O in Sesame

While there may be no I in team, there is a me in Sesame Street, as in "Me want cookie!" And there are two Os in cookie. There is also an O in Elmo, the little red guy who, fair warning, starts talking in that voice of his right away if you visit the show's home page.

You might be surprised at what an O is worth these days, by the way, but I'll get back to that.

An oh, on the other hand, not the letter or the sound or the exclamation but oh-short-for-zero, is technically worth nothing — yet it's also worth quite a lot as a concept and a placeholder, as in "the big four-oh"... which is what Sesame turns this year. Uh-huh: On Nov. 10th, ladies and gentlemen, Sesame Street will be 40.

The show celebrated its anniversary in song on the Daytime Emmys telecast, where it was also presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by, and I swear that I just realized this as I type it, Sandra Oh. You can see the clip on Mark Evanier's blog, News from ME, which brings something worth linking to at least daily.

I got an incredibly warm feeling just hearing the refrain la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la..., even before consciously realizing that it was from the song "Sing". That was a reminder of both how primal music is and how important it's been to Sesame Street.

Album montage from the Muppet Wiki discography

I sat in pitch black one night earlier this summer trying to get my very newly two-year-old nephew to fall asleep to the strains of a barely audible Sesame Street album.

He just would not go down, but if I'd turned on the lights so that he could see (not just hear and feel) me or taken him out of the room so that he could see other people, well, Katie bar the door, as Dan Rather liked to say, and which incidentally I had to do after Ishmael made a run for it out of my lap and Uncle Brian realized he isn't as quick to uncross his legs and hobble on his knees across the floor as he once was.

The crack of dim light under the door represented excitement and freedom to Ishmael — not his real name; I'd just use his first initial, as I do with my nieces E and M, but that initial is I, so it would get confusing fast; thus I shall call him Ishmael — and it was the only source of light in the room. Not even streetlamps were shining in, as there were thick blue bedsheets over the windows so that Ishmael didn't wake up too much earlier than everybody else with the summer sunrises. My eyes adjusted ever so slightly, but it was danged dark in there.

While he stopped crying if I held him or sat with him on the couch or the floor, the moment I lowered Ishmael back into the Pack 'n' Play the wailing started up. I didn't want him active and we could hardly see one another anyway, so I focused on the CD his mother had left on, low, for a lullaby, and I sang to him, which generally kept his attention. But at some point the CD either stopped or skipped, I forget, so with Ishmael in one arm I headed over to start it up again; since the travel-size CD player and its speakers were black, however, I just made things worse, knocking them over, tangling the cords, and being totally unable to see the buttons let alone read their labels.

The album had classics like "ABC-DEF-GHI", whose formal title I've just learned from the unofficial but way comprehensive Muppet Wiki, as well as newer songs that I didn't recognize. We ended up stuck with a long version of "Elmo's Song" on repeat for a while, one in which other characters took the lead and turned it into "Snuffy's Song" and "Big Bird's Song"; its peppiness was not so conducive to sleep, though, so I had to fumble with the unseeable buttons once more. Since my sister will read this, I won't tell you how long it took for Ishmael to conk out, but I have an even shorter fuse with "Elmo's Song" than I used to.

The Sesame Street theme and scores of other musical moments from the show were written by the virtuoso staff songwriter Joe Raposo, also the musical director for most of the original Electric Company's run. I learned this, believe it or not, in college, although it's likely been reinforced by browsing through Sesame Street Unpaved, one of the most enjoyable items on my media bookshelf. Raposo, whose creations include "Sing" and Kermit's anthem "Bein' Green", might be as crucial a figure in Sesame history as Joan Ganz Cooney and Jim Henson; whatever he didn't write but you remember, including "Rubber Duckie" and "The People in Your Neighborhood", was likely the work of Jeff Moss.

Every generation of Sesame Street viewers has been treated to musical appearances from icons of the day. Some have performed their own signature songs, as when James Taylor actually sang "Up on the Roof" up on the roof; some have interpreted Sesame standards, i.e. Little Richard's rendition of "Rubber Duckie"; and some have contributed to spoofs of their hits, as when REM turned "Shiny Happy People" into "Furry Happy Monsters". Variety reported a couple of weeks back, at the end of an article about the show's Lifetime Achievement Emmy, that Jason Mraz will appear in Sesame's 40th season with a version of his insidiously catchy "I'm Yours" called "Outdoors". While channel-surfing or watching the show with my nieces I've also seen educational parodies done purely by Muppets, like The Beetles' "Letter B" and Billy Idle's "Rebel L".

There have been dozens upon dozens of Sesame Street albums, as the Muppet Wiki's Sesame discography shows. One lodged in my memory is Sesame Street Fever, a copy of which my cousins owned; its cover and disco remakes of familiar Sesame standbys are both hard to forget. Another memorable cover is the one to The Muppet Alphabet Album, but that could be because some time ago I found myself reading an essay that referenced the album and which finally brings this post full circle.

I don't recall what brought me to Bart Modern's Bowleg or how I ended up reading this particular piece, but the ruminations sparked by the Sesame song "Would You Like to Buy an O?" combine such favorite topics of mine as comic books, nostalgia, and having fun taking things too seriously. You may find the dryness of the essay hard to swallow, or like myself you may enjoy it as goofily earnest. To be honest, I think that he runs out of steam before actually answering the question of the value of an O in today's economy, but a lot of interesting points are raised along the way.

Whatever the cost, on the occasion of its Lifetime Achievement Award and impending anniversary, I would like to give Sesame Street a standing...

Muppets shown are trademarks of, and album art is copyright year of release, Sesame Workshop (formerly Children's Television Workshop).


Arben said...

Curse you, Blamken! That Muppet Wiki is a candyland to us pop-info junkies. Would you mind not linking to such good $#!%?

Arben said...

PS: Nice little story about Ishmael.

Denys Howard said...

WRT Ishmael, when I worked in day-care a trick I used was to tell the 5 and 6-year-olds "you don't have to go to sleep, but the little kids do, so I just want you to lay on your cot and keep quiet for them." This worked because there were 3 and 4-year-olds in the room, of course, but some variant might work for one kid in their own bedroom.

Blam said...

That's more likely to work on Ishmael's older sisters, who at almost 7 and 5 are now older than the kids I used to work with at summer camp. Yikes! Anyway, I do appreciate the thought, but honestly he'd just turned 2 and doesn't really grasp such reasoning yet, especially when he's overtired.