Review: Sesame Street 50th Anniversary Celebration

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Jarrod Fairclough – In 1969, a young puppeteer named Caroll Spinney had been cast in a new series which aimed to educate young children.  Caroll would be playing two characters.  One was a tall goofy bird.  The other was a grouch who lived in a trash can.  The bird’s voice had come easily, though would evolve over time to become more childlike and less wacky.  The grouch’s, however, was seemingly impossible to create.

Then, one day as he got in a cab on his way to the studio, the driver turned to him and in a gruff, New York accent muttered ‘Where to, Mac?’.  Something clicked inside Caroll’s head.  Suddenly he had the voice!  He would steal this driver’s cadence and gruffness, and would translate it in to the voice of Oscar the Grouch!  He kept repeating the phrase to himself; ‘Where to, Mac?  Where to, Mac?’.  And as he reached the studio, he rushed inside, pulled on Oscar and prepared to try out the voice on the show’s lead puppeteer, Jim Henson.  Oscar popped out of his can, and in the cabbie’s voice, said something mean and then disappeared.  Jim popped his head around the trash can to the nervous Caroll, and in his calm soothing voice said ‘That’ll do nicely’.

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Why tell you this story now, in a review about an anniversay special 50 years later?  It’s because last night’s Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Special is filled with so many meta jokes and so much fan service that even behind the scenes stories like that are referenced in the 45 minute run time.  As Cookie Monster jumps in a cab with the special’s host Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the driver turns and asks, in what appears to be Caroll Spinney’s voice, ‘Where to, Mac?’.  And as a hardcore Sesame Street nerd, it’s a pure delight.

Yes, Sesame Street finally turns 50 this weekend, after an entire years worth of celebration.  There have been road trips, pop up events, appearances, even the Empire State Building will be green and yellow tonight!  And to celebrate, the teams at Sesame Workshop and HBO have put together a special that does everything it can to honor the show’s history, as well as entertain.  Hosted by the aforementioned Joseph Gordon-Levitt (here on out referred to as Joe), the special is filled with surprise guests, old characters, references galore and so much more.

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While the plot is fairly superfluous to the special, it’s a fun little through line that gives some of the characters their best moments.  Joe has arrived on Sesame Street to partake in the celebrations, and wants to gather everyone under the famous Sesame Street sign for a photo.  Unfortunately, the sign has gone missing!  So Elmo, Abby, Rosita and Grover set out to find it.  Meanwhile, Big Bird and Snuffy are planning their own surprise, and Gonger, who is trapped on a balloon, is chased around the street by Cookie Monster who is trying to save him.

Gonger is a real hoot, and is one of the best additions to Sesame Street in a long time.  Warrick Brownlow-Pike’s energy is infectious, and the voice is ridiculous but in the best way imaginable.  He gets some hilarious moments as he floats around the Street, either low to the ground or high above the buildings.  There’s a real kinship between Cookie and Gonger, which is a testiment to the chemistry between Warrick and David Rudman.  Provided Gonger sticks around, these two could eventually become one of the series most iconic duos.

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Let’s get to the biggest highlight of the special, and that’s the return appearances by so many old characters.  Long lost characters like Don Music, Forgetful Jones, Harvey Kneeslapper, Sherlock Hemlock, Roosevelt Franklin and Captain Vegetable don’t only show up, they have lines!  In fact basically every Muppet character in every shot is someone that would have their own Muppet Wiki page, meaning they aren’t just Anything Muppets.  Matt Vogel does a wonderful Sherlock Hemlock, sounding just like Jerry Nelson, while Ryan Dillon’s Don Music is so spot on I had to rewatch it to see if they’d lifted Richard Hunt’s lines from an old sketch.  Eric Jacobson is the go to guy to replace Frank Oz these days, and his Harvey Kneeslapper is brilliant.  Frank had such an iconic laugh as Harvey, which Eric is able to do with absolute ease.  It’s easy to see why he’s such a staple, and we’ll get into that more shortly.  While not a Muppet, The Baker also appears, with Jim Henson’s voice lifted from an early sketch.

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But there are two return appearances that stop the show.  The first is the one and only Kermit the Frog.  Kermit was a regular on the show for decades, however after Disney bought The Muppets in 2004, his tenure ended, and he’s only appeared once briefly in an Elmo’s World segment in 2009 since.  But he’s back, this time on the arm of Matt Vogel, to celebrate the place he was a part of for so long.  It’s so nice to see Kermit back on Sesame Street, especially in the briefest of moments when he interacts with Gonger and Cookie Monster.  Cookie shouting ‘Hi, Frog!’ had such an air of warmth and familiarity to it, you could easily imagine that the two have been catching up for a plate of cookies and flies once a month for the past 5 years.  Kermit sings ‘Bein’ Green’ with guest Elvis Costello, and it’s kind of beautiful.  Though it’s never been one of my favorite Kermit songs, both Elvis and Matt put real heart in to it, and it shows.  It likely won’t happen, but I’d love to see Kermit come back on the Street a little more, see him again with Cookie or Elmo or Grover.

