January 15, 2008

Damn Straight, The 'Street's Not For Kids! That Gordon Dude Freaks Me Out!


Yeah, no one's paying too close attention, right? So if I've been posting about vintage Sesame Street for years without actually sitting down to watch the Old School episodes on DVD, no one'd notice, right?



First off, the pacing feels incredibly slow. The show kind of meanders, as if the entire narrative structure is just a stroll through the neighborhood. [This changes a little bit in later seasons, but not much. As much as I don't ever want to hear about Luis making huevos rancheros again, I have to admit the shift to longform stories in each episode does make the show more watchable, at least as a whole TV show. More on that later.]


Bert's not just annoying; he's unlikable. Also, he checks out Ernie's ass when he gets out of the bathtub. I swear. I'll get a screengrab. So forty years of kids having their nascent gaydar set off by these two? Pretty much right on, from the first five minutes of the series.


And speaking of unlikable, Oscar is not just a grouch, he's an outright dick. Yes, it's more interesting. Yes, it's more realistic or complex, but I don't care. As someone who's kid regularly goes all Cookie Monster on us when the basket of chips comes at the Mexican restaurant, I know the power of those Muppets' examples. And they better behave.

But what blew my mind, well there were two things: the human dialogue is largely improvised, with hilarious effect. Gordon--who is apparently a teacher, who knew?--was sitting down with a new girl in the neighborhood while Susan brings them milk and cookies. I'll get the exact dialogue later, but it goes something like this Check this out:


GORDON: It is time for some cookies and milk. sally? do you like cookies and milk?

SALLY: I love it!

GORDON: You love it? Really?

SUSAN: Oh, that's good.

GORDON: [crosstalks] She loves milk. You can't go wrong with Sally.

SUSAN: It's good for you.

SALLY: When I was a little girl, I used to love coffee [inaudible]

GORDON & SUSAN: [chuckle]

GORDON: Well, that was just one short experience. Drink the milk, It's good for you. Makes you good strong bones.

I'd wonder what I'd just seen if I wasn't so weirded out by Gordon's massaging the kid's shoulders the entire episode as he introduces her around the 'Street.


Now I'm not saying Gordon's a perv; meeting Roscoe Orman in the bakery on 9th Avenue one morning was a formative New York experience for me. [They used to tape the show in Manhattan before moving to the Kaufman Studios in Astoria.] It's just that the behavior being modeled in the 1969 show--go home from school with a stranger, enter his house, let him rub your shoulders for an hour--is absolutely not what you'd want a kid to pick up on in 2008.

There are some fascinating books to be written about Matt Robinson, the original Gordon, who was very involved in writing and creating the show. [Maybe they already were? Anyone?] Gordon's character was envisioned as the core of the entire show, a positive black male role model for kids growing up in the ghetto. And Robinson took to it with a seriousness and complexity that feels like the 1970's. And that's almost impossible to imagine in this era of Elmo TMX saturation.

Robinson's entry on the Muppet Wiki mentions it, but check out the comments on this Muppet NewsFlash post. It's the excerpt from the 1970 NY Times Magazine article on Sesame Street where Robinson's own ambivalence with "the feminists'" agenda for Sesame Street bleeds through the improvised dialogue where Gordon and Susan talk about Susan going back to work as a nurse.

The early seasons of Sesame Street have the kind of raw feeling where an actor's personal animus about women working could slip through. It's an unpredictability that's kind of fascinating, but as a parent, it's also annoying and unreliable.

My mom--who gave us the Season 1 & 2 DVD's for Christmas--told me that I should mention that The 'Street "saved her life." The first show aired just a couple of weeks after my brother was born, and just as our dad started grad school. So there was my young mom, uprooted and all alone, all day, with a cantankerous newborn and a rambunctious 2-yo. She sat me down in front of that first episode and every one that followed, twice a day, for months, until she got to where she could manage us. Not that I'm not grateful to the Children's Television Workshop, of course, but I can't see doing the same with our kids. At least not with those wack early seasons I grew up on.

Buy Sesame Street: Old School Vol. 1 (1969-1974) and Vol. 2 (1974-1979) for yourself, see [amazon]
Previously: NYT: The Street Is No Place For Children
Jim Henson? Crazy, And Thank Heavens For It

update: Here are a couple of screenshots related to 22monthdad's comment below. It's a long, slapsticky segment that teaches "around, through, and over" by following a gang of kids playing in a garbage dump and a boatyard/construction site. Don't worry, the bucket that fell on that one kid's head was just water, not turpentine or paint! HAHAHAHA!




Wow. Interesting post, and here I am just being weirded out that Oscar apparently started out orange instead of moldy-carpet green.

I just picked these up also (as well as Songs from the Street, the boxed set of the music -- which is interesting and disturbing also).

I have to say that I am less disturbed by Gordon showing the new girl around. There isn't much context for it, so it could be that Gordon is a friend of the family (or an uncle) showing the new girl around while her folks are off unpacking. Tough to say, but it didn't ring as sinister as it seems to for some.

It is awfully choppy, but that's what I remember about it from watching it growing up. It took me a while as a kid to get that a whole episode was created around specific letters and numbers. Which I suppose may have been the point -- the learnin' just snuck up on me!

I do like the rawness of it (including Bert and Oscar's douchebaggery). But I'm freaked out by Big Bird's narrow head.

ThisKid isn't quite old enough for the Street, but I'm not necessarily going to hide away the DVD boxes of these when she gets there.

