Monday, January 05, 2009

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael David

I asked for a history of Sesame Street, so I was pleased to read a review for Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael David. Of course, I scoffed at the idea of the book being "complete." I knew that it would not tell as much as I wanted to know, and I was right. The word "complete" should be banned from book titles. Still it is a detailed and admiring account of the birth of an idea and nearly forty years of producing television for children.

About half of the book takes place before the show ever airs. David tells how Children's Television Workshop founder Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, and other education experts first conceived the program. The author also tells about the apprenticeship of several of the writers and producers with Captain Kangaroo and other shows. Of course, several chapters recount the education and rise of Jim Henson and his company of Muppeteers. With the struggles for funding and the debates over format, content, and venue, nearly three years elapsed between the idea and the premier of the most ambitious project in children's television ever.

I most enjoyed reading about the development of story lines, the development of Muppet characters, and the hiring of the actors. I now know that the characters Gordon, Susan, Bob, and Mr. Hooper were at first seen as hosts who would tie all the short films together, and that the humans were originally supposed to remain separated from the Muppets, so as not to confuse young children about reality. Tests at nursery schools, however, showed the original format rather lifeless, with the young viewers paying more interest when the Muppets were on screen. The revised format featured a mixed cast and an urban street set that allowed writers great latitude in their story telling.

While the author admires the show, he does not hesitate to reveal backstage drama and conflict. Some of the production team were always at odds with each other. One of the early actors sank under the troubles of bipolar disease. Several marriages suffered from the great around-the-clock demands of producing the show. Most of the originators died tragically. New management made unpopular changes (some of which were later reversed) to meet the Barney challenge.

Street Gang is a compelling overview that I read quickly. Having grown up in an area that had no public television, not seeing the first twenty years of the series, I still want more about the seasons, introduction of characters, story lines, and famous episodes. With this being the fortieth anniversary, there might be more books and television specials coming. I hope so.

So, who are your favorite Sesame Street Muppets? I think I have to go with Bert.

David, Michael. Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. Viking, 2008. ISBN 9780670019960


CW said...

I like Bert, too :) I recently read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he discusses the success of Sesame Street - I had no idea how great it has been in terms of children's learning!

Oh, and Happy New Year, Rick, and thanks for your blog.

Solvang Sherrie said...

I love Jim Henson and Sesame Street. But I have to say my favorite character on the show is Grover. I love grouchy softies :)

Sounds like a good book -- thanks for bringing it to our attention!

Anonymous said...

I have always loved Kermit the Frog...especially when he was a reporter for Sesame Street News. It was hilarious and my Mom still tells stories about how I would sit like a statue whenever Sesame Street was on. There's nothing like it!