Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Renata Adler vs. Sesame Street

One of the best things about having a New Yorker subscription is that you get access to all back issues of the New Yorker online - it's a veritable time capsule.

Since I was on a Sesame Street kick, I decided to see what the New Yorker had to say about Sesame Street when it was first introduced. The first New Yorker piece about the show is from June 3, 1972, three years into its eternal run, and is written by the yet-living Renata Adler. The name was familiar to me although I couldn't say anything about her so had to look her up in Wikipedia - her claim to fame is her essays.

But her essay about Sesame Street is written as if by an alien. The intense seriousness of her approach leads to some truly bizarre passages:
There is the Muppet, Ernie, neurotic, easily moved to tears, particularly by the letter "E" with which his name begins. A Muppet salesman, with a green face and blue nose, dressed in a shirt, tie, trousers, jacket, black hat, and trenchcoat, has repeatedly tried to sell Ernie the number 8. "Hang it on the wall," he suggests at the beginning of his sales pitch. "Next time you wanna know how many legs an octopus has... next time you wanna know how many reindeer Santa Claus has... next time you wanna know what time you eat your breakfast..." and, with each sinister and ingratiating phrase, he flashes the 8 inside his trenchcoat furtively toward Ernie. It costs a nickel. Ernie does not buy it. "Sesame Street's" attitudes toward consumerism are skeptical, except in the realm of learning.
This is what she was describing.

I don't know where she got the idea that Ernie was "neurotic" and cried easily. I don't remember ever seeing Ernie cry. And I'm not sure at what point she glimpsed the Muppet saleman's trousers.

Adler's writing style is even more odd-sounding when it comes to describing The Electric Company, which is also covered by the essay.
"The Electric Company" has a black hippie reading freak, called Easy Reader, who dotes on legible matchbook covers. It has a daily soap-opera parody, called "Love of Chair," in which almost nothing happens. "The boy," the sentence reads, the announcer says, the scene demonstrates, "is sitting on the chair." Or "The chair is sitting on the boy." Accompanied by conventional soap organ music, the announcer concludes, "For the answer to these and other questions (What number are you calling? And what ever happened to Naomi?), tune in tomorrow for 'Love of Chair.'" For some reason, this feature is extremely popular throughout the country. "The  Electric Company" is used in eighteen thousand schools. 
There is also an enlightening cooking lesson, given by "Julia Grownup," who once taught the "ill" syllable by producing a grilled dill pickle with chilled vanilla filling. Miss Grownup (played by an excellent moronic comedienne, Judy Graubart) produce her masterpiece when she demonstrated plurals...
Here is a "Love of Chair" segment.  


To get a real sense of how different this essay about Sesame Street is from one that might be written today, get a load of this:

A few weeks ago, in Jackson Mississippi, Big Bird conducted the seventy-five piece Jackson symphony orchestra. He lead an integrated audience of more than ten thousand children and their parents in a passionate recitation of the alphabet. He counted to ten. The audience, including a few retarded adults and spastics, clapped and counted with him. Big Bird kept addressing the regular orchestra conductor, whose name is Lewis Dalvit, as "Mr. Dingbat," recalling that other complicated political presence Archie Bunker. A Jackson policeman drove white, black, and Chicano members of the cast to the Jackson airport. The mayor had welcomed them when they came to town. Nation time. 
The Children's Television Workshop has seventeen full-time community organizers, working with local groups parents, teen-agers, teachers, anybody, throughout the country. The organizer for Appalachia, Paul Elkins, is based in Clinch Valley, beside the River Clinch, in St. Paul, Virginia, where the biggest local employer is the Clinchfield Coal Company. Mr. Elkins was once a school principal, but now he works for "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company." When the local people suspect the programs of Communism - because there are so many black people on them - Mr. Elkins, who was born and raised in Appalachia, reassures them, and changes the subject...
In case you missed that, a policeman in Jackson MS had to drive members of the Sesame Street and Electric Company cast to the airport. And there was suspicion that the shows were Communist.