I rented this from netflix yearning for nostalgia but was not prepared for the reality of my childhood. I also found Gordon creepy. More disconcerting was when the kids decided to play in a junk yard by crawling through sewer pipes, going over scaffording, and generally being in a very not so safe place. The DVD went back right away. As for Ernie and Bert, it is "don't ask, don't tell."

LOL, I totally forgot about that sewer/construction site-as-playground segment until I started getting screengrabs. Hi-larious.

Even the oil drum playground equipment on the set near is a throwback. No way a lawyer'd let that kind of toxic waste near kids these days.

But then I was also seeing that wall of doors behind Gordon and remembering how revolutionary the inner city setting was for this show. It was the whole point, in fact.

For all my whining above, we're letting the kid watch it, but then again, she's almost 4. I probably would just stick to YouTube clips if she were any younger.

Do these DVDs have any behind-the-scenes or "making of" stuff?

[you mean besides Frank Oz's arm and glasses visible under Bert in the bathtub scene? If there is, I haven't found it yet. But the documentation/liner notes are not very detailed, so we'll see. The one exception so far is the sales pitch reel, where Kermit and Ralph the dog explain the concept: "We're gonna keep repeating them like commercials on regular TV, again and again till they sink in" "Ooh, that's kind of groovy, commercials for the alphabet." -ed.]

I don't know. I think it says something that we get the "creep" or "perv" factor from what, at the time, was perceived to be very empathetic and innocent. I don't know about you, but these are the times that we as parents should look back on and say..."those were the good old days". There something sad about not being able to let you child explore the world. There's something wrong with having to analyze the intentions of every adult you see with a child. Personally, I enjoy the early episodes of Sesame Street for what they are. Positive, wholesome, non-commercialized, pre-Elmo, entertainment.

We have forgotten the simplicity of life of the characters and the environment that was NYC in the 70's. Also, remember this was on PBS, not much money for production.

I was given the second volume for XMas and was excited to watch and compare my memory with actuality.
Did anyone else watch the pilot episode? Quite strange... and Gordon (who, from what I could tell, was not the same Gordon as later epsiodes) is definitely a bit creepy as he interacts with children he runs into.
And what about the original beginning? two kids (ages ~ 4 & 7?) wandering around the city alone talking to strangers.

OK, so I just googled this to make sure that I wasn't hallucinating, but I clearly remember Gordon simultaneously playing a pimp on All My Children. It's true! Clearly my mother should have bought me a coloring book and put me in another room or something, but it times out to be around when my brother was born so I'll cut her a break -- maybe.

The first episode is the weirdest -- it gets better from there. Big Bird stops acting like the town drunk, Oscar gets the right color and becomes a bit less nasty, Bert finds his proper personality, Snuffy loses the radioactive eyes, etc.

But it's a shame that they've chosen to do the initial episode of each season rather than picking a really good one each year. I think that's responsible for a lot of the "meandering around the neighborhood" feeling -- since each show is an intro, they go around introducing.

And also I gotta say: the clip with the kids running around the construction site is awesome. If today's kids have to live in bubbles (or crayon-colored white box rooms a la modern Elmo), at least they can have something to watch to fuel their imagination.

Simply: the world is a different place today. Around 1975, my parents stopped the family vacation in New Orleans because they wanted to see Bourbon Street. So they headed into a bar and let me and my sister, ages 8 and 11, just wander around Bourbon Street for a few hours as late afternoon became dusk. We also regularly ran wild in airports and malls on our own. We always had a pre-designated time and place to meet back up again and woe was us if we missed it...but can you imagine doing that today? Never, never, never.

I have to agree with Brandon - it was innocent back then, but through the lens of today's news we somehow ascribe an adult hanging out with a kid to automatically be pervy. That's sad.

[it's becoming a big deal with me, this "what we've lost" idea. And I'm wary of the tendency to "automatically" assume anything, especially as a guy. (remember those ridiculous VA state ads encouraging people to call the police when they saw a guy with a kid?) But it's also impossible to imagine teaching/modeling all this stuff on a ubiquitous TV show now. But it feels important to take note of what's changed and ask if we're cool with that. -ed.]

That whole idea of what we've lost or what's changed is something that I've also thought a lot about recently. While studying history at university, I remember reading Samuel Pepys' diaries, which is are fascinating look at everyday life in London in the mid-17th century. Even then, he laments about how things have changed for the worse, with crime rising and it no longer being safe in the streets, etc. The same sorts of concerns are voiced in lots of other documents I've come across, such as a police report in the French national archives that was written during the Napoleanic era about several pre-pubescent girls found killed in an alley of La Butte-Aux-Cailles (a working-class neighborhood in the south of Paris). Even the newspapers in New York City and Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s were full of tales of horrible, violent crimes and pervy people (like the Black Dahlia). So if every successive generation always thinks the world's gotten worse and less innocent, is it more a perception issue than a reality?

[While you're digging in the Napoleonic archives, I'm going to check my back issues of Dynamite Magazine and get back to you. -ed.]

Once bald, Gordon made for an awesome Fisher Price figure/choking hazard:


We have the first DVD and I did not like the first show.
I was shocked to see kids running and playing around in a junk yard, construction site, whatever. If my mom had caught me doing that, she would have killed me and I grew up in the 70s.
There are some really good things on the DVDs and we let our 3-year old watch them.

FYI- There were 3 Gordons. Big Bird lost his freaky pointy head after the first season and his age was changed from an adult to about 6.

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