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The Year in 'Sesame Street': Mitt Romney Sought Big Bird's Head, 'Birdwalk Empire' & More

By Christian Blauvelt, Hollywood.com Staff

Wall Street and Main Street weren't the only thoroughfares, real or metaphorical, that were a topic of discussion during the 2012 presidential race. Sesame Street became an unexpected flashpoint during the first of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's debates, with Big Bird suddenly turned into a symbol of the educational public service that is PBS. But that wasn't the only time Sesame Street broke out into the pop culture discourse in 2012. Recognizing that children learn best from TV when watching with their parents, he 43-year-old franchise offered up some of its smartest parodies yet and continued its remarkable tradition of landing A-List talent to lure adult viewers. "Children are the most important audience you will ever perform for," says Derek Manson, a performer based out of Atlanta and Los Angeles with years of experience in children's theater. "They're honest. They know what they like, what they don't, and they will unequivocally tell you. And they'll soon be everyone's future audience. Sesame Street has never taken its audience for granted, and is well aware that adults notice when their children enjoy something."

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Also this year, Sesame Street also launched a substantive outreach initiative geared to children of families dealing with divorce. The show also garnered some attention its producers undoubtedly didn't want, however. Such as when unauthorized "Sexy Big Bird" costumes began to be sold for Halloween. And, most distressingly, when 29-year Sesame Workshop vet Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who's given life to Elmo and turned him into money-making juggernaut, resigned in the wake of multiple accusers alleging he'd engaged in underage sex.

So why do we still care? Why does Sesame Street still cast such a large shadow over our experience of pop culture years, or maybe even decades, after we last watched it? Let's take a closer look at this year in Sesame Street.

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It's hard to imagine any other franchises on screens big or small assembling as much starpower as Sesame Street does on a regular basis. Not any DC or Marvel comic book movie. Nor any project based on a young adult novel. Nor the latest offering from Steven Soderbergh or Quentin Tarantino. During their 43rd season, which began in September, Sesame Street has featured, among others, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Jon Hamm, Melissa McCarthy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president for outreach and educational practices, says, "The secret of all that we do is to bring in the engagement of children at their level but also to bring in things that are amusing to adults, with the effort of creating that bond between parents and children." If a celebrity is on the show, adults are more likely to watch. And if adults watch with their kids, studies show that kids learn better.

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The stars who stopped by Sesame Street in 2012 are just a drop in the bucket, though, compared to the more than 400 celebrity guests who've been on since its debut in 1969. "I recently saw a Stevie Wonder appearance circa 1973," Manson says. "Here's a musician at the height of his creative powers, and as a child I probably took that for granted. As an adult, understanding the context of who Wonder was in 1973, all I can think is how remarkably cool that was. There's something so natural and joyous about it, and yet you also can't help thinking what an amazing booking it is. What was the producer's pitch, I wonder? I mean, Richard Pryor? Lily Tomlin? These were only a few of the remarkable guest performers the show brought on set back then, and never once do I get the impression anyone's phoning it in because they're on a television show for 'children.'""

In 2012, Sesame Street also continued its long tradition of pop culture spoofs, which have proven to be massive click-bait on YouTube. "Birdwalk Empire," their recent parody of a certain HBO show about 1920s gangsters, has gotten more than 300,000 views.

NEXT: "Sexy Big Bird" costumes weren't the only thing everyone's favorite yellow feathered friend had to deal with in 2012. Not if Mitt Romney had anything to say about it.[PAGEBREAK]

SEXY BIG BIRD COSTUMES

This October, Sesame Workshop sent a sent a "cease and desist" letter to Yandy.com after it was found that the site was pirating Big Bird's likeness to sell Halloween costumes for women. Not just any Halloween costumes for women—sexy Halloween costumes (the costume pictured on the right). A yellow, partially see-through bodice with flesh-toned leggings and webbed feet, with a yellow cap of Muppet eyes. In short, a Sexy Big Bird costume. The funny thing is, Sesame Workshop's outrage was in part because they also had released their own, more demure version of a Sexy Big Bird costume (the costume pictured on the left). But that wasn't the biggest indignity he had yet to face.

