It would be easy for the “Sesame Street” documentary, “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” to tip into hagiography: After all, it’s a beloved show and singular in how it approaches children’s television — possibly even deserving every accolade. But director Marilyn Agrelo’s deep dive behind the scenes of the show’s early years is remarkably clear-eyed both about the series and the people who made it.
For instance, as “Street Gang” recounts, the very creation of the hit show was itself never guaranteed: It took the accidental meeting of two individuals, Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist and academic, and Joan Ganz Cooney, a TV producer, to even come up with the idea that TV could be used to educate, as well as entertain. Cooney then recruited retired director Jon Stone, who brought along a long-haired, bearded puppeteer — Jim Henson. (In a delightful aside, Cooney admits she mistook Henson for a random hippie who’d wandered into the conference room the first time they met.)
It was these four people, plus a pair of talented songwriters in Christopher Cerf and Joe Raposo, who accidentally captured lightning in a bottle and started what became the flagship children’s show on the nascent national PBS network.
It’s a beloved show and singular in how it approaches children’s television — possibly even deserving every accolade.
“Sesame Street” is now a show that a majority of us take for granted — a series that’s always been there, and one of a very few things that, still, is truly universal. Sing “Pinball Number Count,” “One of These Things,” or the show’s indelible theme song and just about every person under the age of 80 who grew up in America will get the reference.
But this isn’t just your ordinary documentary in which aging producers reminisce; the film surprises by diving into stories that are rarely talked about.
It celebrates the idea that this was a show deliberately aimed at urban, minority youth, and that the setting of “The Street” was to appeal to what those kids supposedly knew. But the documentary also doesn’t flinch away from the sometimes uncomfortable sight of very earnest white people passionately fretting over education gaps while oblivious to the structural racism at play in their own writers’ room and actions.
It also digs down into one of the series’ rarely addressed recastings: Gordon, the show’s Black father figure, was one day played by Matt Robinson and the next by Roscoe Orman with no explanation. It reveals Robinson was the creative driving force behind one of the most controversial characters of “Sesame Street” in the early years, Roosevelt Franklin, who was the first very obviously Black-coded Muppet. Robinson felt strongly that whitewashing Black cultural signifiers, like African American Vernacular English, was bad for Black children. His perspective was that, if the show was really aimed at educating Black and brown youth, they should both acknowledge all of our differences and celebrate them, rather than attempt to erase Black and brown children’s differences.
The film surprises by diving into stories that are rarely talked about.
But that was a bridge too far in the early 70s, and the Roosevelt character was soon shelved, resulting in Robinson’s eventual exit.
Some of the other stories told here seem obvious in hindsight. For instance, the thing that first tipped television producer Cooney to how children absorb information from TV was kids’ ability to recite commercials — hence the idea would be that the program “sold” letters and numbers to children in commercial-like spots. Henson, then, was initially brought in not because his Muppets were aimed at children, or because he was some kind of altruist believer in education, but because of his talent for making funny, memorable commercials. (The original plan for the show didn’t even have Muppets on the “Street” part of the show, until producers realized that kids tuned out when the furry monsters weren’t on screen.)
One of the cleverest moves the documentary makes is to dig up old footage from those involved in the early show who have since passed — Henson, the director Stone and the songwriter Raposo — and interweaves their historical interviews in with the present-day ones to complete necessary parts of the narrative — especially for some of the show’s more famous moments. Raposo’s telling of the writing of “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” for example, or Stone’s process of bringing together the “Big Bird Learns Mr. Hooper Died” scene, would not have the same oomph without their stories.
The original plan for the show didn’t even have Muppets on the “Street” part of the show, until producers realized that kids tuned out when the furry monsters weren’t on screen.
The documentary also doesn’t shy away from the toll that making this series took on those who did it. Interviews with the children of the Raposo, Henson and Stone all address how the men basically ignored their children in favor of a passion project that benefited other kids. Though the documentary doesn’t dwell on them too much, these “dad went to work and came home four days later” stories of growing up on set (because that was where their families were all day) are pointed reminders that shows like this didn’t spring out of the air. Men like Jim Henson basically worked themselves into an early grave to make them happen.
And in the age of post credit sequences, viewers should make sure to watch all the way to the end — not only is there a cute closing scene, but the film saves the best for last as the credits themselves roll, playing “Sesame Street’s” greatest bop of all time, “Put Down The Duckie,” with various iterations of the backstage crew singing along, including Henson himself.
“Street Gang” isn’t perfect: It notably skips over Linda, the first deaf character on the show, and ends with Jim Henson’s funeral, thereby sidestepping some of the show’s later issues, like the dominance of Elmo. It also avoids addressing HBO’s own buy-out of the series, which both protected it from looming government funding cuts while creating a two-tiered system in which wealthier kids get to watch new episodes first while those reliant on their broadcast PBS station see them in second run.
That being said, despite the omissions, “Street Gang” is exactly the kind of tribute one would want for the series — a rare, delightful trip down memory lane that also serves as an education, just as any episode of “Sesame Street” should. It’s brought to you by the letters L, O, V, E and the number 1 show that will forever define children’s television.