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'Sesame Street' turns 40

The iconic children's show broke the mold on educational programming.

November 10, 2009

Today's episode of "Sesame Street" is brought to you by the number 40. The show that taught innumerable preschoolers that it's not so easy being green (a message that would never pass muster these days) turns middle-aged today, as have the Generation X children for whom it was created.

The show's madcap skits busted the myth that children's programming couldn't be educational and entertaining at the same time, let alone occasionally hilarious. And if some of the cleverly sly references -- such as Guy Smiley spoofing "This Is Your Life" for a ratty old sneaker -- went over the target audience's heads, they also drew parents to watch alongside the kids. That's a feat in itself. Mister Rogers was a great guy, but how many adults wanted to watch him change his shoes each day?

Educators were thrilled that children were entering school with a grasp of letters, colors and elementary numbers. Later, the show was criticized as too winsome, leading children to expect that the elements of reading and math would bounce in bright colors across the classroom. Nowadays, teachers are probably just grateful if kindergartners aren't texting in class.

Perhaps the most engaging part of "Sesame Street," though, was its cast of muppets and monsters, all possessing a slightly lunatic edge to their characters. In their little down-at-the-heels neighborhood, they played out in non-threatening ways the darker sides of children's souls -- the greed, grumpiness, worry and slovenliness -- that parents tend to downplay.

In our era, of course, it's impossible to view those early monsters with the same innocent eyes. Cookie Monster, after all, was well on his way to morbid obesity. Big Bird needed a little Xanax to chill the anxiety. Oscar the Grouch's antisocial behavior could portend a criminal future. Bert had some obsessive-compulsive tendencies around those paper-clip and bottle-cap collections.

But most of us lose a bit of edginess with middle age, and so has "Sesame Street." The once-shabby block on which the muppets romp has been cleaned up and painted. Oscar has mellowed from rudely grouchy to mildly cantankerous. Most unthinkable of all, Cookie Monster eats fewer cookies and more vegetables. He sings a song about the glories of produce instead of his iconic ballad, "C is for Cookie."

Still, after 40 years, "Sesame Street" has somehow managed to retain its humor, color and, most important, its primary mission of informing and delighting children. And that's good enough for us.

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