Her Bad Mother

Monday, August 14, 2006

Most Sensational, Inspirational, Celebrational...

Edited below: a question for the blog-addled, mainstream-media-deprived masses...

The Lovely Mrs. Davis has told me what to write about today, and so any complaints about further pre-emption of regularly scheduled HBM programming should be directed to her.

But it's such a worthy subject: Sesame Street kicks off its 37th season today! And to celebrate, I must wax nostalgic about my favorite childhood televisions programs... Which is easy, because, for me, there were really only two.

(This is, um, sort of a lie. I loved Zoom, and The Electric Company, and The Banana Splits, and Little House on the Prairie and - Canadians will get this - Mr. Dress-Up. But you wouldn't want this post to get out of hand, now, would you...?)

I loved Sesame Street. I loved Big Bird, and the Snufflupagus. I loved Ernie and Bert. I loved the Count. I loved Oscar the Grouch. I loved Cookie Monster. And, of course, I loved Grover. Sweet, friendly, lovable old Grover.

I wrote about Grover a while back. I wrote about how a Little Golden Book featuring Grover stands out for me as one the more important books of my childhood. This is part of what I said about that book, The Monster at the End of This Book:

Grover was familiar and safe and comforting (in a way that the Cookie Monster, for example, was not. I always suspected that the Cookie Monster could turn on a kid at any time, revert to his monster-ish, Mr-Muppet-Hyde dark side while in the grip of a bad cookie trip.) Grover did not seem a monster: he was a sweet old furry blue uncle, very possibly with bad breath, but certainly generous with the hugs.

The book gripped me with the revelatory reminder that he was, indeed, a monster. It also, of course, gripped me with its narrative suspense. I think that this book was a wonderful introduction, for a very young reader, to the thrill of the page, to the incomparable magic carpet ride - destination unknown or anticipated or delightfully feared - that is a good story. And it demonstrated amply that a good story can boil down to just a few simple, well-directed and well-constructed lines. It was all of these things. But it was mostly the thrill of being reminded that "
Grover's a monster I'm supposed to be afraid of monsters but I'm not afraid of Grover the monster" that kept me pestering my parents to sit down and read this book with me.

Roland Barthes argued that there is pleasure in narrative suspense - the "gradual unveiling" of a story - but that this pleasure is not the true pleasure of the text. The text of pleasure, he says, submits to and offers comfortable reading; the text of bliss, on the other hand, discomfits. It unsettles the reader's assumptions, "brings to a crisis his relation with language."

These words address the nature and character of the book, and of reading, but for me they also capture something of the magic of certain television programs and movies. They certainly, in my opinion, capture the magic of Sesame Street and its edgier cousin, The Muppet Show.

Sesame Street grabbed the attention and gripped the imagination of children (I'm using the past tense here because I have only my own childish experience of the Sesame Street of the late '70s to go on; I can't speak to the magic or lack thereof that attends Sesame Street in its 37th season). It grabbed attention and gripped imagination because it walked, steadily, perfectly, the childish tightrope between the expected and the unexpected. Animals that speak and monsters living in garbage cans do not surprise children. Giant talking birds who have giant fuzzy elephantine friends that may or may not be imaginary do surprise children, and delight them. As do monsters who love cookies and monsters who are a little bit shy and who like hugs and grown-ups who see and hear and love such monsters. Talking animals aren't surprising, monsters aren't surprising: it's the unexpected details (details that are at once fanastic and banal) that unsettle - thrillingly - childrens' assumptions and so provoke delight.

The Muppet Show, which still delights me, pushed the envelope of the unexpected - of 'unsettling (viewers) assumptions,' and of 'bringing to a crisis (their) relation with language' and image and narrative - to another level entirely. In the Muppet Show we see the same agglomeration of walking/talking/dancing/singing animals and monsters as we do on Sesame Street, but these are not the (mostly) child-like creatures of Sesame Street, and nor are their relationships defined by the simple junior politics of the schoolyard/neighborhood. The Muppet gang is a rag-tag band of ne'er-do-well performers and hangers-on and wannabes who strut and fret their full-grown-human-style neuroses and anxieties and issues and agendas upon a surrealistic stage before a largely disapproving crowd.

It's life, man.

When a sinister-looking monster lurks in the corner of the set while Gonzo's chickens disappear, we discover very quickly that, yes, as we should expect, the monster has eaten the chickens. And this is what we should expect - this is life. Bad things happen to good chickens. But this element of the Muppet Show packs the same whallop of surprise that comes with Sesame Street's unexpectedly sweet and playful and co-operative monsters: we don't expect Muppet monsters to be nasty (and, indeed, they're not - they're just hungry), we expect them to be like Grover, or, at worst, just grouchy like Oscar. In the world of Muppets, which is really only down the road a ways from Sesame Street, where frogs run theaters and pigs develop crushes on frogs and bears do stand-up comedy (badly) and a tripped-out band of puppets keeps a monster chained to a drum-set, we expect playfulness. We, who have learned to play and count and hug and be nice to other people even when they don't look like us (one of these kids is not like the other!) from the denizens of Sesame Street, expect harmless fun in Kermie and Piggy's playhouse.

