Kieran Moore – At some point in the future I’m planning to produce an “Unsung Heroes” chart for all the characters that don’t have enough songs to fill a list of 10. I already have some fantastic names/songs lined up… In the meantime, today I’m going to look at a Sesame Street monster who definitely has enough material, yet still somehow feels like an “unsung hero”.
Telly Monster has been on our screens for just a few months shy of 40 years. And yet if you ask an old school Sesame Street viewer to name characters from the show I feel like Telly would generally be quite far down the list. Not everyone can be Big Bird, but for some reason Telly’s a guy that’s never quite got his dues. Anyway, today I’m going to change that and devote two thousand words(ish) to our favorite magenta monster. It’s about time he got some recognition and the first song is sure to make a splash!
10 – Telly’s Aquarium
One thing you’ll notice about this chart is that for whatever reason a lot of Telly’s songs seem to be parody pieces. That shouldn’t be too surprising as Sesame Street loves to take off popular entertainment, but there does seem to be a particularly high proportion today. This is a parody of the hippy hit “Aquarius”, which is a great song in its own right. This has just enough subtle nods (and a not so subtle one in the location) to keep it recognizable whilst still feeling fresh and new. As well as Martin P. Robinson as Telly, this song features some of the best vocal talent Sesame Street has ever had with Kevin Clash, David Rudman, Joey Mazzarino and Stephanie D’Abruzzo all present and correct.
9 – Telly’s Lunch
I’ve never seen the original show, yet this piece is so iconic even I know it’s an imitation of the opening theme of The Brady Bunch. The song, the split-screen setting, the sandwiches – it’s almost an exact copy. There are several similarities between this and the previous song too, but perhaps one of the biggest is that Telly actually does very little singing in both. In the previous track he mostly did backing and adlibs while here he has graduated to a couple of solo lines. The biggest portion of the praise should perhaps instead go to Annette Calud who is taking the lion’s share of the vocals. This might actually be her debut on one of my charts, despite the fact that we’re well into the 100’s now. Her voice is clear and bright and just right for a song about anthropomorphic food in a fridge!
8 – Thirteen
This song isn’t a direct parody, but I think we can safely say it’s taking off a particular musical genre. That’s an interesting question actually – when does a song stop being simply performed in a musical style and become a parody of it instead? I guess it’s when it purposely employs the tropes of the style rather than just using them naturally. Anyway… The lyrics for this song were written by none other than Sonia Manzano and the music is from the maestro of all things 1950’s – Christopher Cerf. A song about a number shouldn’t be anything special in the context of Sesame Street, but there’s something so random and silly about this that it just leaps off the screen.
7 – Telly Tut
Telly has loved many things over the years and while that’s an endearing trait I think it might be one of the reasons he hasn’t become as well known as some other characters. Oscar is a grump, Cookie Monster eats cookies, Bert & Ernie are best friends, The Count likes to count… You get the idea. Telly was originally introduced as a character who watched too much TV – hence his name. He had antennae and whirling eyes and was, quite frankly, a little scary. Particularly for kids who were watching the very thing that made his eyes spin. His love for all things TV was canned pretty quickly and instead Telly became a worrier and, perhaps harkening back to his TV-obsessed ways, someone who falls and falls hard for whatever he’s doing. As Telly lost his “thing”, he possibly also lost some of his recognisability. I love him as Sesame Street’s resident “every monster” good guy, but it’s not screaming for attention against Big Bird or Elmo. (Speaking of which, for the longest time as a kid I assumed Telly and Elmo were related.)
6 – Alpha Baa Baa Twinkle Song
This song is right up my alley! Nothing makes me happier than when songs get mashed together and this is practically perfect in that respect. It’s such an obvious thing to do since The Alphabet Song, Baa Baa Black Sheep and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star share virtually the same tune, yet the way it’s put together and the lyrics mashed up makes it super silly and lots of fun. I can’t help smiling to this. The background to this piece is that Telly can’t decide which of the three songs he likes best so he decides to mix them together. That’s just the kind of thing I’d expect Telly to do and I love him for it.