MITT ROMNEY WANTED TO FIRE BIG BIRD

In the first presidential debate on October 3, Mitt Romney laid out his idea for cutting federal sending by defunding PBS. "I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you, too," Romney said, referring to moderator Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour. "But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for." #SaveBigBird became an overnight meme, with fans of Sesame Street from all political stripes thinking that Romney had crossed a line. Even now, almost two months after the election, the first search term that appears next to Mitt Romney's name on Google is "Big Bird."

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"Sesame Street is definitely a third rail of electoral politics, and Romney was not the first Republican to find out how much it hurts when you touch that third rail," says Max Dawson, a professor specializing in broadcasting history in the Radio/TV/Film Dept. at Northwestern University. "Newt Gingrich in the mid-'90s was very adamant about defunding PBS, and what ended up happening was that opponents of defunding PBS used Sesame Street as the rallying cry to mobilize opposition. 'Think about not only how much your kids love Sesame Street,' they said, 'but how much they've benefited from Sesame Street. Think about the role it plays in their education and development from an early age.' That was a powerful message that resonates. It resonated in the '90s and it resonated in the most recent election cycle. It resonates with people who have their own children watching the show today. It resonates with people who don't have their own children but have very fond memories of being a child and sitting in front of the set and watching those characters or of playing with their Big Bird doll or Tickle Me Elmo or wearing their Bert & Ernie T-shirt."

The Obama campaign then used Big Bird in television ads to suggest that Mitt Romney thought the giant Muppet was a greater threat to the economic livelihood of our country than corporate criminals like Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay. That prompted Sesame Workshop to release a statement asking for the Obama camp to withdraw the ad. "Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns," it said.

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"I said to myself, 'Oh, he's gonna want that one back,'" Manson says of Romney's comment. "Regardless of your political affiliation, it was a comically cringe-worthy moment for most, in that Sesame Street is truly sacred ground in the realm of family entertainment. Granted, Sesame Street has always thrived due to the combo of private and public funding (and ahem, licensing…). But I'm often the idealist, and the minute we start dismissing the models that create our cultural touchstones, we risk dismissing how the next touchstone might develop using these same tools, only updated and with more efficiency. Most importantly, Romney's comment showed what happens when you try to steal a kid's lollipop."

NEXT: The sex scandal surrounding Elmo performer Kevin Clash. And just why do we still find Sesame Street to be such an inexhaustible source of conversation? Why do we still care?[PAGEBREAK]

ELMO PERFORMER KEVIN CLASH RESIGNS

The saddest Sesame Street-related story in 2012 centered on some serious allegations lodged against Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who for over 20 years has performed as Elmo. "Clash is a unique case because, apart from Jim Henson and Frank Oz, when was the last time we knew so much about one of the puppeteers behind a Muppet character?" Dawson says. He was even the star of his own 2010 documentary, Being Elmo, about his puppeteering career and his relationship to his furry red alter ego. But in November, a 23-year-old man alleged in a lawsuit that he had had sex with Clash, then 45, when he was only 16. If proven that would have been a criminal offense. Clash took a temporary leave of absence to clear his name and appeared vindicated when the accuser withdrew his allegation. Then other young men lodged their own lawsuits against him, prompting the original accuser to say that he wasn't recanting after all. The Sesame Workshop vet decided that it would be best for all involved, especially for the show he had worked on for decades, if he were to resign.

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"It's so difficult to understand not only what's going on in this case—allegations retracted, retractions retracted—but it's also difficult to understand how much people associate the character with the performer who portrays him," Dawson says. "Will parents be able to feel the same way about Elmo? I don't know. On the other hand, Sesame Street's target audience, children, shouldn't even have this come across their consciousness. However, it may very well impact parents' decisions about what licensed Sesame Street merchandise they purchase for their children, and that could lessen children's affection for Elmo and build their affection for Big Bird or some other character instead. Elmo has been a cash-cow for the past twenty years for the Children's Television Workshop, so it's a very sensitive issue for them." A quick glance at FAO Schwarz in Manhattan suggests that the scandal has left furry red monster untarnished, however. Elmo toys are still prominently displayed on store shelves. Manufacturer Hasbro reaffirmed their commitment to making Elmo products after Clash's resignation.

