Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The letter of the day is 'G'. Number? 9.

The Little Ditchman is watching Sesame Street. We've been trying to teach her the sounds that all the letters make, and she just looks at us like we're crazy and loses interest, and sometimes she just brazenly says the opposite of what we're trying to get her to say. Oh, well. So we decided to try Sesame Street.

I don't think she's ever really seen a whole show, which may sound odd, but she's only three. (Although, she is an Elmo fan -what three-year-old isn't?) So I put it on this morning and she seems to like it; she's laying on the couch sideways, feet up on the armrest, finger in her mouth, staring at the screen. The classic child repose. When I just plain asked her if she liked it, she didn't turn to look at me. She just nodded her head, "Mm hm."

It's not her parents' Sesame Street. The intro today is all digital effects and muppets with legs, which will never strike the Little Ditchman as odd-looking the way it does me. Currently, Anderson Cooper of CNN is on, standing in a trash can, interviewing Oscar The Grouch with some questions about whether or not the letter 'G' is a grouchy-sounding letter. Oscar is not nearly as grouchy as he used to be, and I'm sure there's a reason for this -perhaps the denizens of the street finally got through to him. (That would be nice.) Also, Cookie Monster seems to eat fewer cookies and now has a similar fetish for fruits and vegetables. I'm going to avoid the temptation to be cynical about all this, and just state plainly that this is good for America and the world at large. Things are changing for the better! (Though Oscar was at one time chided for being grouchy, and as well he should have been.)

Amazingly, some of the same actors are on the show that were on when I was a kid. The show started around the year I was born (1970), so these people have been going in to work and conversing in slow, friendly tones with children and puppets for nearly forty years. (I hear most of corporate America nodding in agreement and sympathy, I know the feeling.) What must it be like to work on Sesame Street? I imagine it's a lot more fun than working at Disneyland. Disneyland is the same sterile, silent, over-sized characters all day long, all year long, trotted in and out by the Disney Secret Service for your pre-arranged, non-verbal greeting. Disneyland is a vacation destination, somewhere you go once a year on holiday. Sesame Street, by contrast, is home.

Sesame Street is ever a surprise and full of life. There are always new characters (kid-sized) and new faces, and the media format is all over the map. You never know what you're gonna get. Just a minute ago there was a big furry elephant stuck in a bathtub. Everyone was pitching in to help get it out. (They ended up using peanuts.)

Yet, somehow the show remains familiar day in and day out -even forty years later. Perhaps it's that streetside staircase. You know the one I'm talking about. I grew up in Southern California, and never saw a streetside staircase until I was 27, but they've always seemed friendly and inviting -a place where the big quandaries of life were resolved: kindness, death, using the potty. Where Disneyland is all escapist fantasy, Sesame Street is part of the real world. Mickey Mouse will gesticulate and wave at you, maybe give you a nice, silent, overstuffed hug and an autograph, but the denizens of Sesame Street will sit on that staircase with you and just hang.

And there is a carefully delineated crossover with some of the more irreverant muppets. (I just saw one of the chickens from The Muppet Show do a background cameo.) But having the characters talk with real kids -what a concept! Though I wasn't a big Street viewer when I was a kid, (I was more of an Electric Company guy) I always wondered how those kids got to be on the show, chatting with Grover and happily sounding out words, and I remember being somewhat jealous. But I never would have been picked for an appearance, I'm sure, because I was the kind of kid who would've just shyly stared down at the guy under the table with his arm in the felt.

A 1996 survey found that 95% of American preschoolers have watched the show by the time they were three years old. Sesame Street is an American original -like Coca-Cola and Levi's and, well, Disneyland. My generation knows not a world without it.

And sometimes it was just plain funny:

(It's 2009. No kid today knows what that thing is either.)