“Sunny days / sweeping the clouds away / On my way / to where the air is sweet…”
For millions of folks born in the United States in the late 60s and after, the opening lines of the Sesame Street theme song can transport us back to our early childhoods, sitting in front of the TV and learning our ABC’s and 123’s. For many of us, we wouldn’t think about reading, writing, math, and community in the ways we do without the formative influence of the show. Marilyn Agrelo’s 2021 documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street chronicles the earliest days of the show from its pre-production, to the test-audience period, and the subsequent years full of character creation and social commentary. It discusses the progressive idea of making a public television series for an inner-city target audience of 3-to-5-years-olds, most of whom would enter school in the late 60s without the same early-educational concepts as their more affluent peers. At the time, kids from the inner-city were spending about half of their waking time in front of the television, but most of what they watched was designed to sell things. One of the first producers of the show said that an instigating question behind Sesame Street was simply curious about what television could do “if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people.”
The documentary spends time charting the foundational importance of Joan Gantz Cooney, the woman who first proposed Sesame Street’s creation. Gantz Cooney emphasised that she faced resistance, with some people involved with the project saying Sesame Street wouldn’t be taken seriously if helmed by a woman. She insisted, however, that since the ideas all belonged to her and were in her head, the producers needed her. The New York Times, when reporting on Sesame Street, noted that Gantz Cooney would be one of the most powerful women in television.
For fans of the Muppets, the documentary offers some excellent behind-the-scenes footage of Jim Henson on set, particularly some great scenes of him voicing Ernie along with his career-partner Frank Oz who voiced Bert (and, perhaps most famously, Yoda in Star Wars). Seeing the ways Henson worked with others to create the series gives insight into a different side of puppet-usage. Whereas the Muppets is more for entertainment, Henson was able to take that same engaging and humorous energy to teach children.
The documentary also does profiles on many of the main characters. Some of the most famous puppets, such as Big Bird (Carroll Spinney), Oscar the Grouch (Carroll Spinney), and Cookie Monster (Frank Oz) get their own portraits, and the doc unpacks the character generation process for them and the specific ideas and lessons they were meant to convey to children. Some of the human characters also receive consideration, such as Gordon, the Black lead of the show (played over the years by Matt Robinson, Hal Miller, and Roscoe Orman), as well as Luis (Emilio Delgado) and Maria (Sonia Manzano), two prominent Latino & Latina characters. The film emphasises the importance of an integrated cast for the producers and what portraying these roles meant to the actors involved.
Other than just being informative about a very important series in U.S. television, the documentary is also an emotional viewing experience. Whenever the puppets would break character and use language not-safe-for-public-television, or make inside jokes with the crew, I found myself grinning or laughing, and when the documentary covered some particular emotional aspects of the series, such as the first time the show had to deal directly with death and grief, I was very moved. For a show like Sesame Street, one so vivid and committed to teaching young children the basics of communication and shared human emotion, it makes sense that everyone involved with the show would be vibrant and heartfelt, and the documentary captures that mood—both playful and intense—in all its colour.
Even for viewers who didn’t grow up with Sesame Street, Street Gang is an excellent documentary about an essential, groundbreaking moment for both children’s television and for women television producers. It also celebrates a stubbornly optimistic and humanistic worldview that inspired those involved to make early education both enjoyable and accessible to children in the U.S. who faced the most systemic obstacles to learning foundational concepts. After finishing the documentary, I went to HBO’s website and skimmed through the archives, looking forward to getting a moment to watch some early Sesame Street episodes. In an even more abstract way, I felt inspired in my own future work as a visual storyteller. How can I help make television that “loves people”? Street Gang offers a look at one highly-effective and beloved way to do so.
Street Gang: How we got to Sesame Street is available in select cinemas on on VOD now
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter