I’ve Worked on Sesame Street—Here’s What You Don’t Know
The iconic children’s show is turning 50! And while you likely watched it as a child or with your own kids, this is what you didn’t get to see.
Research, research, and more research
A lot of thought and planning goes into every episode, character, and topic. The Sesame Workshop is a non-profit organization that works to create the curriculum for the show. And Sesame Street‘s newest character, Julia, was carefully created with the help of researchers, educators, and psychologists. Julia is on the autism spectrum, and Lehmann says her addition was influenced by research on viewers with autism. “It was becoming clear to the team at Sesame Workshop that children with autism needed representation. The company wanted to engage with autism and speak to our viewers,” he explains. “We have a social impact team of doctors, scientists, and caregivers who helped bring Julia to life.” Julia is voiced by puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who has a son on the spectrum. Sesame Street goes above and beyond to make sure it’s accurate, but not all shows can say that. In fact, medical shows always get these 12 things wrong.
How the puppets come to life
Although the characters may seem life-like, it takes quite a bit of innovation and engineering to make that happen. The first thing you need to know about the puppets? There are three main types: rod puppets, live-hand puppets, and walk-around puppets. Rod puppets have two rods underneath their arms. The puppeteer has his or her dominant hand where the mouth of the puppet is, while the other hand operates the rods. Elmo and Abby are rod puppets.
For live-hand puppets, like Cookie Monster, two people operate the arms. The main puppeteer operates the mouth with his dominant hand. The non-dominant hand is used to gesture inside the puppet costume. A second puppeteer sits behind the main puppeteer to operate the other hand.
Walk-around puppets, like Big Bird and Snuffy, require one or more puppeteers walking around inside the puppet. Snuffy’s snout is made of PVC pipe, while Big Bird’s hands are held in place with fishing wire. A lot of work goes into the illusion of life in our favorite characters, including the creation of costumes, dialogue, and music. Here are 6 beloved Sesame Street songs with really weird backstories.
Jim Henson made this all possible
Jim Henson created the original character puppets for Sesame Street when he came on the show in 1969. He also developed the method that puppeteers still use today. “Henson created the puppet stage for television,” says Lehmann. The use of rolling stools, called “rollies,” which get puppeteers from place to place and the use of TV monitors as a guide for puppet interaction was all Jim Henson. And here’s a little-known fact: Henson was the original voice of Ernie.
Of course, he also created The Muppets, a beloved cast of characters that includes Miss Piggy, Kermit, and Fozzie Bear. Henson’s influence on puppetry and children’s programming is second to none. He died in 1990. Speaking of Henson’s influence, did you know that some of the best life advice comes from The Muppets?
“Stronger, Smarter, Kinder” isn’t just a song
This song, which started being used at the end of each show in 2015, is also a mission statement. The social impact team at Sesame Workshop is constantly working to identify the emotional and educational needs of children all over the world. As a result, they extensively research topics like how to help kids cope with trauma, divorce, incarcerated parents, HIV/AIDs, and anything else that may be necessary to address for kids to be healthier and happier. Of course, not all songs are quite as wholesome, and some popular song lyrics don’t mean what you think.
What’s next for Sesame Street
Lehmann’s not exactly sure what’s in store for Sesame Street, but he knows it will continue to forge the path of teaching children everywhere. “We continue identifying the current needs of kids,” he says. “We’re learning that it’s not just about teaching kids their ABC’s and 123’s. It’s about teaching kids that taking risks and learning to be flexible are skills that are also important to learn.” Lehmann says they hope to inspire kids for the next 50 years and beyond. To get some in-person inspiration, take a trip to Sesame Place in Pennsylvania, which also happens to be one of the theme parks that go all out for the holidays.