`Sesame Street Still Public TV's Pinnacle

`SU-U-N-N-Y Day/ Chasing the Clouds A-way....''

I watched our two sons grow up on ``Sesame Street'' and can still hear the sound of thumping feet heading for the TV set at the sound of the opening number. On Monday the show begins its 25th season, a notable TV anniversary if there ever was one, so I recently decided to catch up with it again. It was like running into an old but timeless friend, one who may have updated her wardrobe but in spirit hadn't aged at all. The daily PBS show for preschoolers was still bursting with creative verve, still full of songs and puppets and good-hearted human actors, still slipping its lessons in sideways while it entertained.

I was especially happy to find that the program retained its sense of faintly devilish fun. I tuned in as ``Gina'' (Alison Bartlett) was preparing her Muppet friends for a visit from Cyrnanose de Bergerac, a takeoff on Edmund Rostand's character Cyrano, with the long nose and death-dealing sword.

``Remember, don't call his nose a `nose,' '' Gina admonishes her friends. ``How do we tell him if a fly lands on it?'' asks one Muppet, a champion of common sense and clearly a surrogate for the kiddie viewer. The muppet doesn't get a direct answer but is told the nose will be ``very big.''

Enter Cyranose the Muppet, and it is - a swordlike proboscis that makes a fearful ``sw-i-s-s-h'' whenever he turns his head. ``What's the name of this?'' asks Cyranose, pointing to his nose. The nervous Muppets come up with labored circumlocutions. Finally, Gina serves him tea and in the process asks, ``Will you have a little cream with your nose?'' As the scene fades, the outraged Cyranose is breaking up the place.

To do so he has no need of an actual sword, because the nose itself has become a deadly weapon. Joan Ganz Cooney, former president of the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) - the show's creator - once told me they deliberately fold in layers of meaning like that, to be absorbed at whatever level the viewer can manage. For some, the Muppets' tortured effort not to say ``nose'' is a satire on the adult world's rhetorical conventions. For most kids, it is a source of simple mirth and delight.

Either way, it is arguably America's premier public-TV series - children's or adults and certainly the world's best-known TV show for kids, having aired in some 90 countries over these 25 years. One sign of its universality is the way Big Bird - the eight-foot canary who, with Kermit the Frog, is the program's best-known character - adapts to cultural environments. In Latin American versions of the show he has become a parrot, and in some countries he's not a bird at all - in Germany a bear, in Arabic countries a camel.

In the United States, the show's sustained quality, vitality, and relevance is an implicit rebuke to the historic stance of commercial networks against scheduling daily age-specific educational programs for kids. Somewhere along the way ``Sesame Street'' became an institution, part of our cultural landscape.

But initially the whole idea of using attention-getting Madison Avenue techniques on kids - those quick takes full of eye-and-mind-catching ideas - was regarded as outrageous, almost scandalous, in many quarters. Some people still question what they view as the force-feeding of cognitive skills, even useful ones, to budding minds.

Yet before launching the show, CTW had done its homework. The series was - and still claims to be - the most heavily researched one on TV, with an impressive list of academic consultants. But what really made it possible was knowing genius when it appeared. Ms. Cooney told me that while creating the show, she watched Jim Henson's Muppets perform, fell on the floor laughing, and instantly knew they should be ``Sesame Street'' mainstays.

Mr. Henson's own genius lay in inventing little creatures and letting them evolve. Not long before his death he explained to me that in creating the lizard-like precursor of Kermit - out of his mother's old coat, with two halves of a Ping-Pong ball for eyes - he was hardly conscious of what he was doing. But he quickly sensed he had something and developed the figure over the years.

Shows like ``Sesame Street'' also take public money, of course -

lots of it - and a recognition that you don't get such results if profit is the only objective. There's still, alas, nothing quite like it. For kids, ``Sesame Street'' may be a pre-reading lesson. For the rest of us, it's a lesson in what public TV is all about.

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