It’s often said that the first episode of a new television series should not be taken as an indication of what the future show will bring. These episodes are often experimental, as they try to figure out what each character and setting will bring to the table. Many times characters seen in first episodes will disappear without a trace, because they just didn’t work (see Richie’s brother in Happy Days) or characters who will become staples don’t exist at all (see Senor Chang in Community).
With this in mind, we thought we’d take the time to look back at the first episodes of many of the Muppet/Henson shows over the years. Today, we’re examining Sesame Street.
The episode begins with the original opening, with kids on a playground and no Muppet in sight, then transitioning in to the first Street scene. In it’s early seasons, Sesame Street used a high pitched instrument, possibly a harmonica, playing a slow, drawn out version of the theme song as the episode began. Thankfully this habit died out, because it can become extremely annoying. Gordon (here played by Matt Robinson) walks with Sally, a young girl, and he introduces the Street in a way that totally underestimates yet still predicts the legacy that’s about to begin;
“Sally, you’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street. Everything happens here! You’re gonna love it!”
We’re introduced to Bob and Mr Hooper very early on, and with just a few lines we know exactly who these characters are. Mr. Hooper is slightly amazed at everything going on around him, but still loveable and a little gruff. Bob is Bob, still the same 46 years later, in the best way possible. Sally is introduced as the new girl, just moved to the Street. Sally would never be seen again after Season 1, so it’s assumed that her parents moved after they saw that weird talking frog.
We’re introduced to Susan, played then (and still) by Dr. Loretta Long. Susan asks Sally in for milk and cookies later on. I wouldn’t be born for another 20 years, so I’m not sure how common that sort of thing was in 1969. I get that Sesame Street wants to show a world where everyone gets along and loves each other, but is it weird to ask a kid to come in without her parents knowing where she is? I want to make it very clear that I’m not insinuating anything horrific, I’m just saying that surely Sally’s folks need to know her whereabouts. I once stayed at school to play on the playground for half an hour and when I got home my mother tore me to shreds.
While the kids and their casual interactions with the adults of the Street are still around (I always enjoy the casual wave and greeting to the child walking past) they seem to have toned down that ‘Hey, come and hang out with a stranger’ vibe that this first episode has. It’s important that children learn about Stranger Danger, and if you have small kids I highly recommend doing it. Now. I’ll wait here.
2 minutes in and we get our first look at the dumbest character the Street has ever had – early Big Bird. As mentioned many times by Caroll Spinney, Big Bird was originally envisioned as a bit of a yokel, a goofy guy who would trip and fall and wasn’t all that clever. The footage seen here of Big Bird confusing Sally for an 8 feet tall girl is a classic, but I’m so glad that Caroll and the writers decided to change him to a child. He isn’t appealing at all, and his future dependence on Radar would have just been strange if he was still a silly adult. I say that, my teddy bear still sits on my bed, and I’m 26.
We’re now transported to the bathroom of Ernie and Bert, and we see Ernie bathing and calling for his old buddy Bert. Within the first few seconds, their relationship is established, and not much has changed now. Jim Henson played Ernie here with a slight twang in his accent, something that would not last long at all. Bert is exactly the same as he would always be, confused and annoyed by Ernie’s silliness.
Something that Sesame Street did in its very early stages was introduce segments within other segments. For example, here Bert introduces Solomon Grundy, a cartoon about a dirty kid who only washes half his body. Later on Gordon asks Kermit to do a lecture about the letter W, and Kermit makes note of this in his actual segment. That practice would be abandoned and brought back occasionally, including Murray’s segments in the most recent seasons.
Ernie sings ‘Everybody Wash’, which involves the entire cast (and some zoo animals) pretending to wash themselves. It resembles the the celebrity versions of later songs like ‘Dance Myself to Sleep’ or ‘Monster In The Mirror’. It’s very 60’s, with the cast overacting as they wash their various body parts.
We’re shown our first bout of animated and live action sketches, including The Song of Three, entirely made by Jim Henson. It’s something that Sesame Street has continued to do, and I often wonder how they go about contracting these films. There seems to be very little regularity in the making of them, so I’m not sure if a random company gets asked to make some films about the number 8, and some other company gets asked to make some films about the letter L. It’s something worth looking in to, and I encourage one of those Muppet fansites to dig a little deeper. Wait, that’s me. I’ll dig a little deeper.
With it’s hour runtime, Sesame Street wasn’t afraid to stretch out the education films, with a segment on how milk is made taking up a whopping 6 and a half minutes. That’s something they’d never do nowadays (especially with the new reduced half hour runtime). Thank god, because it gets a little tedious.
They then repeat one of the films they showed earlier. This is something that was a big part of Sesame Street in its earliest stages, but would eventually be phased out. When pitching the show, Joan Ganz Cooney said that these films would be like ads, repeated throughout the hour. It’s something that I’m sure is effective, but wouldn’t work in this day and age. I’m guilty of it too, but these days we just don’t have the patience to sit through this sort of thing more than once. It’s the same reason they don’t show ‘PreSchool Musical’ 15 times an episode.
