Frank Oz Says Sesame Street Has Gone Downhill. Is He Right?

Sesame Street used to be like visual jazz for children. But what is it now?

Sesame Workshop

Frank Oz, the brilliant puppeteer behind such beloved staples of pop culture as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Grover, Bert and so many more, has recently thrown down a gauntlet. “Unfortunately ‘Sesame Street’ is only a shadow of what it was,” Oz said during SXSW this year. “They’re just aiming it to little kids. And I’m unhappy about that.” Is Frank Oz right? Is Sesame Street in the 21st century, not the pure and perfect bastion of children’s media it was in years past?

As someone who became unhealthily obsessed with Sesame Street following the birth of my first son four years ago, I have to reluctantly agree with Frank Oz. Sesame Street in its current incarnation is not bad by any estimation. It’s still an extraordinarily well-made children’s show but as Oz asserted, it’s overwhelmingly a show for children, and small children at that, and a shadow of what it once was. It’s still good but it used to be brilliant, transcendent, a goddamned work of art, the gold standard of children’s entertainment, one of American entertainment’s all-time greats.

I’ve been watching the many random early episodes of Sesame Street to be found on YouTube from throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s, and oughts with my ten month old son before he goes to daycare every morning and while each of these eras are markedly different (the disco era was a thing of beauty) one thing they all share is that they’re all clearly superior to the show in its current incarnation.

Part of this is attributable to changing times and the loss of performers like Jim Henson, Oz, or Kevin Clash, who made Elmo a cultural force before leaving the organization in the heat of a sex scandal. The chemistry between Jim Henson and Frank Oz was central to the show’s early greatness. It can never be replicated and the show suffered terribly, as did the rest of humanity, from Henson’s premature death in 1990.

But the show’s decline is also attributable to the changing rhythms and preoccupations of American life. When Sesame began in the late ’60s and ’70s, it was funky and free-form and trippy, about as close as popular children’s television could get to visual jazz. Since there wasn’t much in the way of competition, a parent could plop their child in front of the TV and then go out to smoke a joint and come back an hour later, confident that their child would be sufficiently entertained and educated by whatever random grooviness the show had to throw at them that day.

Sesame Street was on public television, which meant that there were no bummer commercials to ruin the show’s flow or vibe. In its golden years, Sesame Street followed its own internal dream logic, moved to its own funky, stoned rhythms, at a leisurely, unhurried, almost free-associative pace.

These days Sesame Street is paced and programmed to fit the microscopic attention spans of small children whose ability to concentrate has been destroyed by suckling at the glass teat of YouTube and iPhones and tablets and other screens filled with shiny imagery from the time they leave the womb. Elmo now even has an annoying iPhone sidekick for his “Elmo’s World” segment named Smartie who encourages children to use search engines to look up things they’re curious about.

In the 1970s, the hour-long public television Sesame Street seemingly had time and space for anything and everything. On its new home at HBO, the now half-hour show has evolved, or rather devolved, into something rigidly formatted and distressingly predictable, with only enough room or time for the tried and true, the already popular or a new segment that has obviously been focus-tested rigorously and put on television only after consulting all manner of experts, education, marketing and otherwise.

Sesame Street has become a show without surprises or spontaneity, where everything happens with soothing yet disappointing predictability. Sesame Street once felt like it took place on a funky, dirty, diverse New York city street. Now it takes place entirely on a sparkling city set devoid of dirt or grit or in the even shinier, even more, artificial world of green screen and CGI.

Julia, the show’s first character with autism, is a high-profile exception that illustrates the show is still capable of taking chances. But after her deftly handled and appropriately acclaimed introductory episode in 2017 the show seemed to struggle to find a way to organically implement her into its tightly-programmed, risk-averse structure. Julia seems to be coming into her own in the new season but she remains less of an active presence on the show than her popularity would suggest. Julia was part of Sesame Street’s Thanksgiving Day float last year and has her own postage stamp but the character has nevertheless struggled for airtime against more established Muppets.

On PBS, Sesame Street’s noble mission was to educate children and teach them morals, to create not just young people who know how to read and write but also how to be good people and good citizens and, for fuck’s sakes, to share every once in a goddamn while. HBO, on the other hand, is answerable only to its shareholders and the cruel Gods of commerce. Sure, Sesame Street on HBO still technically has the mandate to educate children and make the world a better place, and they’re still on public television as well as pay cable, but the more pressing directive is to generate publicity, ratings, merchandising revenue and drive new subscriptions.

When Sesame Street made the big move to HBO and cut a half hour it became a much shinier, slicker, more superficial beast but the show’s unmistakable decline cannot be laid entirely at the feet of changing times, changing homes and the loss of key puppeteers.

Elmo, the furry red menace himself, bears some share of the blame as well. I have a soft spot in my heart for the little guy but the explosive force of his runaway popularity single-handedly made the show skew younger and sappier. It’s certainly no coincidence that in the wake of Elmo’s runaway popularity the show introduced even younger-skewing baby characters like Alice Snuffleupagus and Curly Bear, who were so relentlessly adorable, all soft fur, big eyes and long, long eyelashes that they made Elmo look like Travis Bickle by comparison. With characters like Ernie, Grover and Big Bird, Sesame Street was always cute but there came a point where the cuteness became overwhelming, even pathological.

The ratings and the merchandising increasingly seemed to be dictating the content of the show instead of the other way around. Elmo helped the show attain giddy new heights of popularity but at a cost. Elmo is like the Fonz or Jimmie “J.J” Walker, a breakout star so hot and so popular that his massive fame played havoc with the delicate alchemy of the show he became the uncontested star of. Elmo isn’t quite the dominant figure he once was but Elmo’s sometimes cloying goodness remains at the core of the show, over-shadowing more complex, three-dimensional characters like Grover or Ernie.

Through the decades the strong elements of vaudeville, variety shows, head films, stoner animation and sketch comedy found in early to mid-Sesame Street have receded to the point of non-existence, leaving behind a well-written and performed kid’s show but a show pretty much just for children.

The introduction and roll out of Julia illustrate; the show is still capable of taking chances, albeit in a decidedly cautious manner. Even at its riskiest, Sesame Street is still pretty damn safe.

But, if you’re looking for spontaneity, surprises and freedom from Sesame Street, qualities the show once possessed in abundance, you’ll find them in this preeminent American institution’s glorious past and not in its distressingly tepid present and presumably even safer, even more intensely child-focussed future, in fuzzy, faded YouTube clips recorded on video and crudely transferred to streaming and not in high definition, super-shiny new episodes.