If I asked you to make a list of radical TV programs, Sesame Street would be the furthest show from your mind. After all, there’s nothing particularly radical about a gang of puppets singing songs and teaching kids about reading and math.
That programs like Sesame Street are now so commonplace speaks to the show’s legacy. Big Bird and his crew are so ingrained in popular culture that it’s tough to appreciate how revolutionary the show was when it hit the airwaves in the late ‘60s.
Director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street recounts the origin of Sesame Street, one of the most influential children’s television programs of all time. Based on Michael Davis’s book of the same name, Agrelo highlights the key players behind the beloved show. They include series creator Joan Ganz Cooney, the show’s original director Jon Stone, and legendary Muppets mastermind Jim Henson.
I’ve been a Muppets diehard my entire life, and still, Street Gang increased my love and admiration for Henson and company’s achievements. Though it’s hard to wrap our minds around it now, Sesame Street changed television in two major ways: its ground-breaking educational entertainment format and its inclusive representation policies.
There’s a reason people refer to television as the idiot box and the boob tube. When Sesame Street made its debut, most shows only cared about keeping folks tuned in long enough to watch commercials. But the new program didn’t exist to sell toys or bombard children with ads. The producers inserted strict educational guidelines into the show’s DNA. If a scene in the script wasn’t educating viewers somehow, they cut it from the show.
Agrelo reveals all the nitty-gritty details that went into getting Sesame Street off the ground. While crafting the program, the series producers had one golden rule: no talking down to kids. Before launching the show, the Children’s Television Workshop spent $8 million researching how to make content that educates and entertain preschoolers. The line of thinking was, “if these kids were clever enough to memorize commercial jingles, then why not their ABCs?”
One touching segment in the doc shows Sesame Street’s cast mourning the death of series regular Mr. Hooper (Will Lee). Before shooting the scene, the producers researched “what do 3–5-year-olds know about death?” They then used Big Bird as a stand-in for the kids at home. Big Bird gets pulled aside to learn what it means to lose a loved one, and it’s explained in an honest, easy to understand way. Between Big Bird’s slow realization and the human cast’s actual tears, it’s hard to experience the moment without getting a little choked up.
The second remarkable aspect of Sesame Street is its commitment to representation. Again, we take diverse casting for granted now, but this show arrived when American schools were still segregated. Street Gang explains how Sesame Street’s set design reflected New York’s inner city to appeal to kids who didn’t see themselves represented on TV.
Taking things a step further, the producers prioritized hiring black and brown human actors for its regular cast. It also showcased children of colour in each episode of the show. This practice doesn’t seem like a big deal in 2021, but we’re talking about a show that debuted a year after MLK’s assassination. Imagine the blowback.
One telling segment show’s a Mississippi official trying (poorly) to explain why his station took Sesame Street off the air. While he won’t come out and say the reason, we know why. It’s the beautiful cast of people of colour featured on the show.
Watching the Street Gang reminded me that superheroes come in all shapes and sizes. Kermit, Grover, and the Sesame Street crew were as foundational for me as Spider-Man and the X-Men. If not for the work of people like Joan Ganz Cooney and Jim Henson, this black film critic may not be sitting down right now and writing this review.
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street presents a compelling profile on Sesame Street by highlighting what made the program so unique. Viewers who never watched the show can still enjoy this heart-warming trip down memory lane. But if you grew up on Sesame Street, Agrelo delivers a can’t-miss hit of nostalgia.
Sundance 2021 runs from January 28th until February 3rd. Click here for more Sundance coverage.