Sesame Street is not just a nice place, it might just be the nicest place on earth. And that’s even with that trashcan-dwelling, hater-ass exemplar of ill will and bad vibes, Oscar the Grouch. To paraphrase its theme song, Sesame Street is a magical place where the air is sweet and the neighbors happy, friendly and smiling but if you read enough Sesame Street books you’ll discover that Oscar does not have a monopoly on grouchiness, anger and being a dick. In literary — as well as television form — Sesame Street has seldom shied away from having its lovable kiddie icons behave like selfish, jealous assholes for the sake of teaching children valuable life lessons.
When the Sesame Street books expose the angry, petty side of our favorite monsters and outsized birds, this tends to follow a formula: a usually chill Muppet will become angry or jealous of someone who has something they want, usually in the form of attention, presents, validation or some combination of the three. They grow progressively angrier until they explode messily, either in the form of weeping (Sesame Street books are big on the waterworks) or verbal explosions of rage.
That’s the rough template of 1990’s Grover’s Bad Dream. This book turns Grover and Big Bird into the worst versions of themselves so that Grover can become so overcome with jealousy towards his eight-foot-tall friend that he dreams darkly about reducing his rival to a featherless freak.
The story follows cute, furry, lovable, heartbreaking old Grover as he gets progressively angrier at Big Bird hogging all the attention and validation at his birthday party.
Now Big Bird has been drawn countless ways by countless illustrators. But he has seldom sported an insufferable, shit-eating grin like the one he has in Grover’s Bad Dream.
It’s a look that says, “Haha! It’s all about me!” It’s rare to see this wholesome icon of children’s entertainment with an expression that so powerfully conveys, “Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, it’s my birthday!” or, more crudely, “Suck it, haters, it’s Bird’s day to shine!”
In both the Pin the Tail on the Donkey and the game of Life, Grover is a poor loser. But in this book at least Big Bird is a bad winner who can’t help but lord his birthday privileges over poor Grover. Grover breaks down and cries when he gets home and then has a bad dream that initially starts out very promisingly: He’s lapping up the attention of his peers when Big Bird rushes in to announce that he’s losing all of his beautiful yellow feathers, presumably because a wrathful Grover is willing his friend into a state of grotesque, featherless nakedness so that he won’t be able to compete with him socially ever again.
It is only at this point, well after Grover realizes the fate his subconscious has in store for his friend/rival/enemy that he comes to understand that despite his anger, he loves his friend, and does not want him to suffer ghoulish torments for the crime of enjoying his own birthday party.
Grover and Big Bird mix it up in another tense scenario filled with free-floating anger and assholery in 1986’s Why Are You So Mean to Me? when Grover, filled with sadness and frustration over an unrelated situation, explodes with anger at Big Bird upon looking at a less than professional painting he’d made of him, “That stinks! That does not look like me at all!”, causing Big Bird to cry and cry out the book’s title in despair and confusion. Things look tense but before these longtime friends resort to fisticuffs Grover breaks down and weeps (of course) and explains why he’s behaving uncharacteristically like such an angry, roided out douchebag.
These stories always end with reconciliation and friendship but go to some dark places beforehand. In 1987’s A Baby Sister for Herry, for example, Herry, a gruff-voiced nurturer monster in the body of a furry strongman is so angry and frustrated at his newborn baby sister soaking up all the attention without actually doing anything that he regresses, climbs into his younger sister’s playpen and begins to cry deep, deep tears of self-pity and regret. Herry is inconsolable until his mother explains that he used to be a baby as well and that eventually, Flossie will be something other than an unbeatable rival for their parent’s attention.
In 1982’s Nobody Cares About Me Big Bird envies the attention Ernie gets from all of his friends just for being sick. So Bird, full of jealousy and afflicted with a possible cause of Munchausen Disease, feigns illness so that his little-seen former sidekick Little Bird will lavish the kind of attention on him that his friends do on the legitimately sick Ernie. When Ernie, feeling better, comes by to ask Big Bird to play he leaps out of his nest, only to discover that he genuinely is sick. That’s undoubtedly God’s way of punishing Big Bird for lying to get people to feel sorry for him.
Speaking of Ernie, there’s always been something tender, poignant and weirdly adult about Bert and Ernie, puppet children who, despite what Frank Oz might say or like to believe, behave very much like an old gay married couple.
Bert and Ernie have a surprisingly healthy, stable, functional relationship considering that Bert exists in a state of perpetual agitation over Ernie’s monkeyshines and refusal to take life as seriously as Bert’s dry, joyless, grey mind insists it must. Ernie’s default expression is a barely suppressed giggle of joy. Bert’s is one of barely suppressed anger.
Bert and Ernie make it work despite the striking power imbalance at the core of their relationship but in It’s Not Fair Bert finally tires of taking Ernie’s shit and explodes in anger when the world lavishes praise on Ernie for things Bert actually did. A more appropriate title for It’s Not Fair would be Sick of Ernie’s Bullshit.
The book begins with Ernie having the bright idea to have a lemonade stand. Bert fulfills his side of the bargain by doing all of the work while Ernie alternately screws up by buying oranges instead of lemonade and takes a bath with Rubber Duckie while 100 percent of the sign and lemonade-making work occurs.
In a sadistic-seeming detail, we learn that while the post-bath Ernie “was sprinkling powder on himself”, “Most of it fell on the floor.” Jesus. The cheerful little idiot cannot even put on baby powder without making a huge mess. No wonder Bert must be tempted sometimes to want out of their domestic partnership.
Yet when the lemonade stand is a big success Ernie receives one hundred percent of the praise for zero percent of the work, causing his life partner to lash out in long-overdue rage.
When Ernie rages of Ernie’s role in the lemonade stand preparation, “It’s not fair! I did all the work. I always do all the work! Ernie makes a mess. Ernie makes mistakes but he has all the fun and everyone expects me to do everything!” he sounds unmistakably like a mother who feeds and clothes and chauffeurs and nurtures her children around the clock for a family and society that sees such unceasing labor as every mother’s solemn, unshakable duty, only to watch her husband be inundated with praise for showing up only mildly buzzed for one of his son’s little league games.
Bert sounds even more like an archetypal overwhelmed, under appreciated mother when he cries out in despair, “Nobody even says thank you!”
What parent can’t relate?
Cocky little bastard that he is, Ernie proposes setting up a permanent stand and calling it “Ernie’s Famous Lemonade” but when Bert gets mad and flies into a rage he apologizes for his obliviousness and gives Bert a dustpan and brush, a present that says, “I know, accept and have somehow even learned to love your mind-bleedingly boring personality.”
What more can you ask for?
These books stand out in my mind for their vivid moments of rage and overwhelming sadness but also for how true to life they feel, how authentically they reflect the way jealousy and selfishness and other ugly emotions permeate our lives even as adults.
When I read about Herry regressing in his baby sister’s crib or Grover seething with jealousy over everyone fussing over Big Bird on his birthday I am reminded of my own four year old son in his 8 month old brother’s crib, pretending to be a baby because, like Herry, he has witnessed the emotional devastation that ensues when parents who previously lavished all of their love and attention on you now have to share their love and time with a baby sibling that can’t do a whole lot but cry and sleep, or my four-year-old getting frustrated that he doesn’t get birthday presents at other people’s birthday parties.
The Sesame Street Muppets are seldom more relatable or more human than when they’re getting angry and behaving like dicks. That’s true for children. It’s true for their parents as well.