Frank Oz, the creator of the Sesame Street character Bert, has politely charged into the gay muppet controversy surrounding Bert and Ernie, albeit with a mixed message. Oz doesn’t think Bert is gay. At all. But he’s cool with the idea that people might think that. He understands why people might think that. Oz says these people are wrong, but that it’s fine they’re wrong. For people unfamiliar with Oz, who is a national treasure, this might sound supremely odd. But it’s actually consistent with how the creative team behind the muppets thinks and why they’re so successful.
Late on Tuesday, after news broke that Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman consciously wrote Bert and Ernie as a gay couple; one of the original muppeteers, Frank Oz, tweeted his opinions on the whole kerfuffle. Basically, he thinks that defining them one way or another belittles their power as friends to children. “There’s much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness,” Oz said. If that statement came from a politician, he or she might rightly be accused of dissembling. Oz wasn’t. He was asserting that muppets are people, which is a fairly wild claim, and that labels shouldn’t define people — especially in the context of those peoples’ interactions with children.
This is all pretty par for the course for Oz, who has elaborate backstories for his characters, including Miss Piggy, that are very adult and not at all muppet canon. He understands, as Henson did, that the muppets need to be defined by their emotions, their presence, and how they make the audience feel. It’s an ego-free approach to entertainment.
Still, because Oz is straight, his statement perhaps didn’t consider the default prejudice people who aren’t straight face every day. In fact, several Twitter users directly called him out on this fact. And here’s where the story takes a turn that would be really unusual if this wasn’t Frank Oz: The famous straight white guy listened. For several hours, as several detractors of Oz’s statement tweeted at him directly, he calmly, and rationally asked them more questions, apologizing where appropriate. It was fascinating to watch. Oz’s interactions with the people who disagree with him are civil. He’s open-minded. It’s crazy.
It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert & Ernie are gay. It's fine that he feels they are. They're not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There's much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.
— Frank Oz (@TheFrankOzJam) September 18, 2018
After many, many Twitter interactions, Oz came to the conclusion that his statement may have been a little hasty and, tweeting early Wednesday morning that “Although it doesn’t matter to me if someone is gay or viewed as gay, I learned it does matter to a great many people who feel they are not represented enough.” He added that all the interactions were “worth it for me to just learn that.”
Oz is not changing his mind about the orientations of Bert and Ernie, who aren’t straight either by the way, but he’s clearly cool with other people feeling differently than him. This kind of wise pluralism could only come from the guy who play Yoda, the Jedi Master.
But I did learn something from @Logainne. Although it doesn't matter to me if someone is gay or viewed as gay, I learned it does matter to a great many people who feel they are not represented enough. The Tweet discussion was worth it for me to just learn that. https://t.co/148yb3BuUk
— Frank Oz (@TheFrankOzJam) September 19, 2018
It’s notable that Oz is pretty new to Twitter, relative to the avalanche of celebrities who respond to hot-take culture as a manner of reflex. Oz only joined the platform in 2017, right before the premiere of The Last Jedi (which, funnily enough, accidentally tipped Star Wars fans off to the fact Yoda had secretly returned). The point is, Oz clearly isn’t tweeting for the sake of it, nor is he embroiled in the maddening “rules” social media interactions. Instead, he’s just being honest. And in being honest, he managed to demonstrate one thing that doesn’t happen enough online: the ability to have an adult discussion.
Weirdly, the debate around Bert and Ernie’s sexuality is oddly mirrored in the last episode of the Showtime series Kidding. When Jim Carrey’s character Mr. Pickles wants to change the gender of an otter, he meets with resistance from the producers. That’s not exactly what happened here, but it is worth saying that the official statement from the Sesame Workshop about the gay Bert and Ernie thing reads a little draconian: “They remain puppets and do not have a sexuality.” That claim flies in the face of Oz’s suggestion that Bert and Ernie are more than puppets and less than easy to pin down.
Hopefully, this all means that future generations will think of Sesame Street as the hotbed for real social discussion and change. Because if the creator of Bert can go from dismissing the perceived gayness of two puppets to believing that he could be wrong or biased, then perhaps, the rest of the world can change, too. Debating about the relationships of puppets might seem frivolous, but considering Bert and Ernie will outlast most politicians in terms of social relevance, this debate says more about how an older generation communicates with a younger generation than anything it says about gay puppets. If there’s one thing Oz’s Twittering can teach anyone, it’s a lesson he imparted to the world as Yoda: be more patient.