From the Archives: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street review

From the Archives: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on MovieJawn.

As crazy as it sounds, I don’t think I’ve ever met a single person in my entire life who wasn’t affected in some way by Sesame Street. The program has been on the air for over half a century, and shows no signs of stopping, both as a cultural item and marketing behemoth. With its cultural ubiquitousness, what many don’t realize is that at the time of its inception, Sesame Street was downright radical. Revolutionary, even. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street takes us back to the very beginning, aiming to provide a detailed look into the people and forces that turned a simple idea into the most beloved and enduring educational program in the history of television.

I remember a time in my youth when television was heralded as a unique sort of evil. The “boob tube” it was called, and I was warned (by television commercials, ironically) that to sit in front of it instead of playing outside would turn me into a couch potato. Nobody wants to be a couch potato—way too many carbs. Yet the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were merely the tail end of this notion, and television has now been accepted as a societal staple, warts and all. Back in 1969, at the dawn of Sesame Street, the idea that TV was empty capitalist escapism was held much more strongly. At the same time, shifting societal forces meant that for a lot of families, the TV set had to serve as a sort of babysitter while mom and dad were out working. The brains behind Sesame Street saw this as an opportunity to do something good: If kids were going to be watching TV anyway, why not give them programming that can stimulate their minds, educate, and create a sense of wonder that will surely help them grow into imaginative, thoughtful adults?

At the forefront of this project were Joan Ganz Cooney and Jon Stone, the duo largely seen as the mother and father of Sesame Street (Jim Henson would come later when it was determined that kids respond incredibly well to puppets). Teaming up with marketing professionals, psychologists, and comedy writers, their idea was to essentially trick kids into learning, much the same way a commercial could trick an adult into buying something they don’t need. Rather than drilling the alphabet into the brain of a disinterested child, why not try to sell it to them? A child who wants to learn is a child who never stops learning, which is precisely the type of person the world can always use.

Street Gang, directed by Marilyn Agreto and adapted from the book by Michael Davis, uses incredible behind the scenes footage to give us a rundown of the show’s history, while also digging into its effects on society at large (and, conversely, on society’s response to an atypical new piece of programming). We check in with a vast swath of talking heads, many of whom were involved since the very beginning, and some of whom came to the show later. We also meet the descendants of Sesame Street’s first cast and crew, who treat us to stories of how their connection to the show enriched their lives. One segment, in which the now grown children of Matt Robinson, Sesame Street’s original Gordon, could not figure out how their dad managed to fit inside the television, speaks to the magic at the heart of the show.

Also at the heart of the show, and of this film, is the radical streak which caused friction against the social mores of the time, but ultimately proved to be the show’s lasting legacy. Namely that Sesame Street was a diversity-forward piece of art, and proudly so. At the time, urban families were relying on the television by necessity, and urban children were falling behind in education. The brains behind Sesame Street saw this as an opportunity. If their program could enchant inner-city children, they’d not only be doing progressive work for these communities, but a trickle up effect would mean that suburban children would respond to the show as well. As such, Sesame Street was set on a city block and populated with diverse, multilingual humans, all of whom are treated as individuals rather than images. This, naturally, caused resistance in some markets, but the quality of the message repeatedly prevailed, resonating with children of all races and demographics. In perhaps the film’s most compelling segment, a network representative tries to defend the pulling of Sesame Street in his market by citing market demands instead of racial discomfort. We are then shown a montage of white children, all representative of the market he claims has a distaste for the show, enthusiastically declaring Sesame Street to be their favorite thing on TV.

Another wonderful segment depicts the now legendary episode that dealt with the passing of the beloved Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) with a frank honesty not typically afforded to young children. It’s a heavy segment, included here to highlight the respect that Sesame Street aimed to show its audience, and Street Gang smartly follows it up with a comic montage of puppeteer bloopers, in which we get to hear Big Bird and his ilk use foul language. Well done.

In translating a book to the screen, one must dilute some of the material for the sake of runtime, and as such, portions of the documentary feel slightly shallow. While certainly not enough to take away from the film on the whole, it does point to perhaps a future opportunity for other work in this world. An entire film could be dedicated to Matt Robinson and his relationship to the show. Another could be devoted to the relationship between Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Yet another could be devoted to just the technical wizardry that brought Sesame Street to life. Street Gang is an absolute joy to behold, and one hopes that it’s an entry point to an even larger exploration of the legendary show. It would be well-deserved, and hopefully rabidly consumed. I, for one, would love to know even more!!

As a slightly more than basic history of a beloved program, a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and an educational look into Sesame Street’s interaction with, and effect upon, the world at large, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a joyful success, well worth checking out.

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