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Caroll Spinney

Remembering Big Bird and Oscar.

December 9, 2019

Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, died over the weekend. He was 85.

I never met him, but I grew up with Big Bird and Oscar. Sesame Street and I were born at nearly the same time, and it was a treasured part of my childhood. There was a block from 4 to 6 of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers and The Electric Company that I’d still stack up against any two hours of children’s television.

To know how much that mattered, you have to remember the media landscape of the time. When and where I grew up, there were four channels of television: ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. That was it. We didn’t have cable, and the internet didn’t yet exist as a mass entertainment medium. We didn’t even have VCRs, let alone DVRs or DVDs. Back then, if you missed a show, you missed it; recording and “time-shifting” didn’t exist. On the commercial networks, kids’ programming was largely relegated to Saturday mornings. Yes, there were some syndicated shows in the late afternoon -- I caught more episodes of the Adam West Batman series than was probably healthy, along with The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island -- but they were hardly educational. My first “political” memory involved being annoyed that the boring Watergate hearings were pre-empting my cartoons.

In that context, Sesame Street was a thoughtful, carefully constructed intervention. The setting was clearly urban, unlike nearly every children’s show or book at the time. The cast was multiracial. It drew on music and the boundless charm of the Muppets -- “Mahna Mahna” was the “Baby Shark” of its time -- to construct a kid-friendly world in which adults modeled kindness. It taught letters and numbers, but also manners, decency and the range of human behavior.

Oscar the Grouch provided comic relief. In my first few years of teaching poli sci, I used to confess to students that as a kid, I sort of wanted to be Oscar. He was grouchy and messy, but everyone just accepted that. In my faculty role, I kept a messy desk and emerged every so often to complain about the government. I was living the dream. In retrospect, though, the closest human analogue to Oscar is probably Tom Waits. (Oscar could sing “Better Off Without a Wife” without changing a note.) I don’t know if they ever met, but they should have.

Big Bird, though, was a stand-in for the kid viewers. Big Bird was a little gawky, naïve and sweet; he was essentially a huge, feathered young child. (One Halloween, when I was about 4, I even dressed as Big Bird. I knew a kindred spirit when I saw one.) He didn’t always know what was going on, but nobody held that against him. He even had a secret friend, an improbable variation on a woolly mammoth named Mr. Snuffleupagus. But Big Bird’s real gift was expression. He could break your heart. The moment when he started to understand that Mr. Hooper’s death was forever is tough to watch, even now. A few years later, Mr. Snuffleupagus was revealed to the adults on the show as a way to let abused or molested children know that they could tell adults and be believed, too.

Sesame Street was gentle, welcoming, diverse and optimistic. But it was also silly and tuneful enough to be watchable, and it threw in enough jokes to keep adults around. That was all deliberate; it was part of trying to make a show that respected its audience. And this was at a time when airtime was scarce and at a premium.

Sesame Street showed that you could educate without patronizing or being dry. It created a world that made sense to children, in which adults accepted as a matter of course that stopping work to explain to a child what they were doing was normal, natural and expected. It had a generous helping of silliness -- I still laugh at the two alien Muppets trying to figure out if the ringing phone is a cow (“nope nope nope nope nope”) -- but its humor was never mean. It was a carefully constructed exercise in hope, helping raise kids’ expectations for how the world could be. In its quiet and endearing way, it was radical. Caroll Spinney was an integral part of that from the beginning.

One educator to another, I tip my cap. Well done.


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