But we discover there - and here is where we are brought 'into crisis,' blissfully, happily, with our relationship to story - that play evolves. We discover that play can become all the more exciting when fear and discomfort are re-introduced. It is lovely and heart-warming that Grover is a sweet monster who only wants hugs, and as children we are delighted by the surprise of his unexpectedly sweet monsterness. But as we grow a little, sweet monsters remain only that - sweet monsters - and the lesson of the sweet monster (don't judge a book by its cover, love friends for their hearts, not their appearance, etc. etc.) gets - dare I say it - stale. As does the thrill of cozying up to a monster. What the Muppets bring to the playground: the scary monster, who is hungry and who lacks impulse control but who is nonetheless ready to play. Sweetums brings excitement back to play by bringing danger back to play. And, he reminds us that the sweet lessons of Sesame Street (love your neighbor!) must always be tempered with caution (make certain that your neighbor does not want to eat you!). Or, in the case of Animal, beat you about the head with his drumsticks.

As an adult, I'm tempted to insist that The Muppet Show is really a show for adults. But I loved it as a child, and I can keenly recall loving the scarier monsters and the bad temper of Piggy and the recurring accidents and the borderline violence of puppets flinging, kicking and/or pummeling other puppets (and in some cases, real grown-up Guest Stars doing same.) It was a childish, surreal representation of the world of adults that allowed me laugh at that world while at the same time both yearning for it and dreading it.

It was genius. Still is.

The It's Not Easy Being Green Dancers had hoped to have completed choreography and rehearsal on their epic revision of Swan Lake, "Frog Lake," but, alas, the corps-des-tadpoles walked out (er, flopped out) after learning that the pointe-shoes would not be customized to accommodate their tails...

So, a question (and yes, this takes us away from Mrs. Davis' assignment): what childrens' programs, movies or books do you think are perhaps best appreciated by adults? And - what quote-unquote adult-oriented material - if any - is perhaps better appreciated by children? (Can you even think of any, other than movies made by SNL alum?)


Blogger Melissa said...

What a phenomenal post. I can't do it any justice, although I might try. I love the topic. In fact, I may link to yours if that is okay. I adore the Muppets and Sesame Street. In fact, they were all I watched as a small child. If I could get away with it, it would be all I'd let my girls watch.

2:05 PM  
Blogger kittenpie said...

Okay, I left the same comment somewhere else, but if you haven't seen the book Sesame Street Unpaved, you really need to find it. it's fascinating and fun - psychological profiles of the muppets, bios of the regular people, songs, and all kinds of great back sotry. Love it, and I wasn't even raised with TV.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

i cannot possibly put into words how excited i was to see you talking about "the monster at the end of this book." i LOVED that book as a kid! i hadn't thought of it in so long, and then, there it was, in your blog, this beautiful reminder of sitting in my mom's lap, feeling scared along with grover even though, deep down, i knew it would be okay. what lovely memories. thanks for that. :)

and thanks so much for your lovely words at my site. :)

2:10 PM  
Blogger Waya said...

Believe or not, we learned English from watching "Sesame Street" back in 1980. Back then, we only had like 3 channels and we couldn't understand the other 2, so Sesame was it.

I loved "Dr. Who" too.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the Muppet show as more for adults... however, I too LOVED it.

Sigh. I'm just smart I guess.

Just kidding. I just didn't get half the jokes. :)

2:18 PM  
Blogger gingajoy said...

How did I miss the post where you used Barthes to unveil the pleasure of grover's text? Man!

British kids thoughts on Sesame Street? "Why are they speaking spanish??? Why? Why???"

Muppet show. loved it, and still do. Especially Animal (that animal).

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh how i loved mr. dress up, the muppet show and fraggle rock! btw- elmo is being replaced as host of sesame street by a fairy looking girl that actually doesn't refer to herself in third person. about time if you ask me!

3:40 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

sesame street and i are the same age... which makes me older than the damn hills!!

i couldn't love grover anymore... but man, even as a child that snuffleupagus (sp?) chapped my hide.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Chicky Chicky Baby said...

The beauty of the Muppet Show is that kids find the sweet humor in it and adults see the tongue in cheek bawdiness, the wink/wink aren't we sly jokes. I loved it as a kid (not as much as Sesame Street but almost) but I enjoyed rewatching the old episodes as an adult. Even though I was watching the same show it was like watching it for the first time. Genius!

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do love the Muppet Show, even more so now as an adult. I remember when it debuted, my mother told me it included many of the same characters as Sesame Street, which gave me the misimpression that it would be JUST LIKE Sesame Street, only on primetime.

