Culture

Change In The Channel: Why ‘Sesame Street’ Is Cutting Back On Parodies

CREDIT: Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop/Graphic by Andrew Breiner

Quiet on the set. Enter: Cookie Monster.

Cookie Monster is not in his usual attire — he usually has no attire — on this May afternoon. He is dressed in a tan jacket and a sheriff’s hat to shoot “The Walking Gingerbread,” a parody of The Walking Dead. Cookie is tasked with defending the innocent, delicious cookies from the Crumbies, zombified-gingerbread men.

The scene is being shot on green screen, and most of the puppeteers are decked out in head-to-toe neon green, some wearing what look like a fencing masks the color of a tennis ball, so their pesky people-parts can be edited out. Leslie Carrara-Rudoph, the puppeteer for Abby Cadabby, is wearing a fluorescent green newsboy cap.

Under the direction of head writer Joey Mazzarino, David Rudman, Cookie’s puppeteer, turns Cookie’s head toward the camera. “ME TEACH CRUMBIES SELF-CONTROL,” he says, his voice like pure joy driving up a gravel road.

Those in the Muppet-know will tell you that, when you meet one of these creatures, you will be astonished at how quickly you forget the human manipulating the monster. You may think: That is absurd. I am a grown-up.

But as soon as Rudman’s hand climbs into the empty space where Cookie’s heart would be, there is only Cookie Monster: Blue as a Chips Ahoy box, googly-eyed as the day is long, elation manifest. Looks great for a guy who was born in the ’60s. About an hour into the shoot, I spot a little station, stage right, that looks like a puppet part food cart. Puppets and their props are attended to here when a little stitch and tuck is required; fair to say that at some point between debuting “C is for Cookie” in 1972 and today, Cookie Monster got a little work done.

After Mazzarino wraps “The Walking Gingerbread,” he’ll head to another space in the Sesame Street studio to film “Orange is the New Snack,” a spoof of Orange is the New Black in which Piper Snackman shakes up the lunch routine on her first day at Litchfield Academy by bringing fruit to the cafeteria.

The parody is a Sesame Street institution. These sketches, when executed properly, are a true comedic feat: Three-minute segments that engage both adults and children, with educational value for the younger set to boot. It is this ability, one could argue, that sets Sesame Street apart from its competition. Adults don’t just tolerate Sesame Street; they actively enjoy it. Anecdotal research suggests the average adult would rather shove a Philips head screwdriver halfway down his ear canal than hear Dora The Explorer say, “Swiper, no swiping!” one more time.

There’s just one thing: Sesame Street is cutting down on parodies. It’s one of the big creative changes made on the series under the leadership of CEO Jeff Dunn, formerly of Nickelodeon, who joined Sesame Workshop in 2014.

Dunn divided Sesame Workshop in two, with one branch for philanthropy and the other for commercial and programming endeavors. He hired Brown Johnson, also from Nickelodeon (she was largely responsible for facilitating the creation of Dora) as creative director. Episodes were shortened from an hour to 30 minutes, catering to kiddie attention spans. New marching orders included focusing on “core characters”—basically, all the Muppets you can name off the top of your head—because, as Dunn told the Wall Street Journal, “Kids relate to characters, and we know that licensing is driven by characters. So the more engaged kids are with a character, the easier it is to do licensing and merchandising,” and to trim away segments aimed at caretakers and parents: Parodies and celebrity guests.

So about three months after this “Walking Gingerbread” shoot, and less than a month after the announcement that Sesame Street is partnering with HBO to have all new episodes premiere on the premium cable network nine months before airing on PBS, Mazzarino left Sesame Street, where he began as a puppeteer in the early ’90s and rose to head writer in 2007. “After almost a year of battling for what I believe is the heart and soul of the show,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “I lost the war.”

Carol-Lynn Parente, Sesame Street executive producer, said Mazzarino’s departure “was just a function of the evolution of the show. Brown Johnson wanted to evolve the show, and writing is a pivotal place to start an evolution.” (Johnson was not made available for comment.)

“New people have come in, and as it is at any institution, there are kind of winners and losers,” said Michael Davis, author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. “There was some tumult, but that’s what happens when whoever is leading finds that change is necessary… I wasn’t surprised that there were some complaints about the new regime and what’s happening here.”

