Directed by Marilyn Agrelo | Based on a book by Michael Davis | 107 min | On Demand
This week I saw this Tweet from Amber Sparks (@ambernoelle):
“I think a thing that young people could not possibly understand about Gen X and older Millennials is that our entire personalities were shaped by watching shows that weren’t at all for us or even interesting to us just because they were on.”
This really resonated with me. As a kid I watched a lot of TV, and in the ’70s, there weren’t a lot of channels. We got a lot fewer ads than are now found on network television, but we watched a lot of sitcoms, a lot of news, and a lot of drama intended for adults. For many of us, TV was our babysitter.
But Sesame Street was actually *for* us. This doc tells the show’s history. It starting in November 1969, it was initially shown on 180 PBS stations in the United States and set in a racially integrated city community of people that just happened to include a whole bunch of Muppets.
We see the show’s origins in the mid-1960s, how TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney, one of the founders of Children’s Television Workshop, conceived the show and brought people like Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Caroll Spinney, and director Jon Stone on to help create it. Cooney did a lot of research to figure out how to best reach kids, from seminars with educators to actually inviting kids to watch some of the stuff they were doing, to see what they liked the most. It was the Muppets, of course.
The documentary is stuffed with behind the scenes materials, interviews with key personnel (including Roscoe Orman, who was the second Gordon, Emilio Delgado, who played Luis, and Sonia Manzano, who was Maria), and a lot of delightful moments from the show itself, including a thread of outtakes. That stuff is gold, especially as it helps illustrate puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s working relationship. Also a pleasure is seeing all the luminaries who visited and performed on the show, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, James Earl Jones, and Stevie Wonder, and hearing from Joe Raposo and Christopher Cerf, two of the on-staff talent who wrote many of the musical numbers on the show — like the immortal, “You Gotta Put Down The Duckie.”
Sesame Street proved television could be social valuable, that it could help educate and not just be a sales machine. Although I was once one of the fortunate children around the world who had time in front of this wonderful program, I doubt a previous relationship is necessary to appreciate this revealing portrait of a cultural institution that changed the world.