Sesame Street’s Head Writer On Why Every Parent Needs A Chicken Puppet
With a whip-sharp wit and a slightly manic disposition, Joey Mazzarino resembles a 70s New York City cabbie more than a guy who crawls into a big fuzzy red monster for a living. But since 1992, Mazzarino has been one of the most influential men in children’s media as the head writer on Sesame Street, interpreting the show’s skills and development-based curriculum into skits that will hold the attention of little kids. He gets plenty of practice at a home he proudly admits is full of puppets, along with the two daughters he and his wife adopted from Ethiopia.
We caught up with Mazzarino after Sesame Street wrapped production on its 45th season to talk about working on an iconic kid’s show, how being a dad influences his writing and turning the First Lady into a 5-year-old.
“There’s a magic that makes people feel like they’re 5. I feel like that talking to Big Bird all the time!”
You play Murray Monster on the show, whose main role is to interview kids. What has that taught you about communicating with kids in general?
Whenever we’re on a shoot and there’s a kid who’s younger, the producers might think we won’t get a lot out of them, but you never know until you try. Sometimes with the youngest or quietest kids, you can break that shell and the most amazing things come out. Even with older kids, when you put on a Muppet and get into that kid space with them and imagine with them, they’ll go back to being a little kid.
I remember I was talking to a girl once, she was probably 11, and before we started the interview with Murray she said, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone you’re the one who holds Murray.” She knew I was under there and after 5 minutes she was asking Murray if he’d come to her house for a play date. She just lost that knowledge that he wasn’t real. As a dad, I love getting into that space where I’m a kid with my kid, that place where you just imagine and have fun and don’t think about work.
You’ve said that even the most hardened adult can be broken down by a Sesame Street character.
It’s true! I remember this one lady when we were shooting in Brooklyn. She came out of her apartment and was annoyed to see all the trucks on her street. Clearly, Law And Order had been there one too many times. “What are you shooting?!” she shouted, waving her cigarette. When we told her it was Sesame Street she said, “Oh, stay as long as you want!”
There’s a magic that makes people feel like they’re 5. I feel like that talking to Big Bird all the time! I’ve been working on this for 20, 25 years and I’ll be lying on the floor next to Caroll and we’ll be talking about our lives. Then he says something in that voice and I’m just, “I love you Big Bird!” Mrs. Obama was the same way when she was here – she saw Roscoe, who plays Gordon, and said, “Oh Gordon! Can I give you a hug?” It’s universal; you’re instantly 5-years-old again.
Interesting that 5 is the mean average everyone reverts back to.
That’s how old I was when I loved Sesame Street more than anything in life.
A few years ago, you wrote the skit “I Love My Hair” because one of your daughters struggled with how her toys didn’t necessarily reflect a standard of beauty that she recognized in herself. What are some other things from your experiences as a father that you’ve brought into the show?
I wrote a script for this season, after I read this book with my daughter that pejoratively dismissed something for being brown. My daughter has brown skin, so I had to skip that part because I don’t want her thinking that’s ok. In the script, a little girl starts the Snazzy Society with Big Bird and Elmo and they read a book, Snazzy Jazzy And The Jazziest Toy, and in the book they dismiss a toy because it’s too brown. I named the girl after my daughter, Segi, and Segi thinks she can’t be snazzy because she’s brown. So, they sing a song about the color and how you should be proud of your skin color. That one meant a lot to me, because it’s about my own daughter and making her comfortable in her own skin.
The great thing about my kids is they give me ideas I’ve never had before. When my older daughter was 2, one of her first words was “shoe.” It was one of the first things she had that she realized other people had, too. “Shoes? Shoes!” – it was a big thing. So, I wrote a story where Abby gets her first shoes and she thinks they’re great. Everyone else has shoes, too, except for Telly. And then we had Neil Patrick Harris come in as the Shoe Fairy to give Telly shoes.
The skits in the current season spend a lot of time exploring self control, why it’s important and how kids can exercise it. How do you identify the developmental concepts that the show focuses on over the course of a season?
Thank goodness we have a research department, because they do a lot of the heavy lifting for us. One year, it’s something like STEM skills, and this year it’s executive function. And I can write the hell out of the letter “V,” but talking about STEM or executive function – that’s something I have to learn about and then learn how to teach a young child. The research department keeps up on what kids need in their lives, and those skills – learning to sit quietly and take your turn and listen to teachers and raise your hand – kids need that to succeed. It’s great that the show can change to cover that stuff, because if they just asked me, all I know is jokes about cheese.
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So, what do you know about the letter “V” that would surprise us?
I can name at least three parts of the body with the letter V, but I can’t tell you any of them … Veins. That’s all I’ll give you.
“Get yourself a puppet … Don’t be afraid to make something talk. Be a kid with your kids.
What’s one piece of advice you can give a father that you’ve learned working on Sesame Street?
“Get yourself a puppet. Just the other day we got this chicken puppet, Chicky Chicky Bach Bach. Chicky makes my daughters’ life fun. Don’t be afraid to get silly, to make something talk. Be a kid with your kids and get into their world.
Does being the head writer on the most iconic children’s show of all time put unreasonable expectations on you – do you feel pressure to be a Super Father?
No, because I am a Super Father. When you have problems with your babies, call me first. Don’t even ask your wife.
You’re pretty good at this interview stuff – all the answers right at your fingertips.
It’s all lies. I’m like Keyser Soze, I’m just looking around my desk, making stuff up.