On a magical night not too long ago, at a party for the opening of “Somebody Come and Play: 45 Years of Sesame Street,” at the Library for the Performing Arts, I met some of my generation’s heroes: Bob, Susan, Maria, and Oscar the Grouch. It was as joyous as one might hope. Beneath Super Grover and a cloud-dotted ceiling, Loretta Long, who plays Susan, gave me a big hug; Sonia Manzano, who plays Maria, talked about Maria’s time as a construction worker; Oscar told me he was having a rotten time. (Roscoe Orman, who plays Gordon, wasn’t there; Emilio Delgado, who plays Luis, was filming an episode of “House of Cards.”) When I saw Bob McGrath—Bob—across the room, he turned and waved as if he recognized me. I briefly, crazily reverted to my kid-brain, imagining that he had seen me through the television. Anyone who grew up with “Sesame Street” might understand.
The news, this week, that McGrath, eighty-four, Delgado, seventy-six, and Orman, seventy-two, had been laid off from the show hit people hard, and contributed to a “Sesame Street” malaise that’s been gathering for a while among old-school fans. On the other hand, of course, it’s a kind of miracle that these actors were still on the show in the first place, after more than forty years—as is Caroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Manzano retired last year; Long remains on the show. But for my generation—shaped by “Free to Be You and Me,” the Muppets, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and other progressive, respectful fare—the loss of so much of the original cast has provoked further nostalgia for what was. We worry that the show is not just losing its veterans but losing its heart.
Few, if any, of my friends’ children have the connection to “Sesame Street” that we did growing up. For many of us, Elmo, and what he represents, is to blame. (This “Sesame Street” resident’s blasé reaction to him made me laugh.) Elmo’s high voice, his aggressive cuteness, his baby talk, his third-person habit, his lack of pronouns, his role in countless too-deliberate pop-culture parodies—that’s not what the show used to be about. The qualities that Bob, Maria, Susan, Gordon, Luis, and company brought to it were.
On children’s television, there’s a vital difference between shows that talk down to kids and shows that don’t. Early on, “Sesame Street” had the respect for children to give us real art, real jazz, real weirdness, real lessons. It didn’t address us in a high, squeaky voice. In the seventies, the suspicion and alienation I felt watching stuff like “Bozo the Clown,” “Romper Room,” or “New Zoo Revue” (or “Banana Splits,” which seemed to be made by stoners, for stoners) existed in a world very far from “Sesame Street,” which combined anarchy with reason and intelligence, and treated us with dignity. In the nineties, when the simpering, dopey Barney took over the world, children’s entertainment reached a new low. (I always pitied those poor children, marching, singing, and performing Dick-and-Jane dialogue with terrifying, dubious mirth.)
When Elmo began to dominate “Sesame Street,” as the show began to shift toward a younger audience, the trust between show and audience began to shift, too. The note of condescension that he introduced has never ceased, though some lovable elements remain. Abby Cadabby, shrill, pink, hyper, and a fairy, came along for noble reasons, but she’s grating, like Elmo with princess frills and a magic wand. The show has had to change, for financial and cultural reasons, but the change doesn’t feel good to those who loved it as it was—or, often enough, to their kids.
Bob McGrath was generous about the show’s evolution, even as it slighted him, when I talked to him at the party. For one thing, the number of episodes produced each season had been greatly reduced. For another, he said, “Our audience has become much, much younger than it was. We were originally for four- or five-year-olds; now it’s pretty much like zero to three. They can’t hang on to a story line as long as the older kids could, so the human element is only about the first twelve minutes of the show—one segment, instead of six or seven or eight that ran through the whole hour.” That was one reason he had less airtime. The other was that “one always wants the show to look young and fresh. So that means a few of us dinosaurs—ha ha!—are doing fewer shows than a few other people, who deserve to be.” He named some of these deserving younger cast members, such as Alan Muraoka, who remains. “It’s a much heavier Muppet-related show, and rightfully so, because the kids who are one or two or three relate much better to a Muppet than they would a talking head,” he said. He sounded cheerful and understanding about all of this. Bob was a good sport. Of course he was!
But I felt protective of the dinosaurs. Bob and the others were the voice of maturity and reason on “Sesame Street”—loving, accepting, wise. They had assured us on some primal level that everything was all right in this shaggy oddball world: the Muppet craziness, the gritty city streets, the lessons and strange characters we encounter in life. If they explained what sound waves were or taught us how to say “hello” in Spanish, we didn’t feel lectured; we felt grateful. Their kindness and patience was key to this. In the human-puppet dynamic on the show, they were the grownups, basically, and the puppets—little noisy maniacs made of yarn and felt, these birds and monsters who mesmerized and amused us—were the kids. We didn’t see that then, but we understand it now. And to squish those grownups aside as we further foreground Elmo and Abby Cadabby, as we bring on more and more celebrities to help us brush our teeth, is to disrespect our elders, to mistreat our friends. That’s what it feels like, anyway, and “Sesame Street” taught us to express our feelings.
So I’m going to take my feelings and turn them around, as Bob, Luis, Gordon, and the gang would want me to, and type out a little love. Grownups of “Sesame Street,” thank you, from the kids of my generation and beyond. Thank you for being patient friends, good-humored teachers, and second-wave feminists. Thank you for reassuring us with your sanity after this guy showed up. Thank you for teaching us about sharing, spelling, numbers, jobs, facial expressions, and toaster repair. Here’s Bob singing “The People in Your Neighborhood” in 1969, 1971, 1977, the olden days, and 1986. Here’s Gordon riding his bike through the city, going for his morning run, teaching us about quiet and loud, and preaching about rain. (“Support your local rainstorm!”) Here’s Luis realizing he needs glasses, and singing “Baa Baa Bamba,” in Spanish and English, with sheep. Here’s Bob learning to dance. Here’s Gordon getting ready to adopt a baby with Susan. (“You’ll be a daddy.” “Whooppee!”) Here’s Maria as a librarian and a construction worker and a Fix-It Shop employee. (“I had to work hard and fix all those toasters and waffle irons.”) Here’s Oscar, Susan, and Gordon recycling, with help from a VW Bug. “Sesame Street” grownups, when we think of you, we feel the joy and jazz of “Pinball Number Count.” We love you like Oscar loves trash and Cookie Monster, that furry glutton, loves cookies. You have earned an enjoyable retirement. Thank you for being in our neighborhood.
Sarah Larson is a roving cultural correspondent for newyorker.com.