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The second show stopper is that of Lefty the Salesman.  Lefty was a recurring character in the shows early years, performed by Frank Oz, who would attempt to swindle characters (usually Ernie) in to buying unnecessary items or letters.  Though they stopped filming segments after Season 6, they would be syndicated until Season 29.  This means Lefty hasn’t been on the show in 21 years, yet rather than give him a quick line like they do with Sherlock or Captain Vegetable, Lefty is given a full 90 second segment with Grover and Rosita.  And my goodness, is it delightful!  Dedicating this long to a relatively obscure character shows that the team at Sesame Workshop made this for the fans, not for the casual viewer.  Ryan Dillon performs Lefty here, and is so close to Frank’s voice that several people asked me if Frank had returned for the special.  Ryan is quickly establishing himself as a vital member of the Sesame community.

In fact Ryan is having so much fun in this special, it’s contagious.  While Kevin Clash’s Elmo was always playful, Ryan’s Elmo is more cheeky, and the producers have obviously given him free reign to dial it up to 11 when he sees fit.  The eye mechanism in Elmo’s head which gives him the befuddled look is used to great effect more than once here, and it’s all due to Ryan’s extreme talent.  The other guy clearly having a blast here is Eric Jacobson, who is so comfortable as Grover, Bert and Oscar now that their jokes come across as well as Frank Oz and Caroll Spinney’s versions ever did.  Especially Grover, who gets a lot of screentime here as both himself and Super Grover, plus a grocer in ‘People In Your Neighborhood’.  I know he and Rosita have been matched up before, but here the duo are in fine form, bouncing off each other with aplomb.  More Rosita, Grover and Lefty please, Sesame Workshop!

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Of course, long lost Muppets aren’t the only ones returning, with a myriad of Sesame Street humans returning as well.  Maria, Luis, Leela, Bob, Linda, Gina, Gordon, Susan and Miles all make a comeback, joining Alan, Chris and Nina.  And damn, it’s so good to see them again.  Though I’m not an avid watcher of new Sesame Street (you know, being 30 and all), these guys are so necessary to what has made the show a success for 50 years.  Suki Lopez’s Nina is great.  Chris Knowings’ Chris is fine.  But often the only straight man on the show these days is Alan, as the other two are a bit more cartoony than the other humans were.  There’s a brief scene with Gina, Alan and Julia that made me ache for their return, because of how natural Alison Bartlett seems in her couple of lines.  Bob McGrath and Loretta Long get their own time to sing ‘One of These Things’ together, and it’s nice to remember that these two were there Episode 0001.  If Sesame Workshop want to appeal to adults, it’s crucial they put these guys back on the Street, or in social media videos – something!  Alan and Nina are fine, but I need my Susan and Gordon!

A lot of the celebrity guests seemed pretty unnecessary to the whole thing.  Norah Jones was great, as was Solange Knowles, Elvis Costello, Nile Rodgers and Itzhak Perlman.  But Meghan Trainor’s version of ‘Count Me In’ looked like it belonged in a regular episode, not an anniversary special.  Whoopi Goldberg deserves to be in every Muppet thing ever, but here she didn’t really do much of anything, she felt wasted.  Sterling K Brown pretended to eat cookies… Okay?  Great, I get that he’s a talented actor and probably a fan, but why?  And I have zero clue why Patti LaBelle was there.  Was it just to shoe-horn in the Letter X from her 1985 appearance?

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And so we’ve done it – we’ve basically completed Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary celebration!  This special was an incredible way to end a whirlwind of a year, and as of December 3rd you’ll be able to buy it on DVD and digitally.  For those without HBO, it airs next Sunday, November 17th on PBS, and Season 50 begins November 16th.

Other Thoughts:

  • Why did it take so long for the cab driver to ask Cookie where they were going? Did he and Joe just get in the cab and say ‘Start driving!’?
  • These are the directions to Sesame Street, care of the girl scout – Take the second right, go around a traffic circle, take the exit for Raisin Road (not Poppy), merge left around the construction, then straight until you see the sign for Hooper’s Store.
  • Apparently Hoots, Herry, Ovejita and Mama Bear have a band?
  • Joe is 38. Do you think he knows dinosaurs?
  • Ryan Dillon’s hand becomes visible for 5 frames while performing Don Music. You notice these things on your third rewatch…
  • Peter Linz’s Ernie is going from strength to strength, and he gets a lot of screentime throughout the special!
  • Guy Smiley and Don Music are interchangeable.
  • Keen eye viewers may have noticed the sudden appearance of Caroll and Deb Spinney during the finale verse of ‘Sing’. We love you, Caroll and Deb!
  • Also, there’s Fran Brill, originally performer of Prairie Dawn and Zoe!
  • Super Grover: “You have someone right here who will save the day!”
    Rosita: “Really!? Who!?”
  • Sterling K Brown (after eating cookies): “I don’t think I got any in my mouth.”
    Cookie: “Yeah, that happens”.
  • (About the missing Street sign) Grover: “We looked EVERYWHERE for it!”
    Rosita: “Well, not everywhere…”
    Grover: “…We looked SEVERAL PLACES for it!”

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