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'Sesame Street' Changed Television For Children

(Soundbite TV show "Sesame Street")

THE SESAME STREET KIDS: (Singing) Sunny days, chasing the clouds away...


There are plenty of "Sesame Street" names that everyone recognizes: Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster. Here's one you might not: Joan Ganz Cooney. When "Sesame Street" made its debut in 1969, it was thanks to Cooney. She laid out the vision, hustled the money and assembled the creative team to create a show that would become one of the most successful in TV history. For decades after, she guided the show and headed the Children's Television Workshop. This morning, for our series the Long View, talking to people of long experience, we look back with this pioneer in children's TV, Joan Ganz Cooney. In the mid-'60s, there was "Captain Kangaroo" and "Mister Rogers," but she says, not much else.

Ms. JOAN GANZ COONEY (Creator, "Sesame Street;" Founder, Children's Television Workshop): The rest was slapstick, cheap cartoons, lot of, kind of, pie-on-your-face violence and it was terrible; it was a disgrace.

MONTAGNE: Was there anything that you could take, then, from other shows for adults and incorporate it into "Sesame Street"?

Ms. COONEY: Well, we certainly were inspired by what was on the air, because we wanted children to watch, and particularly poor children, who were watching a lot of this junk. So, I had said - I said to the producers, let's think of a "Laugh-In" for kids.

MONTAGNE: "Laugh-In," just to remind people - a very, very popular, highly rated show back in the '60s and...

Ms. COONEY: With short sketches. And that seemed to suit what we thought was the short attention span of children, that there would be these short segments, these bursts, and then what we called commercials, which were little spots to teach letters and numbers that were threaded through the hour, as if they were commercials, because children were used to commercial interruption. Where we were wrong, I think, and we were ill-advised, was telling us that two, threes and fours can't follow plot. And of course, that turned about to be totally wrong, and we do much more plot now on "Sesame Street." The segments are not nearly as short as they were in the beginning.

MONTAGNE: But at the beginning, though, you did something that would have been very unusual for - certainly for children's TV at that time; you put it in a distinct urban environment, and I mean, just things like Oscar the Crouch, coming out of a garbage can.

Ms. COONEY: Yeah, it was pretty, cutting edge, let us say. We decided not to have it in some magic house, you know, the way most children's programs are set, in a fantasy setting of some kind, or in the suburbs, as "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was. And we were trying to reach all children, but the bull's-eye of the target, as we used to say, were intercity youngsters. Obviously, city children were watching all these shows set in the suburbs, though it was not their experience. So, children can move very fast between reality and fantasy, and it need not be their experience, because if you stop and think about it, very little is of their experience. There're only two, three and four years old. So, they're far more accepting of different things.

MONTAGNE: When you were a three year old yourself, or a four year old yourself, in Phoenix, Arizona, and that was back in the 1930s, what was the nearest thing that you had, if there was anything at all near to it, to "Sesame Street"?

Ms. COONEY: Well, there was nothing near to "Sesame Street." I used to listen - I don't think I listened to radio as a three year old. By four or five, my parents took me to movies with them. The only time one saw cartoons were at - when one went to the movies on Saturday morning. There would be cartoons before the feature. So, there was nothing comparable. Education was not a big deal for children. I did not even go to kindergarten; I just started first grade when I was five and started reading right away. I don't know how it all worked, but I had a lot of adults and older siblings around me. So, I guess I was probably introduced to what one would be introduced to at that time in kindergarten.

MONTAGNE: When you first started "Sesame Street," or first got to thinking about it, were there moments when you were just inspired? People today would think, oh, Jim Henson walked in with "The Muppets." Was that a moment of revelation, or did you not know what you had at the time?

Ms. COONEY: Oh, I knew; we knew. I had seen his work doing commercials. Inside the business ,it was known he was a genius. And I remember one of the producers said, let's try to get Jim Henson. And I said, you think we could get him? We would not be around now, if we weren't self-supporting and that it was Jim Henson's Muppets that made us self-supporting.

MONTAGNE: They became instant parts of the - you know...

Ms. COONEY: Yes, they were instant stars; there is no question. Big Bird was the biggest star, I mean, children's favorite for a number of years. I have a 22-year-old granddaughter whose first words were Big Bird. Nowadays, the first word is Elmo, but that - Elmo is almost doubtless the most popular children's character, probably in the world, but certainly in the Western world.

MONTAGNE: When you started, there was a fair amount of skepticism about children's television being both fun and also educational...

Ms. COONEY: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Even among some teachers at the time, but you're still looking ahead, right? Digital media, Internet, videogames, things that sell songs...

Ms. COONEY: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Things like that?

Ms. COONEY: Yes, absolutely. We're very interested in using the new media to teach.

MONTAGNE: You don't resist it at all?

Ms. COONEY: Oh, no. I've got too many grandchildren not to understand the power of the new media. I don't know - if I didn't have grandchildren - that's an interesting question - I don't know if I would - I mean, I'd be aware that you had to go there and had to go where the kids are. It's very tough, though, because if you think back to the late '60s and '70s and '80s, children only watched television for information or for entertainment. Now, they've got all these media. It's a tougher world to find a way of having impactful educational value for children.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. Do you have a favorite episode?

Ms. COONEY: Oh, gosh. There are many things I have loved. I have always - I've loved the parodies; some of them are way over the children's heads, but they did one on "Casablanca" years ago, that I cherish. I loved Lena Horne singing "How Do You Do?" with Grover about shyness. They're all just delightful.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. COONEY: Oh, thank you for asking me.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Joan Ganz Cooney, co-creator of "Sesame Street," and here is that duet between Lena Horne and Grover.

(Soundbite of TV show "Sesame Street")

(Soundbite of song "How Do You Do?")

Ms. LENA HORNE: (Singing) So very nice to meet a brand new friend of mine.

See? That's all there is to it.

Mr. OZ: (As Grover) You know what?

Ms. HORNE: What?

Mr. OZ: (As Grover) I am not shy anymore.

Ms. HORNE: I'm so glad, Grover. Aw, great.

Mr. OZ: (As Grover) Thank you.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.