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Walking down Sesame Street

The Muppets of Sesame Street

LIKE most adults, I wouldn’t have realised that Sesame Street turned 40 on 10 Nov 2009 if not for the series of adorable Google doodles. After all, most adults would have stopped watching the show, which targets young children, a long time ago.

But, a steady dose of Google logos featuring different Muppets for seven straight days sent me down memory lane. Reminiscing on those kiddie days brought back memories of how I learnt some English words through the TV show’s incredibly chirpy songs. I also recalled how I thought there was no way Big Bird could fly with that huge derrière.

It turned out I was not the only one who went down memory lane as a result of Google’s prodding.

Sesame Street is among the top search topics

Popular search topic

Throughout October, Sesame Street was nowhere among the top ten popular search topics on Google. However, it quickly rose to fourth place by 10 Nov. Google Insights for Search data on 10 Nov indicates that the rise began at about the time Sesame Street Muppets began to adorn the search engine’s logo six days earlier.

From 4 to 10 Nov, Google’s logo featured a different Muppet for different locations. Internet users in Malaysia got the Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Count von Count, Oscar the Grouch and Elmo. The Sesame Street main ensemble of Muppets graced the logo worldwide on the day of the 40th anniversary.

cookie monster eating google logo made of cookies
Cookie Monster featured in Google’s logo

In the past, we would have no clue what Muppets other children elsewhere in the world were familiar with. Today, thanks to the internet and, yes, Google’s Sesame Street doodles, we get a glimpse of the different Muppets who are popular in other countries and the roles they are designed to play.

True to Sesame Street‘s traditions, other than promoting reading, writing and counting skills through cheerful songs and games, most of the Muppets and productions also encourage healthy lifestyles, openness to diversity, and respect for differences.

Big Blue Marble

Boombah holding up Chamki

Google India featured Boombah and Chamki, characters created for Galli Galli Sim Sim. The localised co-production of Sesame Street, which premiered in 2006, is supposed to reflect India’s religious and socioeconomic diversity. And so, we have Boombah, a lion who likes to eat vegetables and dance to Bhangra music. Five-year-old Chamki is a feisty girl with a flair for language and knows how to deftly deliver a karate chop.

Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation that developed Sesame Street and other children’s programmes like The Electric Company, hopes Chamki can be a role model. The organisation also hopes that Galli Galli Sim Sim can help raise the female literacy rate and encourage children to stay in school. India has long grappled with gender disparity in its youth literacy rates, it says on its website, citing the Unesco Institute for Statistics. The latest figures show that boys’ literacy rate was 87% in 2007 while girls’ only 77%.

Kami, world’s first HIV-positive Muppet
Google South Africa featured Kami, the world’s first HIV-positive Muppet on the localised co-production Takalani Sesame. The character of Kami, a five-year-old girl who tries to live positively despite her illness, was introduced in 2002 in an attempt to address the impact of HIV/AIDS on children in South Africa.”The process of conceptualising and building the golden yellow Muppet with a shock of ginger hair took five months — and deciding on her name took eight,” Sesame Workshop says. “The team was eager to select the right name for the Muppet, and after a lot of discussion, Yvonne Kgame, head of South African Broadcasting Co-operation Education TV, suggested the name ‘Kami,’ which is derived from the Setswana word ‘Kamogelo,’ meaning ‘acceptance’.”

Hall of Fame

The Sesame Street community has clearly grown a lot since co-founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett incorporated some of Jim Henson’s Muppets (like Kermit the Frog) to create an educational TV show for poor urban kids. The show went on air on public broadcast in the US on 10 Nov 1969. Today, it has 18 localised co-productions and is viewed in over 120 countries, including Malaysia.

Sesame Street: Season 4 highlights, includes appearances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michelle Obama,
Jason Mraz, Sarah Jessica Parker and Cameron Diaz, amongst other celebrity guests

The show has tried to stay hip and relevant by featuring celebrity guests and discussing timely topics like the environment. Andrea Bocelli lulled Elmo to sleep with Time to Say Goodnight while Sheryl Crow sang about the letter “I” soaking up the sun. US First Lady Michelle Obama kicked off the 40th season by planting a garden with Elmo and Big Bird, and talking about her vegetable patch in the White House. The new season also introduced a two-year curriculum themed “My World is Green and Growing” to teach kids to care about the environment.

Elmo waving hello
Elmo waving from Google’s logo
Over the years, the show has had it fair share of criticisms. Some questioned if its commercial TV techniques with lots of quick cuts, animation and humour, and its espousal of pop culture and celebrities, make for sound pedagogy. Right-wingers in the US were not amused with a 2007 episode which poked fun at Fox News. In the parody, Oscar played a reporter from Grouch News Network (GNN) who hugged the people he interviewed. An angry viewer complained that GNN’s coverage was not grouchy enough. “From now on, I am watching Pox News. Now there’s a trashy news show!” she said.

While adults who grew up on Sesame Street may be nostalgic, today’s kids could well be reminiscing on other shows 30 years from now. As this Newsweek article observes, the Muppets’ popularity could be eclipsed by SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer.

youtube screencap
Even Google-owned YouTube put up the spotlight on Sesame Street on 10 Nov

The article also notes how Sesame Street‘s idealistic efforts to foster friendly neighbours can be thwarted by politics. Co-produced with Israelis and Palestinians, the Middle East version showed Muppets from both sides coming out to play together. As the political conflict worsened, the show was eventually split into two separate versions in 2006.

One can say these are all part of the lessons the Muppets learnt over the past four decades. Still, Count von Count would no doubt have been proud to count all the way up to 40. Being one of the world’s longest running children’s educational TV show is no mean feat no matter the growing pains. favicon

Cindy Tham wonders what a Malaysian co-production of Sesame Street would be like.

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2 Responses to “Walking down Sesame Street”

  1. Obie1 says:

    Thanks for the Sesame Street recap.

    I watched Sesame Street for 15 years before my dad embarrassed me into stopping (he said: “After all these years, you’re still learning how to count?”)

    I remember fondly the songs such as “Capital I” and “The Lowercase n” and was happy to find them available to view on YouTube.

    The show has consistently proven itself to be able to reach out to children, even in the age of SpongeBob and Dora, and I have no doubt that it will go on for many more years to come. Yay for Sesame Street!

  2. Ida Bakar says:

    Dear Cindy Tham,

    Malaysian co-production of Sesame Street would be hard pressed NOT to resort to stereotyping of characters. Here are a few of them:

    Kenyalang: Local Big Bird trying to cope with the loss of habitat.

    Makan Monster: Cookies are a bit limited for our voracious appetities.

    Tada Permit: Local Oscar. Hard working local odd-job muppet who hides in bins when new characters come about.

    Mat and Jon: The local Ernie and Burt who are housemates as living in the same room might introduce a homosexual element.

    Biro: Not so lovely local Elmo. He/she would be a highly educational conduit for proper use of sentences and terms when filling in forms. Can be rather didactic.

    Gubra: Local Groover. Panics when those around him say or do something mildly controversial. His arms would flail about asking for retraction.

    Datuk NAO: Local version of Count von Count but struggles with figures and makes false accounting.

    Ketuk: A local police [officer] with a baton breaking up any gathering by the above.

    Any other ideas?

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