5 – Three Sides Now
Who doesn’t love a bit of folk music? Telly certainly does. The other thing he loves is triangles. As we also saw with Telly Tut, this guy sure loves a three-sided shape. Telly might not spend all of his time obsessively watching television anymore, but that passion has been moved into other, triangular, areas. This song is sweet and lilting and not an obvious choice for Telly’s gruff vocals (once again performed brilliantly by Martin P. Robinson), but it’s filled with emotion and that really sells it. It’s impossible not to be swept away by the whole thing. Peter Linz and Jerry Nelson’s musicians provide able assistance and very, very nearly steal the show!
4 – Everything Goes
And here we are with one last parody. This time Anything Goes gets the “sincerest form of flattery” as Telly channels his inner Ethel Merman. Aside from Martin’s punchy vocals (which are perfect for the lyrics and style), what I really enjoy about this are the staging and puppetry. Telly stuffing all those items into his backpack might be using an old magician’s trick that has been seen countless times before, but having a puppet doing it and knowing the co-ordination it’s taking a minimum of two people to perform is a joy to behold. I can only imagine how technically difficult it was to do something so simple. Seeing Telly grapple with a grown up problem reminds us that he’s not as young as Elmo or Zoe. He often has the weight of the world on his shoulders and feels much more adult than most of the Muppets on the street.
3 – I Am Your Friend
Everyone needs a Bob in their life. If every time I felt sad Bob came and sang this to me I think I’d feel much better too. This is a sweet ballad about friendship and how that special relationship can offer support, companionship and reassurance. It’s a great message for kids and adults alike. Bob McGrath excels at this kind of song. He really is an exceptional singer. And Martin P. Robinson shows just how comfortable he is with this type of music too. As we near the end of this list, you’ll be aware that we’ve featured everything from folk and doo-wap to showtunes and rock. Sesame Street loves to feature a range of musical styles, but not every character can pull them off convincingly. Telly has no such issues.
2 – My Outer Space Friend
This song is melting my mind! It feels weird and trippy – almost like a poem set to music rather than an actual song. The lyrics kind of fit the music and the music kind of fits the lyrics, but they don’t quite feel like they necessarily belong together and that helps reinforce the other-worldly feel of the piece. This whole dream-like sequence is the perfect way to get off to sleep in the evening. In fact, I’m stiffling a yawn as a type. The visuals are a little CG heavy perhaps, but it works in context with the alien nature of the song. Also, it’s neat to see a “Yip-Yip” Martian being used as Telly’s “outer space friend”. We don’t see them often enough. Along with all the fun and nonsense there’s a serious message here about how it’s ok to be friends with people who are different and that trying new experiences can lead to greater understanding. It’s subtle and brilliantly done.
1 – Shapes in My Room
I honestly don’t know if this and the previous song could be any more different, but I like how they play together as if Telly has gone to bed dreaming of his outer space friend and then woken up full of vim, vigor and excitement for the shapes in his room. They almost feel like two movements of the same piece and that was purely accidental. This is loud, raucous and rocky and I love that Telly has something he can get his teeth into with this number. This is once again performed by Martin P. Robinson, but I can’t get to the end of this list and not mention Telly’s other main performer, Brian Muehl. Although not Telly’s very, very first puppeteer, Brian turned him into the monster we know today. He made Telly endearing and sweet and ultimately the kind of guy you’d be happy to hang out with. You couldn’t say that about every Sesame Street character… Whether Telly is being performed by Brian or Martin, it’s clear to see that both performers really love Telly as a character. A lot of actors say they enjoy playing villains, but I can imagine it must also be satisfying to portray a nice guy who doesn’t always finish last.
And Telly is a nice guy. All Sesame Street characters are (even Oscar), but Telly has made it an art. He’s often included in other characters’ lists of best friends and it’s easy to see why. He’s affable, amiable, kind, caring and sweet. Everyone needs a monster like Telly in their life.
So I have to say Thank You to Telly, Brian and Martin; as well as everyone else who’s performed in, written, or worked in some other way on the songs and scenes in today’s chart. Thank You for creating probably the most “human” monster of all.