SO WHY DO WE STILL CARE?

"What I responded to as a kid and even still as an adult is Sesame Street's unwavering depiction of decency, diversity, tolerance, and benevolence," Manson says. "The simple suggestions that monsters are not always 'monstrous,' that a frog's being green isn't always easy, that vampires might like to count… that's a heady cross-section of psychology, philosophy, good comedy writing, and heartfelt poetry which folks of all ages can enjoy from all angles."

There are so many factors to identify in considering why American culture is still besotted with the Muppets 43 years after Sesame Street's launch. Part of it has been that Sesame Workshop has emphasized education first and foremost, with its vocabulary and alphabet-centered songs, its introduction to kids of basic math concepts, and perhaps most importantly its civilizing lessons about community, equality, and sharing. The show itself was launched after years of research into how to best harness the medium of television for children's education and level the preparation gap that existed between kids from white middle-class households and urban African-American and Latino children. Even still, specials that deal with sensitive issues like grief, hurricane prep, and being separated from a parent who's in the military, involve a remarkable amount of lead-time prep. The outreach initiative Sesame Workshop recently launched geared to children of divorced parents required nine months of research and three years of overall preparation before it launched.

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Add to that substantive foundation Sesame Street's unparalleled efforts to license their own products, and you've got a franchise that can reach kids, and the adults who buy them toys, across multiple vectors. "The organized methodical exploitation of their intellectual property was conceived by Sesame Street more effectively from an emotional and economic standpoint than anyone had done before," Dawson says. Jim Henson and Sesame Workshop created a cast of characters that was licensed across such a wide range of products, from toys to clothing to educational materials to cookwear, little kids' plates and cups, books, and magazines, that it would be virtually impossible to ignore its reach. Still, the remarkable thing is that these merchandising efforts, though extending the Sesame Street brand into the homes of a huge swath of the American public and deepening people's affinity and affection for its characters, have never lessened the show's educational priorities. "Compare it to the programming of the '80s and '90s in which the merchandising came first and the show came second," Dawson says. "Stuff like Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Care Bears. Things that were so closely linked to large-scale licensing efforts without any real educational imperative behind it. Does anybody care about those shows the way they care about Sesame Street?"

The unique balance of education and entertainment that lies at the heart of Sesame Street, and its remarkable ability to appeal to children and adults alike is something that still inspires Manson in his own work in children's theater. This past spring he appeared in South Coast Repertory's world premiere of Jane of the Jungle in Costa Mesa, CA, and before that he performed in plays like Goodnight Moon, Einstein is a Dummy, and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing at the Theatre for Young Audiences at Atlanta's Alliance Theater. "The bottom-line is that kids are so much smarter than they're often given credit for," Manson says. "Putting together the right amalgam of great storytelling, educational content, hipness, and comedy to hold their attention for 45 minutes is a delicate science. Sesame Street raised the bar for perfecting that mix. Add to that securing adult recognition and admiration of the show, and you've got a home-run that not only builds the rep and legend of Sesame Street, but also opens the door for The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, and gems like Emmet Otter's Jug-band Christmas, not to mention what Pixar excels in with its approach to family entertainment."

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The deeper reason still why Sesame Street remains such a force to provoke, influence, and entertain may be something more ineffable, though. "The power of our Muppets is that they do several things at the same time," Dr. Betancourt of Sesame Workshop says. "One, the Muppets represent every single child, no matter where they are, where they live, what situation they're in. They represent also the perspective of children. And at the same time, they're like your friend next door. There's always at least one character who's capturing what a child out there is thinking and feeling. They see themselves reflected in our Muppets." At one time or another, we all have.

Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt

[Photo Credit: NBC; Filmmagic]

More:

'Sesame Street' on Divorce: How It Took 20 Years to Get It Right

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