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From mental health to inflation, when the cast of ‘Sesame Street’ speaks, adults still listen

For over 50 years, “Sesame Street” has been broaching complex topics with kids: Divorce, death and disability, for three, if the letter of the day was D.

But at some point, between in-show parodies like “Colambo” and “Upside Downton Abbey” and Elmo and Cookie Monster using social media to weigh in on mental health and inflation, the beloved cast of “Sesame Street” started talking directly to adults.

Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s the trust they’ve built with us since we were small, or maybe it’s just the innocence of a blue googly-eyed cookie fiend earnestly giving his opinion on rising grocery store prices, but when the furry residents of “Sesame Street” talk, adults tend to take them seriously.

That’s because so many of us who stopped watching still trust our furry friends on TV and the lessons they’ve imparted, said Abby Whitaker, a Ph.D. candidate at Temple University whose dissertation examines “Sesame Street’s” wider cultural and political impact.

“We still believe in the vision of Sesame Street,” Whitaker said. “We want to live in a sunnier world where people get along, where everyone has equal opportunities, where there is no discrimination and no hate. Sesame Street created and has preserved a vision for the world that we crave.”

‘Sesame Street’ has built half a century of trust with viewers

With 54 seasons and counting, “Sesame Street” is the longest-running children’s series on TV. Like the similarly historic “The Simpsons” or “Saturday Night Live,” it’s built a fervent fan base that spans generations.

The difference between those shows and “Sesame,” though, is that Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Elmo were introduced to us as living entities with whom we can interact and rely on. Cast members on “SNL” come and go; Bart Simpson isn’t interacting with fans on X, because he doesn’t exist beyond Springfield. “Sesame Street” is a world inside our own; Larry David can meet Elmo on “Today” and suddenly sock him just as the canonically 6-year-old Big Bird can ask his X followers for help when he unexpectedly shrinks to the size of a house spider. (He has since recovered his 8’2” stature.)

“As kids, we believed that they were our friends,” said Krystine Batcho, a psychologist and La Moyne College professor who studies nostalgia. “We believed that they understood us and that we could trust them. Then, we could temporarily suspend reality in order to share the fanciful world where they lived.”

Once they established their trustworthiness, the “Sesame” Muppets became reliable sources who could break down dense or thorny subjects with candor, poignance and humor. Elmo appeared in a CNN town hall in 2020 about Covid-19, and another about racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the nationwide protests that followed. Big Bird received his Covid-19 vaccine as soon as he was eligible — again, he is forever 6. In both of those specials, serious journalists like Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Erica Hill spoke to the Muppets like they would any other interviewee.

Earlier this year, when Elmo innocuously asked his followers (in the third-person, naturally) how they were doing, the responses were overwhelmingly bleak. “Elmo each day the abyss we stare into grows a unique horror.” “Elmo I’m depressed and broke.” “I’m at my lowest, thanks for asking.” Even President Joe Biden chimed in, reminding Elmo fans that they’re not alone.

Users were breaking down before a three-and-a-half-year-old monster on a public forum. Shortly after his replies were flooded with laments from adult followers, the red Muppet posted: “Elmo is glad he asked!”

Cookie Monster, meanwhile, posted about “shrinkflation” from his unique perspective: “Me cookies are getting smaller. Guess me going to have to eat double da cookies!” Countless X users concurred and appreciated the googly eyed monster for putting a complex economic phenomenon into terms anyone can understand — that of cookies.

We feel comfortable sharing our fears with or affirming the opinion of “Sesame Street” Muppets online because of the relationship they’ve carefully developed with so many of us since we were children, Batcho said.

“As adults we know the Muppets are not real and never were, but we still need who we once thought they were,” Batcho said.

We seek out childhood nostalgia like ‘Sesame’

Though the creative team behind “Sesame Street” are adept at bringing the show into the present and keeping material topical, its environment maintains the same sense of wonder and possibility, with an emphasis on kindness, as it did in 1969.

“Its neighborhood feels like a real place that you can return to,” Whitaker said. “It might not look quite the same. But it feels the same. That kind of nostalgia is powerful.”

It’s comforting to return to the apartment where Ernie innocently ribs roommate Bert, and Bert can hardly muffle his annoyance. Elmo and Big Bird are still naive, and they still ask probing questions about what it means to be a good person (or monster, or bird). Cookie Monster is eating more veggies these days, but he’s never far from his most cherished dessert. And though they learn something new in nearly every episode, they’re still, at their foam cores, the same as when they arrived on 123 Sesame Street.

Ernie and Bert are best friends and roommates, though Ernie tends to irk the unibrowed Bert. - Daniel Reinhardt/Picture Alliance/Getty Images
Ernie and Bert are best friends and roommates, though Ernie tends to irk the unibrowed Bert. - Daniel Reinhardt/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

“When you grow up, and the characters are still around and still relevant, it’s like seeing an old friend or your old, favorite stuffed animal,” Whitaker said.

Engaging with the “Sesame” gang whisks us back to our childhoods — a “special time in life” where dreams are limitless, promises are kept and imagination runs free, Batcho said.

“Communicating with characters we loved as children offers a temporary escape from our problems, stress, and the things that make us sad,” she said. “Nostalgia motivates us to relive the childhood interactions with them and lets us reconnect with the time in life we felt safe and happy.”

The “Sesame Street” worldview is still that of a child, but that’s part of why we’re still so drawn to it years after we stopped watching, said Anissa Graham, a senior lecturer in English at the University of North Alabama who has co-edited two books of Muppet scholarship.

“‘Sesame Street’ Muppets see the world as a place of potential, and that can be very reassuring to a grown-up inundated with news focused on endings,” she said.

The show has always tried to engage adults

“Sesame Street” was built for kids, but since its very first season, it’s strived to engage adults in the audience.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the show — originally called the Children’s Television Workshop — found in its research that children gleaned more from the series if their parents watched alongside them and reinforced what they’d learned, Whitaker said. The series held parents’ gaze by parodying zeitgeist-y pieces of pop culture and hosting celebrity guests.

“‘Sesame Street’ puts in the effort to remain culturally connected,” Graham said.

Early examples include “Letter B,” a parody of the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” or the 1978 disco album “Sesame Street Fever,” which borrows heavily from the similarly titled John Travolta film.

Graham’s personal favorite aired in 2015, at the height of “Game of Thrones”-mania: A Grover-starring parody called “Game of Chairs.” The short featured Muppet lookalikes of the HBO series’ human cast members competing in musical chairs to decide who will rule “Jesteros.” (Grover ends up the accidental king.)

The average kindergartener likely wasn’t tuning into the ultra-violent fantasy drama, but their parents might have been. Hearing puppet Tyrion and Ned Stark quip about the coming of winter and rolling heads is a delight reserved for caregivers in the audience, Graham said.

“‘Sesame Street’ doesn’t just get kids,” Graham said. “It gets adults, too.”

That the Muppets are now posting on X, where their youngest active fans are unlikely to find them, is in keeping with its mission of speaking to adults — and now, former “Sesame” viewers don’t need to have a child to stay in touch with Elmo and his neighbors.

“Young adults who have not yet had children can indulge their nostalgia by interacting with their imaginary friends on social media,” Batcho said.

Imaginary, perhaps, but no less fundamental to the growth of countless viewers who are just as fond of their former “Sesame Street” neighbors now as they were in their youth. For so many grown-ups, they’re less characters than lifelong companions who still have wisdom to share and solace to offer.

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