There are rare, glittering moments in American television history that in hindsight feel like kismet. Moments where a dedicated creative team and a strong show concept come together at the right time and generate art that becomes indelibly resonant and culturally significant. There’s the inception of Saturday Night Live in 1975 by comedy’s most powerful Canadian, Lorne Michaels (sorry Michael Cera). And of course, there is Sesame Street.
In director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, past cast members, puppeteers, show developers and more come together to talk about the show’s origins and the global influence of the PBS children’s education program—growing from the 2008 book of the same name by former TV Guide editor Michael Davis. In an opening sequence, a man sings the praises of Sesame Street co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney saying, “What she is doing is what TV would do if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people and there’s all the difference in the world.”
The documentary is tonally propelled by these sentiments and by the palpable affinity and pride that Sesame Street’s creators have in the legacy of the show, but also by a series of compelling, well-recounted personal narratives and anecdotes about the show’s history. Editor Ben Gold elegantly splices behind-the-scenes footage of renowned puppeteers like Frank Oz (Bert, Grover) and, of course, Jim Henson (Ernie, Kermit) together to shed light on the art of puppetry and the show’s early days. But through Agrelo’s direction, the film showcases the humans who imbued so much humanity into some of our favorite monster characters. For example, Big Bird, who was operated and voiced by Carol Spinney, is supposed to be a child-like monster compared to the more palpable maturity of Kermit the Frog. Big Bird was written to be a peer to the audience. Similarly, Oscar the Grouch (also operated by Spinney) was written to show that curmudgeons like him, or at least “people with a different point of view could be your friend.”
Street Gang strategically incorporates older interviews with late contributors like Jon Stone, Sesame Street’s long-time director, and Joe Raposo, one of the show’s musical titans, to ensure that their influence and presence are equally honored in this cinematic ode to the show’s early days. One of the greatest strengths of Street Gang is its insistence that you know the faces, names and impact of the show’s creators and early cast. Before watching the documentary, I—like most folks—could sing the Sesame Street theme song and give you two minutes worth of loose facts about Jim Henson’s heavy thumbprint on modern puppetry. But Street Gang offers an abundance of factoids on how less nominally familiar peers came to the show. For example, Henson was undeniably the mastermind behind the Muppets. But prior to Sesame Street, he and his band of characters did late night variety spots and starred in commercials for Wilkins Coffee. In fact, Henson was more propelled by “beatnicky hip” comedy then children’s entertainment before Sesame Street came along.
Another intriguing factoid that is spotlit throughout Street Gang is the fact that Cooney came up with the concept for the show after recognizing the growing importance of television in the lives of American children, and the racialized educational gap in America. The target audience for Sesame Street has always been “inner-city Black children,” particularly in places like New York City. This is the main reason that the show is set in an urban environment, with walk-up steps, apartments, visible trash cans, fire hydrants and a diverse cast of characters. Didn’t know that that was the impetus behind the set? Neither did I. Street Gang ricochets between contemporary interviews with Cooney and the show’s education researcher Sharon Lerner to extrapolate the psychological motivations behind the show since its genesis: To combine children’s education and entertainment in a way that does not pander to children.
In addition to discussing the impetus behind the show’s creation and aesthetics, Street Gang balances self-congratulatory conversations about the show’s heavily integrated cast and about the less pleasant impact of the show on the lives of individual members. Sonia Manazno (Maria), Emilia Delgado (Luis) and the children of Matt Robinson (Sesame Street’s first Gordon) discuss the social significance of having positive Brown and Black characters on the show. Delgado joyously recounts how much it meant to him to play a Mexican character who moved through the world and did not have a storyline punctuated by violence against others or himself. Similarly, the documentary acknowledges that because of the positive depiction of people of color, some Southern states like Mississippi were initially reluctant to show it—a quandary which led Cooney to state to a group of inquiring journalists that “if having an integrated cast is our biggest sin, I’m glad to be a sinner.”
What perhaps is most intriguing about the discussions of race within Street Gang is the motivations behind Matt Robinson’s departure and the conversation around the show’s interpersonal nadirs. Robinson, who hosted a popular Philadelphia-based public access show before his Sesame Street days, introduced a Muppet named “Roosevelt Franklin,” who spoke in AAVE and was musically inclined. Street Gang reveals that Robinson’s motivation was to provide a Muppet for Black children who knew that they possessed different cultural signifiers from white children—to show that not everyone was the same and that that was good. But after complaints from Black viewers that Roosevelt perpetuated a stereotype that Black people were cool while whites were “intellectual,” Roosevelt was retired and Robinson departed from the show and was replaced by Hal Miller, then ultimately by Roscoe Orman, who still plays Grover now. This segment of the film effectively points out that despite the show’s overwhelming legacy of success, its creators have intermittently struggled to address cultural nuance with grace and precision. Not every storyline or creative venture has been delivered with flying colors.
In addition to honoring Robinson’s influence, Street Gang also acknowledges the way the show’s intensive, demanding schedule ironically distanced these creators from their families. Kate Stone Lucas and Polly Stone, daughters of director Jon Stone, sing their late father’s praises. They also admit that they did not see him often in their childhoods and that the pressure he placed on himself to maintain the quality of the show intensified his battle with depression. Nick Raposo, son of Sesame Street’s music man Joe, and Brian and Lisa Henson, two of Jim Henson’s five children, echo these sentiments. There is an undeniable pride the adult children of Sesame Street’s pioneers have in the work of their parents. But there is also an unfortunate irony that by dedicating themselves to the self-actualization of young children across the country—ultimately across the world—these people sometimes forfeited the opportunity to be truly present in their own homes.
It’s through this nuance that Street Gang becomes a thoughtfully crafted documentary about the creation of Sesame Street and the social repercussions of developing an educational cultural institution—a reliable, televised environment “where the air is sweet.” I recommend a box of tissues for an especially stirring sequence in which former Sesame Street head writer Norman Stiles discusses what it was like to write a scene in which Big Bird processes Mr. Hooper’s death for the first time. Otherwise, the documentary’s abundance of archival footage and personal yarns will immerse viewers in the wonderful world of Sesame Street and remind them how powerful, influential art grows from bright ideas and enthusiastic, collaborative minds.
Director: Marilyn Agrelo
Stars: Christopher Cerf, Roscoe Orman, Sonia Manzano, Kate Stone Lucas, Polly Stone, Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, Sharon Lerner, Lisa Henson, Brian Henson, Frank Biondo, Bob McGrath, Holly Robinson Peete, Matt Robinson, Jr., Dolores Robinson, Fran Brill, Emilio Delgado, Caroll Spinney, Oscar the Grouch, Nick Raposo, Norman Stiles
Release Date: April 23, 2021
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.