the Heffalump. This dislike gradually metastasized to the show as a whole.


Scott Martens 02.24.04 at 4:46 pm

You do know that Sesame Street was explicitly intended to be an inner city environment? The whole concept behind the show was as a sort of televised Headstart programme for underprivileged urban kids whose parents couldn’t be relied on to get them into useful social programmes but who at least had TV in the house. The concept was that the show was fast paced enough to keep kids watching and educational enough to give them the basic literacy and numeracy that middle class kids were getting at home.

The environment was intended to be identifiable to young children in the ghetto. Cookie Monster is the local junkie. Oscar the Grouch is the irritable, slightly nuts homeless guy. Big Bird is the strange person in your building who has mental health problems and sees stuff that isn’t there (like Snuffleupagus). Bert and Ernie are the not-quite-closeted gay couple. Grover is the earnest young Elijah Muhammed look-alike with his bow-tie. And the real people on Sesame Street are all disproportionately “people of colour.”

These are the people in your neighbourhood.

I don’t know how widely this knowledge is spread. The CTW never puts it in those terms these days, but when Sesame Street came out they did interviews where they made their intentions plain. I’m not kidding. When I explain this to adults, grown-ups sometimes go into denial about it. To what degree Ernie and Bert were particularly intended to be gay is debateable, but the muppet cast of the show was intended to fit exactly that kind of role.

Sesame Street has seen better days. The show is being cancelled in Canada. Frankly – and I know how old this makes me sound – it’s been downhill since Mr Hooper died.

As for its educational goals, it’s been a spectacular failure. The reasons why are hard to determine. Literacy is up in the American underclass since the 60’s, and Sesame Street may be part of the reason why. The problem is that already privileged kids watch Sesame Street too, and took at least as much from it as underprivileged kids. So, the pre-school gap never did close.


Rv. Agnos 02.24.04 at 4:56 pm

Point of information to dsquared.

Tom Lehrer wrote songs for Electric Company, not Sesame Street.

Specifically, the “Silent E” song (“He can turn a Man, into a Mane, he can turn a Can into a Cane . . .”) and the “LY Song” (“Your in the public library, and you fall and scrape your knee, but the sign says Quiet Please so how to you cry? Silently, silently, Silent. L-Y.”


Russell Arben Fox 02.24.04 at 5:00 pm

Tim: You’re right–“Between the Lions” is wonderful. Caitlyn (our second) adores it. I disagree that Cookie Monster was/is the primary “adult” voice among the muppets; that had to be Kermit. I mean, for heaven’s sake, the frog had a real job, a fairly swinging pad (a couple of skits visited Kermit at home), and a constant slow burn going on regarding all his fellow muppets.

Scott: I think you have some urban legends mixed in there. (If Grover was your local got-his-act-together earnest cult kid, why on earth was he such a total clutz and doofus? Rather insulting, if you put it that way.) But basically, I think there was at least a certain amount of that kind of ideological patterning sensibility behind the creation of the case. I think your observation about Big Bird is interesting. Makes me even more poignant for the days before Mr. Snuffleupagus became just a normal, everday resident of the Street. (Oh, and yeah: I miss Mr. Hooper too. He was Jewish, by the way. The classic old Sesame Street Christmas special showed that.)


Mike 02.24.04 at 5:31 pm

I remind you of the song, ‘Monster in the Mirror:’

If your mirror has a monster in it, do not shout,
That kind of situation does not call for freaking out;
Just don’t do anything you would not see him do,
That monster in the mirror just might be you…

Yes, Sesame Street wasn’t/isn’t perfect. Name a single other entertainment entity that over a quarter century threw up occasional bits of disorienting depth with so much good humor and so little mean-spiritedness.


BP 02.24.04 at 5:54 pm

I grew up with SS too. One of the songs on it was ‘One way’, about a biker who couldn’t visit his girl because the sign said ‘One way’, and his girl lived in the other direction.

Recently I heard ‘Leader of the pack’ by the Shangri Las, and the moment of recognition was electrifying.

(Damn I’m getting old too).


bob mcmanus 02.24.04 at 6:01 pm

I am still trying to figure out what the heck Joyce meant in that quote (yes a Joyce reader, that has got to be out of the “Circe” section).
The soap, among other things, represents Bloom’s security in his marriage, kept in his back pocket as he flirts and fantasizes throughout the day.

