HOW TO GET TO SESAME STREET
If I had to name one major influence in my life as a model for the type of entertainment I strive to create, it would have to be Jim Henson. Most notably, I stand in awe of his amazing work on Sesame Street. They did everything from puppets to animation, parodies to heart-warming specials, and if that weren’t enough, they created music that stuck in your head. What I admire most about Jim Henson is that he did it in a way that was accessible to both kids and parents. If you were a child born after the 70′s, then you were a child influenced by Sesame Street.
From day one, Sesame Street enlisted the talents of some of the top names in independent animation. Back in 1996, Linda Simensky, the current senior director of programming for PBS and former president of ASIFA-East, put together a two hour program to celebrate 25 years of animation made for Sesame Street. It was like watching Sesame Street in a whole new light because I never knew that the people behind the shorts were some of the most cutting edge independent animators of their time. Now that I know what I know, and can see them in retrospect, I have a greater appreciation for them. The works in the show included the Hubley Studios, Buzzco, Michael Sporn, Will Vinton, Dan Haskett, Bill Davis, Pixar, and Mo Willems. The one below is by Maurice Sendak.
I still hold onto my dream of someday joining the ranks of these esteemed artists by animating an interstitial for one of their upcoming seasons.
Much to my delight, when I took my first animation class back in college, my animation professor, Dan McLaughlin, showed us how to work the university’s giant Oxberry camera by demonstrating a pan with a 2-field cel and background from a short film he did for Sesame Street. Needless to say, I was totally in awe of this piece of artwork! You may remember the film. It was the one where the backgrounds were black and white and these kids were sitting on the steps outside their front door. Suddenly a man pushing a fruit cart starts yelling, “Fruit! Fresh fruit!” He walks on, the kids get some fruit, and the man continues on his way. It was also shown on the Spanish PBS show, Villa Allegre, with the man yelling, “Frutas! Fresca frutas!”
Fast forward a few years. I have my own show and I thought, “That would be awesome if I could recreate even a little bit of the fun and insane comedy that Jim Henson and his cohorts were able to do week after week.” (Not exactly in those words, but that was my intention.) Jim Henson had been such an influence on my life that I wanted to pay tribute to him somehow. The only question was, “How do you extrapolate the genius of Sesame Street and infuse it into a show about a twenty-something slacker/womanizer?”
The answer: you do your best.
Like Jim Henson, I always tried to make sure that Johnny wasn’t mean spirited. He was just ignorant and naive. Most of all, I tried to capture his silliness. If I had to describe the Muppets in word, it would have to be “silly.” Silly humor is what I always try and strive for. It always trumps rude and obnoxious for me.
In our first season, we were unable to come up with a proper send up of Sesame Street that would do it justice. It wasn’t until our fifth season that one of our writers, Craig Lewis, came up with the idea for the episode, “Hunk At The End Of This Cartoon” which was a parody of “The Monster At The End Of This Book.”
I thought it was the perfect Muppet piece to translate into Johnny’s world. Craig kept it silly and ridiculous, just the way the book was. So we did our best.
Now. There’s probably someone in Birmingham, Alabama thinking, “That’s great and all, but wasn’t the title of this post, ‘How to get to Sesame Street?’ You didn’t really tell us how to get to Sesame Street.”
I’m getting there.
When I was a kid, I never really grasped the concept that Sesame Street was on a soundstage. During the opening credits, they showed all these kids wandering the streets of New York City with it’s gravel streets and tall buildings, until the final shot where they got to Sesame Street and the roads and sidewalks suddenly lost all their grit. And it wasn’t as sunny and bright as the park they just showed. But it looked fun! And I always wondered, “Why is it so hard to find? Isn’t it on a map or something?”
Back in 1998, my wife and I decided to plan a trip to New York City. Knowing how much I loved the Muppets, my agent arranged for us to visit Sesame Street. What I thought was going to be a quick ushering through the soundstage by a tour guide, turned out to be a dream come true. They were actually filming an episode when we arrived on the set! As long as we kept out of the way of the cameras, we got to wander the street and explore everywhere from Mr. Hooper’s Store to Big Bird’s nest. We even got to visit Elmo’s World!
The most surreal moment of the day was meeting Caroll Spinney, the Muppeteer behind Oscar The Grouch and Big Bird. The crazy thing was, I didn’t know how I was supposed to react when I came face to face with a Muppet. When it was my turn to take a picture with Carroll, he held Oscar up to my face and said, “Hi. What do you do?” I froze. I wanted to tell him what I did, but I also wanted to tell him how much he’d touched my life and how the show helped shape my world view of imagination and creativity. I wanted to tell him all kinds of things. But in the moment, I couldn’t figure out if I should talk to Oscar or Carroll. I completely blanked. I was so flustered that the only thing that came out of my mouth was a giggle.
I giggled like a little boy when I shook his hand while my wife took a picture of us. I remember thinking, “Boy, Oscar has a manly grip for a grouch.” After the flash went off on my camera, Caroll made Oscar blink as though the flash somehow affected his eyesight. I don’t even remember if I said anything to him (I hope I didn’t come across rude) but I had my moment. Sadly, the moment quickly passed and another person came up to him to take their turn to meet him. Or them. Honestly, I felt as though Oscar and Carroll were two separate entities.
Everybody we met on the set that day was so nice. I could have stayed there all day. In fact, one of the crew said, “If you stick around, we’re gonna be filming with Sully in about an hour so you can see how Oscar gets around.” But we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. We watched them film a scene with Susan and Oscar, took a few more pictures, and ended up staying for about two hours before we took the subway to see the rest of the city.
So if you ever find an “in” or can get a job working for the Sesame Workshop, I highly recommend a visit to “the street.” And be prepared to address a Muppet.Read More