Growing Up with the Muppets: The Medium and the Message

Yesterday, I discussed why audiences accepted the blend of fantasy and reality in Sesame Street from the beginning, despite 1960s psychologists warning its creator, Joan Ganz Cooney, that children would be harmed by blending fantasy and reality. (For a look at the Pioneers of Thirteen documentary in which she says this, see http://www.thirteen.org/programs/pioneers-of-thirteen/#the-60s-experimental-days.)

Their belief is puzzling, since many children’s narratives blend fantasy and reality—presumably, the experts were concerned with television and its verisimilitude in representing reality; to contain fantasy characters as part of the brownstone, street world of early Sesame Street would be to blend genre boundaries in an unsettling way.  Yet certainly Muppets with brownstoneone of the charms of Sesame Street is the blend of fantasy and reality: Kermit and friends aren’t real, but their charm suspends belief easily, for children and adults alike. All the Muppets interact with children and adults easily. They’re, hey, part of the neighborhood.

In cogitating on this, though, I have to admit that the experts are right to some extent. Isn’t the pairing of fantasy and reality characters kind of a clunker in some notable media forays? The cartoon Jessica Rabbit talking to the real actor Bob Hoskins in the film Who Killed Roger Rabbit? seems more a director’s whimsy than a vital part of the film. The comedy stemmed from the audience’s familiarity with genre conventions: Cartoons over here (usually); live actors over there. Genre rules were being bent and broken, by people who were hyperaware of them—that was what we were asked to applaud.

But watching the Muppets, we never feel that we are being asked to respond primarily to the fact that Kermit talking to people bends some boundaries–that he and his ilk ought to exist only in the studio talking to other puppets. Kermit and wolf blitzerWhy didn’t they look arch? And why were kids (and parents, and nearly every form of media from mainstream through alternative) charmed by them?

I think because their placement in the evolving medium of television mirrored the placement of their audience—kids getting their arms around the mysteries of the adult world. The Muppets in the world—whether the stoop or the garbage can—seemed gleeful and surprised at their actions. Like they were surprised that they could do the actions, but doing them all the same. Just like kids moving into the world: gleeful and surprised that they can, from a 2-year-old realizing that they can locomote down a strip of carpet to a 5-year-old realizing that, well, that word with the one s and the two ee’s after it is pronounced “see.”

Indeed, the Children’s Television Workshop, the organization behind Sesame Street, published Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs (written by David Borgenicht), in which the psychological age of some of the Muppets is discussed, and they are children. (Big Bird, for example, is six.) But even without that background knowledge, the Muppets read easily as stand-ins for children in their glee and curiosity.

So Cooney and company—maybe knowingly, maybe inadvertently—fused the media and the message. It seems like a children’s genre whose conventions in previous generations might have held the Muppets bound in a studio had developed technology that actually did change the conventions of the genre. The rise of the hand-held camera? The contemporary fascination with cinéma vérité? The technology of the Muppets, driven by Jim Henson’s syncretism in creating puppets who seemed to stand-alone? The rise of child-centered parenting? What is clear is that those conventions actually did bend, or expand enough, that, for first time, puppets were paired with the cityscape and the backyard. For a child audience that had been cocooned in relatively small spaces—the bedroom, the living room—and was, well, starting to look at a bigger world, the Muppets represented them, and the glee and joy to be found in that larger world. Why was Sesame Street a runaway success? And why is it now an institution? A lot of the answer is in the fusion of the development of a medium and its audience.

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