Here comes Oscar. Many casual fans don’t know this, but Oscar was originally orange. In fact, technically he’s still orange. When he re-emerged as green in 1970, Oscar claimed he had been stained by the dampness at Lake Mushy Muddy, his favorite vacation spot. Oscar is in full swing here, passive aggressively insulting Gordon as he thanks Sally for not annoying him in the first 30 seconds he’s known her.
The puppetry here is awkward to say the least. The lip sync is off, Oscar leans a little. This was caused because the original set was built in such a way that Caroll had to perform him left handed, even though he’s right handed. This would be changed after a little while.
We’re introduced to Jennie, a human with little to no charisma, and who would be let go after Season 1 ended. It takes a lot for a human to make an impact on the show. They need to have that way about them, that charismatic but not over the top persona, that’s made Bob, Susan and Gordon so well loved, as well as more recent characters like Leela, Chris and Mando.
Here’s something that Sesame Street doesn’t do anymore – treat the Muppets as puppets. We’re treated to a scene where Gordon puts different facial features on the Anything Muppets, turning them in to a family. It is something that would be abandoned very early on, as the creators wanted the children to fully believe in these characters.
Frank Oz’s little girl voice has just a little hint of Miss Piggy in there, too.
In a very odd situation, when the characters begin singing ‘Consider Yourself’, almost all their voices change, which is jarring because they sound nothing like their talking voices.
Ernie and Bert get a lot of action on the Street in these early episodes, something that all but ceased in the later years. A lot of this had to do with the availability of the Muppet performers, as Jim was off working on The Muppets and things like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, and Frank was alongside him. Once Jim passed, Frank and Steve would continue on, coming in occasionally but not working on the show full time. Once Eric Jacobson took on the role of Bert, he would make the occasional appearance in Street stories, Ernie joining him on the rare occasion. With the recent recast of Ernie with Billy Barkhurst, I assume we’ll see a little more of Ernie and Bert interacting with their friends on the Street once again.
We see the inside of Gordon and Susan’s house again, something that occasionally popped up in the early days, but is not used a lot anymore. This piece with Bob hanging a picture transitions in to a bit with early characters Buddy and Jim, a comedy duo based on two clueless men doing menial tasks and doing a bad job. They were replaced in Season 2 with another comedy duo, Larry and Phyllis, and they were replaced in Season 3 by Wally and Ralph.
Back in Gordon’s house, he sits with Bob, Kermit and Sally, as Bob does magic. There was a lot less structure to these scenes that would be seen in the later seasons, with an almost improvisational feel. It feels almost like this is a reality show with a talking frog. Bob turns a $1 bill in to a W, in a trick that I’m sure is simple to do but still impresses me. As mentioned earlier, Gordon asks Kermit to do a W lecture, and he disappears to get ready.
Kermit does his very first lecture, something that continued up until Kermit’s departure from Sesame Street. In typical Muppet form, an unnamed Monster arrives and demolishes the W one line at a time, turning it from a W to an N, then a V, and finally the letter I. Once it’s finished he turns his attention to Kermit’s leg. This unnamed Monster would eventually become Cookie Monster, meaning this is the very first interaction between them in a partnership that would inevitably lead to one of the most famous sketches of all time, Kermit’s Mystery Box.
Comedienne Carol Burnett turns up in a very brief cameo, and is the first in a very long line of celebrity guests. It’s a long tradition to have actors, singers, sports stars, humanitarians, politicians and other people of note come by to teach something, and some stars have said that their appearance on Sesame Street is when they finally knew they had made it. I don’t remember who, but one celebrity said ‘There’s only 3 people you don’t say no to in this business; Oprah, The Simpsons, and Sesame Street!’
Kermit tries his hand at the W lecture again, this time being attacked by the letter. It’s such a simple gag, and a lot of sketches over the years would continue this method of ‘teach the kids, but keep it simple and funny’.
Susan plays ‘One of These Things’ with the number 2 and the letter W. It’s the first instance of one of Sesame Street‘s most famous and beloved segments.
Ernie, Bert, Gordon, Susan and Sally say goodbye. Ernie does his shtick and cries over the sponsors, Bert looks annoyed, and Gordon says to come back soon, because they’ll always be there. I don’t think Matt Robinson knew then that he wouldn’t be wrong, and that the show would still be going 46 years later! Mr. Hooper reads the sponsors, which are the Letters W, S and E, and the Numbers 2 and 3. Eventually they would stick to just one letter and number, spending the whole episode on those.
In the early days, the announcement that “Sesame Street is a production of the Children’s Television Workshop” would be accompanied by pictures of the cast holding the various logos. It’s something that isn’t done anymore, but it would make a nice touch if it returned.
So that’s it (besides a few segments)! Episode 1 of Sesame Street was a bit thrown together, but still showed many of the same things that remain even now in Season 45. It’s an integral part of Henson history, and of television in general. How far it’s come, eh?