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Rob Owen: ‘Sesame Street’ Turns 45, Expands

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By Rob Owen

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

(MCT)

PASADENA, Calif. — Hard to believe it has been 45 years of Sunny Days and Everything’s A-OKs, but PBS stalwart “Sesame Street” indeed turned 45 this month and expanded to include a second, half-hour daily show.

The 26 new one-hour episodes air weekday mornings on many PBS stations and half-hour episodes, which are culled from the one-hour shows, air in the afternoon. (Check local listings for times.)

Not that it has always been smooth sailing for the iconic children’s show, which has found itself caught up in politics (remember presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s decree that he’d cut funding to PBS despite his love of Big Bird?) and scandals, most recently charges, since dismissed, of child sexual abuse by puppeteer Kevin Clash, who operated the Elmo puppet. He resigned from “Sesame Street” parent company Sesame Workshop in 2012 after the allegations were made public.

“Kevin was my mentor, and Kevin is an amazing performer, an amazing man,” said “Sesame Street” puppeteer and head writer Joey Mazzarino at a January PBS press conference. “As you could pretty well imagine, it was devastating for us, and it’s still, on a daily basis, hard. But we came together, and we know it’s bigger than any one of us, and we just keep going.”

It’s the characters, not their performers, who are most memorable to the show’s target audience. Jim Henson died, Frank Oz moved on from voicing characters, such as Bert and Cookie Monster, and even Kermit the Frog no longer appears on “Sesame Street” after Disney bought the Muppets. But the core cast — Big Bird, Grover, The Count, Oscar the Grouch — remain.

“The characters for sure are iconic, and I think the genius of them, when they were created, is that they are still relevant today,” said “Sesame Street” executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente. “We compete a lot against animation, but there’s something about that, knowing that Elmo and Cookie Monster and Murray can look at you and they are alive, and they are on this real neighborhood, and that it’s a real play date. We think of the show as a play date for the audience.”

And not just for kids. The show’s producers make an effort to engage parents, especially through its parody segments that spoof pop culture or with celebrity cameos. This season look for first lady Michelle Obama, the boy band One Direction, actors Viola Davis, Jonah Hill, Sir Ian McKellen, Claire Danes, Tina Fey and Zachary Quinto.

For the parodies, Mazzarino said producers look for something coming out or trending that seems like it will have a shelf life and also travels well when “Sesame Street” airs internationally. Producers also try to film the spoofs late in the production schedule to maximize their freshness when they air.

“Every one of those very funny parodies has some lesson we are teaching, and we take the stuff out and test it with the children,” Parente said. “And that’s the genius of the show. Sometimes you don’t even realize that there was a curriculum to the piece because you get lost in the humor.”

Of course, not every new segment or character introduced works over the long haul. There’s even a wall of dead Muppets, also known as The Dead Muppet Society, where puppet flops are housed, including a bear who’s a writer named Flo Bear (get it? Flaubert!) and Stinky the Stinkweed.

“What I love about the show is, on our research document, it says, the 45th experimental season, and it’s been true,” Mazzarino said. “I’ve been there 23 or 24 years, and every year, we change the show. When I started, the street story was broken up over the hour, and then we made it into an 11-minute segment. And then we go, ‘OK. We need a segment here. Let’s pull this. Let’s develop something for Cookie Monster.’ It becomes a great challenge and actually refreshing because you go, ‘Oh, we have a whole new format for Cookie. Great. We have something new.’”

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(Email Rob Owen at [email protected])

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©2014 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Rob Owen: ‘Sesame Street’ Turns 45, Expands