I have a distinct memory, among my very earliest, of my mother describing a new television show about to debut on Public Television. “It’s for kids exactly your age,” she told me, and so it was. Sesame Street first aired in late 1969, when I was 5. In a home where screen time was highly restricted (our boxy Sony Trinitron representing the only screen at that primitive time), Grover, Ernie, Bert, Maria, Mr. Hooper, Kermit, Gordon, Guy Smiley & Co. proved a staple of my early cultural sentience. It occurred to me recently that without the enthusiastic approval of kids my age — this founding Sesame Street cohort — the show might not have survived or become such a thing. And what a thing: 50 years and counting.
While channel surfing through the upper, premium reaches of my cable guide, I never seem to happen upon Sesame Street. Yes, today the show airs on HBO. You may have read about this arrangement whereby first-run episodes can be found there on Saturday mornings; eventually, they cycle back onto PBS in a post-modern form of syndication. I never see it there either, to be honest. My viewing habits are primarily nocturnal. It made this transition to HBO 2 years ago and I gather the show continues to wear extremely well.
Buoyed by the idea that this hugely influential, 50-year old show retains “the brassy splendor of The Bugs Bunny Show and the institutional dignity of a secular Sabbath school,” I’ve been conducting an experiment these last few weeks: I’ve been mentioning Sesame Street to folks generally my age and paying attention to their mood in reaction. If it generally brightens, I know they are fellow members of my cohort. However, if I make a Cookie Monster or Roosevelt Franklin reference to someone just 4 years older, the reactions differ quite markedly. Often they don’t get it, or they will roll their eyes and make it clear they didn’t really watch Sesame Street. This makes sense: When the show debuted, these elder folks (Baby Boomers, primarily) had already aged out.
More and more I realize that members of my generational cohort (what cultural historians and demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe call “The 13th Generation”, what the rest of us call Generation X) possess a unique relationship to this show and to American culture frankly. We weren’t just the first to watch and appreciate Sesame Street; we staffed the damn thing. Remember those little ditties they did, spelling out various numbers and letters with the bodies of other 5- and 6-year-old kiddies? Wesleyan, where I went to college in the 1980s, was full of Manhattanites who played those “roles” on the early shows. A dozen years on, we took great delight in catching Sesame Street some afternoon after class and spying our friend Ben Irvin forming the cross section of the letter A.
[Another favorite SS gag of mine, as a kid, was the chef who’d emerge from some doorway, at the top of a small stairwell, bearing a huge tray of ice cream sundaes. He’d invariably appear there at the close of some peppy-but-educational music video extolling the virtues and qualities of, say, the number 7 — and when he did, he’d sing out, “Seven! Chocolate! Sundaes!!” Whereupon he’d trip and fall down the stairs, making a huge mess. I found this side-splittingly hilarious and remember rooting to see the 7 video (as opposed to 5 or 8) because I knew it would result in such gratifying, splattered chaos.]
In my relative dotage, and in wake of reading Strauss & Howe’s important 1991 book, “Generations: A History of America 1584-2054”, I continue to come across these cultural touchstones that more definitively separate myself from (and more finely hone my animus toward) Baby Boomers, my feckless next elders in the culture. Sesame Street is one such marker. If you’re an early 50something like myself and you knew the words to “Rubber Ducky”, you’re clearly a member of the 13th Generation — for Boomers were by that time too old for such things.
Here’s another music-based (but not fool-proof) way to separate Boomers from Xers: The Grateful Dead. If you’re way into The Dead, you’re likely a Boomer.
Boomers don’t have the same need to parse things in this way, of course. Their cohort is so big, so culturally domineering, they assume (quite rightly) that most of the American society we now occupy was created for or by them, but certainly for their benefit. We 13ers are obliged to poke around a bit for examples where our own identities weren’t completely overrun or ignored.
Eventually I would outgrow Sesame Street, too, graduating as it were to The Electric Company, a companion PBS show (also produced by the Children’s Television Workshop) that more strongly emphasized the development of reading skills, or that’s the way it seemed to me at the time. Rita Moreno of all people hosted that enterprise, or so I was recently reminded when listening to a fascinating podcast/interview with her.
If you’re never heard Mark Maron’s WTF, here is yet another example of why the long-form pod is so fabulous: Where else would you hear Moreno, now 86, so engagingly but casually discussing West Side Story, public TV in the 1970s, and her navigation of the decaying MGM studio system as a young Latina in the late 1940s? Here’s another reason I dig WTF: Maron is exactly my age. Over and over again I find his conversational interviews revealing of a generational attitude that syncs up with my own, from movies and television shows that made big impressions on us both; to the particular drug culture that pervaded when we arrived at college in the early 1980s; to an ambivalence toward Boomers, in whose wide-ass shadow we have lived our entire lives; to attitudes of broad tolerance and political skepticism that Strauss & Howe tell us are trademark of 13ers (and other Reactive generations that inevitably follow Idealist cohorts like Boomers).
A more amorphous but still compelling argument can be made that this immediate post-Boomer, 50something cohort of ours remains a sui generis cultural product of Sesame Street and its distinct moral universe. Even if we weren’t, the show was unabashedly urban and diverse, never judgmental (but never cloying either), assertive when pushed but generally interested in getting along with others. We could throw Mr. Rogers into this mix, too. His show debuted nationally in 1968 and would bear equal cultural heft, though it was aimed at even younger kids and could be pretty cloying, in my view (though I did like the trains and Daniel the Stri-ped Tiger).
Boomers were raised on a different sort of television, a more commercial, pre-PBS brand of programming that reacted to the 1960s in a completely different way — by glorifying bland conventions that seemed to come from previous decades (My Three Sons, Gunsmoke). As such, my next elders in the culture reacted differently: They either rebelled against these hidebound/nostalgic traditions, or they clung to them with the fervor of a Trump voter, which all too many of them grew up to be. We in GenX have our own issues, of course. But I daresay we don’t carry around THAT sort of baggage — and Sesame Street is one reason why.