“She is doing what television would do if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people.” – Official Trailer
“Street Gang” is the story of many leaders contributing to the collective “workshop” leadership journey of bringing education, meaning and social justice to publicly-financed children’s television. This charming and nostalgic as well as ultimately enlightening documentary is a timely reminder of the convention-shattering creativity that can be born in equal measure with chaos during periods of intense societal uncertainty.
“Sesame Street,” which debuted in 1969, was a radical “experiment” even for its radical era. It was explicitly intended from the beginning to use federal dollars to help bridge a growing nationwide racial and socio-economic education divide. As “Sesame Street” co-founder and producer Joan Ganz Cooney put it, “We weren’t so worried about reaching middle-class children but we really, really wanted to reach inner-city kids badly. It was hardly worth doing if it didn’t reach them.” A recent Guardian article summarizes well what the show has taken on since then:
Sesame Street has taught kids about all manner of life topics. Not only racism (most recently with the introduction of two new African American characters, post-Black Lives Matter) but also poverty, addiction, autism, HIV and Aids, public health (Covid was not Big Bird’s first jab, he also got a measles vaccination in 1972), and gentrification (in 1994, the street was under threat of demolition from a loud-mouthed property tycoon named “Ronald Grump”, played by Joe Pesci). Sesame Street has even tackled the concept of death: when Will Lee, who played storekeeper Mr Hooper, died in 1982, the show featured a wrenching segment in which neighbours, clearly tearfully, explain to Big Bird that Mr Hooper is dead and is never coming back.
My favorite quotation from the entire documentary – and there are some beauties (e.g., Frank Biondo, who’s been Camera 1 operator since the very first show over 50 years ago, says, “I remember thinking, ‘Who’s going to watch this shit?’”) – is about the optimistic, constructive subversion that Joan Ganz Cooney was perpetrating on American culture’s inter-related systems of oppression and education. It is from a guest on the Dick Cavett Show (forgive me for not noting his name and role in “Sesame Street”) who observed to Cavett that “[Cooney] is doing what television would do if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people.”
This love-based, inclusive and life-affirming approach was also reflected in the show’s unprecedented use of non-condescending humor and quasi-managed unpredictability to meet 3-to-5-year-olds where they are, and in the psychological world they inhabit. Truth be told, quasi-managed unpredictability is the world we all inhabit. The sanest forms of processing absurdity are those that allow us to take it seriously while holding it lightly. Perhaps this is why the show’s huge emphasis on comedy – including lots of parody (e.g., from The Beetles belting out “Letter B,” to any of Kermit’s field-reporting for Sesame Street News, and the game shows hosted by Guy Smiley, who responds to the Count explaining “They call me the Count because I love to count things” with “They call me Guy Smiley because I changed my name from Bernie Liederkrantz”) – has always appealed to adults, too. One reason Oscar the Grouch is so funny is because he edgily yet age-appropriately represents the shadow side of “Sesame Street,” by which I mean the self-protective voice inside each of us that is skeptical of believing in “Sesame”‘s positive, utopian vision because we fear our heartache in co-existing with the gaps between What Is and What Could Be. We are invited to see the Grouch tenderly as comically lovable, an integrating move.
“Street Gang”’s narrative of how “Sesame Street” was conceived, researched and mostly funded by the government – and then how vastly popular it became and how quickly – is full of leaders, well-known and relatively unknown. The documentary’s testament to them is, alone, revelatory. But one of the quieter leaders profiled in the film is the head composer and lyricist, Joe Raposo, who literally set the tone for the show. He wrote many of its most iconic tunes from the earlier days (he died in 1989), including the “Sesame Street” theme, “’C’ is for Cookie,” and “Bein’ Green.” “It’s not easy bein’ green,” laments Kermit in a moment of existential reflection in the swamp; to many listeners, including cast member Sonia Monzano (“Maria”), the song was concretely about skin color while more broadly pointing to the ineffability of alienation. (To me as a middle-class white girl in the suburban Boston area, it was a piercing ode to profound longing and the empathy that comes from bearing witness to another’s suffering, although of course that’s not how I would have been able to articulate it back then!) Who knows how many hearts have been broken open by Joe Raposo’s words, which were written in response to director Jon Stone’s simple prompt: what does Kermit think about when he’s by himself?
“Street Gang” is trip down memory lane well worth taking. I recommend pairing it with another uplifting documentary from last year about a similarly under-told story regarding the same era in which “Sesame Street” televised the revolution through kids’ programming, “Summer of Soul:…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised” (Hulu, 2021). Could you use another dose of Muppet-level silliness right now? If so and, like me, baseball was as pervasive as “Sesame” in your childhood (I was raised by life-long Red Sox fans), check out the effort to revisit and revise traditional baseball – including its rules – in this fun L.A. Times piece about the recent Savannah Bananas team phenomenon.