Despite my initial disappointment, I grew to really enjoy the show. Likewise, I look forward to purchasing THOSE DVDs (gotta add 'em to the wish list) and introducing the girls as well. Perhaps they'll appreciate the Muppet Show more than they appreciate Sesame Street.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

Anytime I need a laugh I watch the muppets on you tube- so many brilliant sketches. They both appeal to audiences of all ages.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

I didn't get the jokes, either, as a kid. But I recognized that there were jokes that I wasn't getting, and I loved that. I loved the idea that there was something subversive going on that I couldn't quite figure out.

Which is kind of my relationship to a lot of things, still...

6:44 PM  
Blogger motherbumper said...

Husband bought the Muppet DVD box set (all fuzzy just like Kermit) for us to enjoy before Bumper was born. Sure, Bumper will like it but it's really for us. I only discovered as a young adult working as a nanny for a family that Seaseme Street was laced with adult references. I laughed as I sat back and watched with the kids, Placido Flamingo live from the Nestapoliton seeing "Le Telephone" to Figaro (sp?). Perfection.

7:07 PM  
Blogger karengreeners said...

i am so there sistah. sesame street, the muppet show (my hubs makes so much fun of me for always knowing at least one vital statistic about any old school celebrity - whether they were on the muppet show, and if they were, what they sang), lhotp, the electric company, and of course, mr. dress up. ah, my childhood.

and 'bad things happen to good chickens?'
i must find reason to use that in conversation.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Lady M said...

I also loved how Sesame Street addressed real life scary things. Big Bird's nest got blown away in a hurricane and he was homeless (until friends took him in about 5 minutes later). Poor Mr. Hooper died. Snuffulufagus became visible to everyone, because they wanted children to know that people would believe them when they told the truth.

We can't wait for more Muppet Show DVDs to come out! Getting all the music rights cleared must be taking the lawyers forever.

12:49 AM  
Blogger Debbie said...

I preferred the muppets to sesame street when I was little. soooo much funnier and odd. er. odder. (?) and fraggle rock was fabulous (although only available on cable, so I rarely saw it. sad.)

I still have a fierce devotion to anything Peanuts/Charles Schulz, but esp. the holiday trilogy, and the one where they went to camp, and I own most of the Muppets episodes/the first movie (all the others were crap. crap, I say).

the newest star wars are def. kid fodder more than adult. 'course, one could probably argue that was Lucas' intention with all of the films, including the first three.

I'm old. and boring. sigh.

12:54 AM  
Blogger Tracie Nall said...

What an awesome post!! I have never heard Sesame Street and the Muppets adressed so wonderfully.

I would have to agree with you that the Muppet Show has always seemed more for adults, but just recently my daughter saw it for the first time and she really did love it.....she loves "The Monster at the End of This Book" too!!

2:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As for your question, I really think that a lot of abstract art is better appreciated by children. They seem to be able to just experience it and go with the eeling rather than spending a lot of time picking it apart and trying to figure out what it means. When I worked at an after-school program I had some art books and kids would look through it and say "that looks sad" or "that looks excited" even for things like Pollock that you might not expect kids to enjoy.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Sharon L. Holland said...

Children's show best enjoyed by adults: The Tick

Adult show best enjoyed by children: Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

6:36 AM  
Blogger ms blue said...

I recently had a wonderful conversation with my uncle about how children's movies are appealing to adults to get us to take our children to the theatre more often. He was disappointed that it wasn't that way when he had young children. At least they had the Muppets! I loved the Swedish Chef and Pigs in Space...

Today Grover is so worldly.

10:43 AM  
Blogger L. said...

I`m feeling old.

I watched the debut episode of Sesame Street.

And sadly, my own kids didn`t warm to Sesame Street much. We lived in Japan for much of their childhoods, and they preferred Japanese shows. When I started my "English only" TV policy, they were old enough to watch Cartoon Network (and the litle guy watches whatever the older two watch). But at least they like Muppet Show videos.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Sandra said...

I'll be honest ... the only thing I liked about Sesame Street as a child was Grover, sweet Grover. And Snufalufagus (sp??).

But the Muppets! Hail to the muppets. Loved them for all the reasons you so eloquently pointed out and more.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Lori said...

As a kid, I loved Looney Tunes. All of 'em. Mostly for the physical aspect of the cartoons.

Now that I'm an adult, there are so many subtleties of Bugs Bunny & Co. that I can appreciate. So many historical and political references that I just never got when I was a kid.

Great post!

1:12 PM  
Blogger Blog said...

the muppets totally rock...and the fraggles...and the smurfs....Bring the Smurfs back!!!!

12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay... So I'm a little slow in my blog reading this week and just read this. I saw the title. And the title alone just kept going through my head over and over and over again until I busted out with "THIS IS WHAT WE CALL THE MUPPET SHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW!!!" and managed - again - to look like an idiot. My coworkers thank you for their moment of levity.

7:05 PM  
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