- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ah, the good old days, when children played in vacant lots, ate trans fats and biked without helmets.

Those days may be gone for good, at least in the world of today’s cautious parents and well-scheduled preschoolers. If you care to revisit them, though, check out Sesame Workshop’s DVDs “Sesame Street Old School,” Volumes 1 and 2. The compilations, the second of which was released in November, include more than a dozen hours of the best clips from the show’s early years, 1969-1979.

Those were the days when Snuffleupagus was a trippy figment of Big Bird’s imagination. Cookie Monster clearly was a binge eater. Cheery optimist Elmo did not yet exist. Oscar was in need of some mood elevators.

That’s why “Old School” comes with a disclaimer — that the content is aimed at today’s grown-ups and may not suit the needs of today’s preschooler.

Say what? Yes, this “Sesame Street” is for adults — presumably those who survived childhood in the ‘70s without organic food and Baby Ballet lessons.

Sherrie Rollins Westin, chief marketing officer at Sesame Workshop, says, in hindsight, that perhaps the disclaimer was overkill. However, the workshop wanted to be clear that the “Sesame Street” today’s adults watched is not the same that’s on the air in 2008.

“When the videos were repackaged, we felt strongly that people should understand that this is not today’s ‘Sesame Street,’ ” Ms. Westin says. “It was meant as fairly tongue-in-cheek, but we wanted to err on the side of protecting children. Every single season of ‘Sesame Street’ is entirely new, and we are not the same as we were 40 years ago.”

In some ways, the needs of today’s preschoolers are the same as they were in the late 1960s. “Sesame Street” always has been aimed at teaching literacy skills and helping in the development of a child’s social and emotional growth, Ms. Westin says.

What has changed drastically is the culture around us. Ms. Westin points out that themes such as the environment and childhood obesity are more pressing than they were a generation ago.

Take Cookie Monster, for instance. Poor Cookie, in the ‘70s (and on “Old School”) he had free rein to gobble baked goods, all the while using poor language skills and atrocious table manners. Cookie has come a long way. His eating is under control — especially compared to the old “Monsterpiece Theatre” clips in which he not only smoked a pipe, but ate it, too. Cookie still eats cookies, but he has learned a bit about self-control and the USDA food pyramid.

“We didn’t want Cookie to never eat a cookie,” Ms. Westin says. “That is his persona. But we want to teach preschoolers that they need to eat well. That is why we have taught Cookie about ‘sometimes foods’ like cookies and ‘anytime foods’ like an apple. That is a very appropriate lesson for a preschooler.”

The old days had more culturally taboo topics than white flour and sugar. Thus the disclaimer. In the first episode of “Sesame Street,” adult Gordon meets a little girl and, minutes later, takes her by the hand and heads home.

“Let’s be honest, you wouldn’t do that today,” Ms. Westin says.

The irony in the “Old School” DVDs is that there is an adult market for “Sesame Street.” In the fashion of sweetly-sentimental-yet-oddly-hipster fare like a Mr. Bubble T-shirt or a Joe Cool lunchbox, “Sesame” has hit the nostalgia market. One can buy an adult-size Super Grover T-shirt at the mall or download a ring tone of “Rubber Ducky” for the cell phone. Surely the “Old School” DVDs are being enjoyed on frat row or in a Capitol Hill group house.

“So what you may have is the late-Gen-X adults watching ‘Sesame Street’ while their kids go off in the other room and play Halo 3,” jokes Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Seriously, though, feeling nostalgia for a simpler, safer time in one’s life is typical, Mr. Thompson says. For most people, what time was simpler and safer than when they were preschoolers?

“At first, you have the little kids who liked ‘Sesame,’ ” Mr. Thompson says. “Then, after about age 7, you wouldn’t be caught dead watching it. From about age 8 to 25, you are consumed with other things, and most of your dreams are shattered. So after that, you might have nostalgia for that really young period. Adults may be embracing ‘Sesame’ with nostalgia and irony.”

Indeed, an Internet forum on Muppetcentral.com has 19 pages of adults posting their thoughts on “Old School.”

“Aside from my nostalgic enjoyment, my children are GLUED!!,” one fan writes. “They will NOT watch any of the new Sesame episodes, but are quite engaged with the old format. I can surmise that this is due to the rapid succession of skits in the older format; the newer format, to me, seems much too drawn out and less captivating to a young child. … I find that the new format is overrun by fancy graphics and music that the actual value of what they’re trying to convey is lost. Not to mention the dreaded furry red little menace.”

Another big change from 40 years ago: children’s TV choices. There were few in the 1960s; today, dozens of channels and shows are dedicated to entertaining and teaching youngsters 24 hours a day.

When “Sesame Street” debuted in late 1969, it was groundbreaking, Mr. Thompson says. “MTV gets way too much credit for changing the pacing of shows,” he says. “Over the first decade, ‘Sesame Street’ had that figured out. They were on to commercial pacing: If you could use music and quick cuts to sell beer and toothpaste, why not use that aesthetic to sell numbers and being nice? ‘Sesame Street’ did that brilliantly. It was a style you would see on music videos later.”

“Sesame Street” also was a pioneer in making a show for children that also had adult-level puns and the cultural zeitgeist. Remember Placido Flamingo? “Let’s Make Veal”? Appearances by Robert DeNiro, Richard Pryor, Ray Charles? How about R.E.M. singing “Furry, Happy Monsters,” a la “Shiny, Happy People”?

Look for more of that on today’s “Sesame” as it heads toward its 40th birthday, says Maura Regan, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of global consumer products. There is “A’s Anatomy,” “Dancing With Triangles,” and “Meal, or No Meal.” There will be more talk about helping the environment and, as always, helping boost literacy.

“We’re recognizing that you grew up with ‘Sesame Street’ and loved it and now all of you are having kids,” she says. “So this is an opportunity to share ‘Sesame’ with your own kids. ‘Sesame’ is a really important and fun part of childhood; we are lucky to capture so many generations.”

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