So I can determine how subversive the SS writers may have been.


John Isbell 02.24.04 at 6:06 pm

OK, we’ve got this far and no-one’s mentioned “It’s not easy being green.” What a song.
I have a Sesame Street album, which is great if you’re tripping. Grover ends side one: “The record is OVER. Turn it OVER”, on endless loop. You really have to play it for a while. But no I Song, which I’ve never heard.
Also, Elmo sucks balls. Maybe not if you’re three. You can see I don’t have kids.


marlys 02.24.04 at 8:31 pm

I absolutely loved SS when I was a kid. I particularly remembered the pro-social indoctrination of the skits explaining and illustrating co-operation…


rea 02.24.04 at 9:05 pm

Of course, no discussion of Sesame Street would be complete without mentioning Bert’s unfortunate association with Osama bin Laden:


marlys 02.24.04 at 10:17 pm

check out cookie monster and Martha Stewart-love it.


bonkydog 02.24.04 at 11:19 pm

> Is the word “alive” alive?

No, because it has only one I.


Laura 02.25.04 at 12:41 am

What disturbs me most about SS these days are Maria’s face lifts. Stop with the Botox injections, Maria. A children’s entertainer really needs command of their facial muscles.

Raising my kids in the hood, I really appreciate a kid’s show that is set in our environment. The kids love the closing credits with the children jumping off the subway and dancing on the roof of an apartment building.

There is no question that SS used to be much more creative. We have a video, Ernie Counts or something like that, which shows clips of old episodes. One of my favorites has a Dylan-like folk singer singing, “How many elephants will fit in a room, before they fall through the floor. The answer my friend is… thump… one. One elephant falls through the floor.”


Belle Waring 02.25.04 at 3:43 am

Ooh, posting on Crooked Timber is so exciting! Look at all the comments! I haven’t kept up because I’ve been asleep here in Singapore. I agree with everyone that the quality of Sesame Street has gone down, and Journey to Ernie is lame. Still, my daughter actually likes Elmo’s world a lot. I think it’s just for *very* little kids.

Also, The Electric Company ruled, and there is a good cover of the theme song by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes you might want to check out sometime. The best ever Sesame Street song,besides the “I” song, is “Born to Add”, done a la Bruce Springsteen. I have it on LP. “They say adding one and one makes two/ makes us senseless, cruel, and bad/ but kids like you and me baby, we were born to add…”

Finally, I lived at 132 W. 109, in ’90-’92, at the time the last inhabited building on the south side of the street; all the rest of the brownstones were bricked up husks. I was coming over from eating with my aunt and uncle on the east side once, and picked up a cab in front of their doorman building on Park. When I told the cabbie, as we cruised over from Manhattan ave, “it’s up there, the first building with any lights”, he turned and laughed at me. I thought, great, my apartment is so crappy a NYC cabbie is laughing at me, that’s great. The neighborhood is much improved from those days, however.


Matt 02.25.04 at 7:59 am

I hear they cut the scene where Snuffy asks Big Bird if a fetus is alive, and Bird responds with a soliloquy about how, philosophical boundary issues and medical hair-splitting aside, Roe v. Wade has been such a cultural and legal landmark for so long that the answer must, out of deference to a productive realpolitik, be “no.”


Stefanie Murray 02.25.04 at 9:45 am

dsquared: In case you care, Joe Raposo actually wrote a good many of the original songs (as in the earliest songs) on SS. “Bein’ Green,” “C Is for Cookie,” etc. But he also wrote “Sing (Sing a Song),” so he had a lot to make up for.

Timothy Burke: Elmo has kind of forced most of the monsters, including Oscar and Cookie Monster, off-stage

A friend of mine took her daughter to see “Sesame Street Live” last year, and when I asked her how it was she burst into tears. When she could talk again, she said that having Elmo up front and Grover relegated upstage as a minor character brought home as nothing else had how old she was and how much things have changed.

Grover was her fave, and mine too, *because* of his klutziness and gameness and silliness. Though Bert would be a close second, purely for “Doin’ the Pigeon.”

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