The audition script that got Mazzarino in the door over 20 years ago was “Colambo,” a sketch about a trenchcoat-wearing lamb with a Peter Faulk accent who solved nursery rhyme crimes. Though his contributions to the show over his decades-long tenure are difficult to tabulate—among others, he created and played Murray the Monster—fair to say parodies, and the particular type of vision and creativity they require, were one of his specialities, and great joys.

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CREDIT: Sesame Workshop/Marvel

All available research on Sesame Street finds that “it’s clearly more effective when there is an interested adult present,” said Lloyd Morrisett, cofounder of Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop). There are two big reasons for that: One, co-viewing validates the show. “Somebody very important in your life is saying, ‘It’s important to me too,’” said Morrisett. Two, adults emphasize the educational nature of the program and make the lessons last by bringing them up later on, after the episode is over. “They can ask questions and discuss the show with a child. Under those conditions, it becomes a much more effective teacher.”

When Sesame Street premiered in 1969 and through its first few decades on the air, families tended to watch television together. But co-viewing has dropped as more children live in households where both parents work and the number of devices on which a person can be entertained has multiplied. Today, two-thirds of Sesame Street viewers first find the show on digital platforms. So children have been empowered to make their own choices, and children have more choices than ever before. Sesame needs to captivate the preschool set; parent-friendly kids-TV is no longer the order of the day.

“If you really are thinking kids first — and it’s very clear from all of our research that they are making the viewing choices — the kids never got the parodies,” Sesame Street Parente told New York Magazine.

“That’s the only part of all this recent discussion that I find to be a little heartbreaking,” said Davis. He thinks the partnership with HBO, which will secure Sesame Street‘s financial future and give new episodes to PBS free of charge, is a “brilliant” move. But “that children are more prone to viewing by themselves, and that they’re de-emphasizing parodies and celebrity appearances because there is less co-viewing, that’s hard for me to take. Because the genius of Sesame right from the start is they created a show that was more than palatable for adults—it was something adults looked forward to.”

(L) Sesame Street's "Mad Men." (R) Jon Hamm on AMC's "Mad Men."

(L) Sesame Street’s “Mad Men.” (R) Jon Hamm on AMC’s “Mad Men.” 

CREDIT: Sesame Workshop/AMC

By writing humor “at two levels,” Davis said, “Sesame Street helped three or four generations now to become comedy literate. You can find every variety, every genre of comedy on Sesame Street: Ensemble comedy skits, stand-up, parody. It really is the SNL of children’s shows in so many ways… You think about it, and Sesame Street helped prepare and educate generations of kids to understand and appreciate comedy in all its forms.”

“I had a great run there,” Mazzarino said of Sesame in a statement via Facebook Messenger. “Everything I learned I learned on that street. From the letter Q to how how to cooperate to how absolutely essential it is to write an ending to a comedy sketch. So nothing but goodwill towards the Street.”

As for big changes behind the scenes, he wrote, “I think the people in charge right now are from a completely different culture and don’t fully understand what they’ve been put in charge of. Hopefully, in time, and by being surrounded by all that fur and all those googly eyes, they will somehow have a Road to Sesame awakening where all the comical throwable rubber fish scales fall from their eyes and they can see clearly which way the street runs.”

Back in May, Mazzarino sat with me in his office during his lunch break to talk about the art of parody writing. There didn’t seem to be a strict dress code on the Sesame Street set in Astoria, but Mazzarino was wearing a necktie over a patterned blue button-down shirt.

The way it starts, he said, is with an obsession. Someone in the Sesame Street writers room comes in and says: We have to do something on 30 Rock, we’ve got to get in on Downton Abbey, has anybody been watching Boardwalk Empire?

But it’s not enough to be fresh off a True Blood binge or to know that a show is the hot hit of the moment. “You’ve got to look for an entrance to the kid’s world,” he said.

So Game of Thrones becomes “Game of Chairs,” because Mazzarino realized that the whole violent enterprise is just a glorified, gorified round of musical chairs to determine who is going to sit on the Iron Throne. (Lesson of the sketch, fitting for a show with such a high body count: Subtraction.) Sons of Anarchy turns into “Sons of Poetry,” a skit about muppets on motorcycles learning to rhyme. (Mazzarino: “Who better to write lovely poetry than a bunch of badass bikers?”) The Sesame writers figured out that House of Cards perfectly aligned with the Three Little Pigs story: The three houses are the three branches of government, and Frank Underwolf is going to huff and puff and blow them all down in “House of Bricks.”

