Jarrod Fairclough – Hang the stockings on the tree, it’s Christmas again! Yes folks, it’s that time of year again when we come together with the ones we love to celebrate the holidays with love, gifts, and lots of food (darn my new diet!)
To celebrate, Sesame Street have made a new Christmas special, ‘Once Upon A Sesame Street Christmas’, which premiered on Friday on HBO. Sesame Street has a long tradition of releasing Christmas specials. Some are incredible (Christmas Eve on Sesame Street), and some are downright bizarre (A Special Sesame Street Christmas), and I’m glad to report this one definitely belongs in the former camp!
As the many residents of Sesame Street get ready on Christmas Eve (or Crankimas, as Oscar celebrates), Elmo has just one question; why do we leave cookies for Santa? In my 27 years on this planet, I’ve actually never questioned this myself, so I was glad someone finally mentioned it. Of course, Elmo’s father Louie has no idea himself, but he tells an elaborate tale about Sesame Street, a long long time ago, where everything was kind of sepia, and the great-great-ancestors of our favorite characters roamed the Street.
Only there’s one issue – turns out their ancestors were all rude, grumpy Scrooges, to the point where Oscar’s ancestor (Oscar the Malcontent) is the nicest guy in town (and he’s still a jerk!). When travelling Salesmonster Grover arrives on the scene, he’s met with backlash from the residents, including our sort-of-antagonist for the special. Now, in the past, antagonists have been played by humans, or brand new special Muppets. But this special cast a familiar face, who you’d probably have never thought of – Mr Johnson! That’s right, turns out decades before his great-great-grandson was being harassed by Grover, Mr Johnson’s grandfather was the town chief of police, and a real grump. It was a great choice to go with Mr Johnson, and one that pays off repeatedly throughout the special.
After Grover’s ancestor has it explained that Sesame Street is the unfriendliest place in town, he’s alerted to the fact that they do have the best cookie store in the world, where Cookie Monster’s ancestor works. Located in what will become Hoopers Store, Cookie’s ancestor makes three batches of delicious cookies with chocolate chippies, only to devour them all because they aren’t actually for sale. It’s quite jarring to see Cookie act like a jerk, but it’s all still in character, which was a fine line for David Rudman to walk.
Unkind people meant no holiday cheer, meaning Santa never visited Sesame Street. But it was all soon to change as we’re introduced to Elmo’s great-great-grandfather, Elmo. Yes, it turns out Elmo was named after his ancestor, who sounds and acts exactly like him. He bumps in to a young Muppet girl, Smudge (actually named Becky) played by Leslie Carrara-Rudloph, a sneak who steals his ball. Smudge might be one of my only issues with the special, as I don’t see why she couldn’t have been played by either Abby or even Prairie Dawn. My only thought was that Abby’s family didn’t live on Sesame Street back then (or until Season 37), but it’s already established that this is all made up anyway.
Not-Real-Elmo discovers that when he does something kind, the world lights up a little, and he discovers that a mysterious woman named Bella (Zosia Mamet) is in charge of tracking the holiday spirit in places with short supply, along with her friend Holly, a light-up device performed by Jennifer Barnhart. And so, with Grover and Smudge on board, Elmo begins to decorate the Street, which attracts the attention of the ancestors of Big Bird, Ernie and Bert.
And this is all in the first half of an hour special. Let’s not get bogged down in the details anymore, and jump forward to the resolution. SPOILER ALERT!
When everyone finally succeeds in spreading Christmas cheer, Santa (played by Jim Gaffigan) arrives to congratulate them on a job well done. And to thank HIM for stopping by, Cookie Monster’s ancestor arrives with a gift. Drum roll please… It’s cookies! Yes, it turns out it became tradition to leave cookies for Santa as a thank you for the gifts he so generously brings us. And so Sesame Street became the friendliest place in the world, all except for that one trash can and those who inhabit it…
The whole story was very sweet, and came together nicely. It was nice to see Sesame Street remind everyone watching that Christmas isn’t about the presents or the decorations – it’s about being kind to one another, something that everyone should do every day. The world’s in a bit of turmoil at the moment, and more than ever we needed that reminder – Be kind to each other! Writer Geri Cole and Director Matt Vogel (hey, we know him!) have pieced together a great special, and one that’s sure to become a tradition in a lot of households.
Each performer here more than pulls their weight. Ryan Dillon is doing such a great job that Elmo that I have a hard time differentiating his performance with Kevin Clash’s. He’s got the subtle looks down pat, and the double takes are always a highlight. Eric Jacobson’s Grover continues to be one of the best recasts in Muppet history, and Matt Vogel’s Mr Johnson has that perfect amount of repressed anger in it that Jerry Nelson captured so well. Tyler Bunch has taken over Elmo’s father Louie from Bill Barretta, and does such a great job that I actually had no idea until I saw Tyler mention it on Facebook!
The entire design team have done a fantastic job transforming not only the Street, but also the characters in to their olden-days look. While some characters have very noticeable differences to them (Cookie Monster gets an obnoxiously huge mustache, as does Bert), others get small subtle ones that were so minute, I had to go back and double check I wasn’t seeing things that weren’t there. For example, Grover gets a purple nose instead of pink, and he also gains small eyelids. Elmo’s nose is yellow instead of orange, very similar to his original design, and Ernie’s hair gets a bit of a blow out to look more like it would back in the early 1900’s.
If you missed the special, it’s on again December 2nd at 8am, and it’s also available on HBO Go. But for those without HBO, local affiliates will be airing it randomly through December, so keep an eye out! It’s also set to be released as a storybook next year.
- Alan and Nina are the only two humans who appear on the Street. No Chris? No Gina? No Buffy Sainte-Marie?
- Leslie Carrara-Rudolph appears in human form during the opening number while Abby is on the other side of the screen, leading me to believe that Abby is not actually a puppet and is indeed a real fairy in training.
- Ernie and Bert are throwing a last minute Christmas party, and Bert has the Yule Log video! No? It’s the directors cut.
- Did you notice in the olden days in place of Big Bird’s giant tree and nest, was a very small bare plant. That’s good set design right there.
- Grover and Elmo’s musical number is so catchy, it might just become a staple in my annual Christmas playlist.
- Big Bird knocks the Christmas tree and it slightly rolls away. The things you notice on your third viewing…
- Smudge is Mr Johnson’s daughter. That joke reveal made me laugh more than it probably should have.
- List of cheeses available in Grover’s cheese viewer: Blue, cheddar, gorgonzola, and brie (so good, it’s like you can reach out and smell it).
- Audra McDonald’s cameo seems a little shoehorned in, but she was a welcome presence.
- I haven’t even mentioned the Two-Headed Monster. It’s nice to see them back. Him back? Whatever.
- The Count turns up in the olden-days, as himself and not an ancestor. That made me unreasonably happy to know he’s been around the whole time.
- How long until we get Santa Clause / Bella fan fiction?
- “If you want a warm welcome or a nice howdy-do, then Sesame Street isn’t for you!”
“Hey, you know what? That rhymes!”
“It’s not intentional!”
- “You found Elmo’s ball!”
“Wait, who’s Elmo?”
“Okay, this is a little confusing…”
- And finally, my favorite exchange of the entire special:
Santa: “I’m writing a song. C is for– I can’t think of the next word”
Cookie: “C is for… Hmmm”
Santa: “No, C is for Hmmm isn’t right”
Cookie: “C is for cookie, but that good enough for me, so. Me not sure about you”
Santa: “No, it’s not good enough for Santa”
Cookie: “Oh boy, this a toughie”