Sometimes the shows are a little harder to crack, like Mad Men, where they tried every pun under the sun before seeing that the answer was to not change anything at all but to tell a story about emotions. Homeland was another; one of the writers kept going for soundalikes with “home”: Combland! Foamland! Mazzarino rejected both, but one day on a run, it dawned on him: Homelamb. “It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, then it works for the show because you have the guy who’s a traitor, and you have this lamb.”

Or when they wanted to get in on The Avengers craze, and they needed to make it work for Cookie Monster. Would “Oven-gers” make sense, with baking cookies? Or maybe “Seven-gers,” and it could be a counting thing? But then the plot presented the solution: If Bon-Bon wants to destroy vegetables, they could do “The Aveggies,” opening up the floor to “the worst puns ever,” Mazzarino said, beaming, “Captain Americauliflower. Onion Man. Black Bean Widow. It’s perfect.”

In the pursuit of spoof excellence, sacrifices must be made. Like that time Adam Levine got cut from “The Voice” because the budget wouldn’t allow for a fourth chair. “Besides, Christina, Blake Shelton, Cee-lo, the others are much more character-y,” Mazzarino said. “Adam just felt like a bland guy.”

And every now and then, the writers admit defeat. “Breaking Bad was the hottest show ever, and what are we going to do with that?” Mazzarino asked. “You know when there’s a line and you don’t cross it. If there’s no way into it that makes it safe for kids, and they don’t have any reference point to what happens on the real show, it’s just a veneer.”

“Very often, the first scripts come in and they’re weighed way too much on the adult humor,” Parente said in an on-set interview. “That’s the first place they go, because the parody is so much fun to write. But you really have to watch it with the eye of the kids.” The research and education departments read every version of the script “to make sure we’re hitting our educational goals in a way that will be salient.”

Parodies have been a part of Sesame Street since its earliest days. Viewers of a certain generation may recall The Beetles’ “Letter B,” (Sesame Road, Lemon Records), or the leather-jacket-wearing, shaggy-haired Springsteen-muppet rocking out to “Born to Add,” or Meryl Sheep’s school of acting, where you can learn to act out feelings by saying the alphabet.

“You’re trying to peg the zeitgeist,” said Mazzarino. “Sometimes we’re doing it a year out and you hope it’s going to be big. It’s marrying the two things: What’s out there in the world that people love, and what point of entry can we get for the kids?”

There have been some challenges with parodies from the get-go, the most obvious being that they are expensive and labor-intensive to produce. Parente estimates that “somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 people” are involved in producing a single parody, from the nine staffers in the writers room to producers to the Muppet wranglers who dress the old characters in new looks and build entirely new, sketch-specific Muppets from foam-and-fur scratch, to set builders or, when the scene uses green screen, animators, who also recreate the opening credits, to the music team that mimics the background notes and theme song of the adult show being spoofed. In May, Parente estimated that the budget could only support about two parodies a season.

Not to mention the fact that Sesame usually shoots between nine and eleven months ahead of airdates; they save the parodies for last, but that’s no guarantee that a hot reference will go cold by the time an episode premieres, as was the case with “Bunnies on a Balloon” and “Sheep on a Submarine,” sketches that relied on the long life of dead-on-arrival Snakes on a Plane. (“It was not quite the most viral thing we’ve ever done,” admitted Parente.)

And yet, Sesame now has access to the Bank of HBO. Parodies are among the most buzzed-about elements of the show, at least among the people who create buzz: Press and parents. When one of these sketches go viral, the numbers are astounding. 2012’s “Share It Maybe,” a just-for-YouTube song parody of Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe,” has over 20.2 million views to date. “For the show to be able to hold its place in the culture, I think it has to have some life, digitally, for adults,” said Davis.

And digital, clearly, is the future, not just for Sesame Street but for 123 Sesame’s new landlord, HBO, which launched a streaming-only service, HBO Now, and has been courting click-friendly talent, like Jon Stewart, Bill Simmons, and Elmo, to fill it. So for those hoping parodies make a comeback, maybe that’s the way they’ll ultimately return: Off the main show, but on the internet. And to a generation of toddlers who are teething on tablets, what difference does it make? They’ll know how to get to Sesame Street either way.

READ MORE: The Story Behind The New ‘Sesame Street’ And Its Journey To HBO