The Weirdly Lost History of Sesame Street
As regular readers of this blog and website are undoubtedly well aware, I am a fan of the venerable children’s program Sesame Street in a way that’s age-appropriate if not downright pathological. I’d easily rank Sesame Street as one of my top five favorite television programs of all time yet I have probably seen about ten percent of the television institution’s nearly five decade long history.
That’s because an astonishingly vast percentage of this gift to mankind is not available for streaming anywhere and has never been available on home video, on VHS, Beta, DVD or Blu-Ray. That can be a little confusing because Sesame Street is anything but unrepresented on DVD. On the contrary, there is an enormous amount of Sesame Street on home video.
Look up “Sesame Street” on Amazon in Movies & TV and it turns up no less than 810 entries. That’s an awful lot. Sesame Street. You would imagine that, if anything, Sesame Street would be egregiously over-represented on home video. That’s true in the sense that there are a seemingly infinite number of Sesame Street videos and compilations and specials of every stripe, not just from the United States but from other countries that have their own versions of Sesame Street.
These compilations, sometimes put together with extraordinary care and sometimes haphazardly thrown together to feed a seemingly insatiable demand for Sesame Street recycle a whole lot of the show’s storied past but if you’re looking for entire seasons of Sesame Street you’re out of luck.
With the early years of Sesame Street, it’s not a matter of episodes missing or even years missing but rather entire decades that never made it onto home video except for the copious excerpts found on various compilations and specials. I honestly have no idea why that is. It seems insane to me that a priceless cultural artifact like the first thirty years of Sesame Street is unavailable on home video in season form. I don’t know whether it’s a right situation or a legal matter or has something to do with the sale of The Muppets to Disney and Kermit the Frog’s subsequent exodus from the show.
All I know is that we’re maddeningly unable to experience these years, hell, these decades, in their original, complete form, except on Youtube and in packages like Amazon’s Sesame Street Classics and Old School compilations, which compile hours upon hours of Sesame Street from the 1970s and 1980s but no seasons.
Watching the Sesame Street Classics with my four month old son Harris in the morning before dropping him off at the nanny is a simultaneously exciting and frustrating experience. In its early days the show was so good, and so funny and so effortlessly charming and informative that it makes me feel the absence of the show’s entire archive even more acutely.
I love current Sesame Street but it feels antiseptic, glossy and screamingly commercial compared to the spacey, free-form, funky hippie weirdness of the show’s 1970s and 1980s, when the show appeared equally aimed at small children with vivid imaginations and wonderfully, terrifyingly suggestible minds and stoned adults (or teenagers) taking care of them.
In the 1970s, Sesame Street felt like an actual street in an actual city populated by real people and real children and real monsters. It was dirty and jazzy and lived-in, homemade and overflowing with casual magic.
New episodes of Sesame Street don’t just feel like they’re filmed on sets rather than on location like old episodes: they feel like they’re filmed largely in front of green screen to further ensure that nothing dilutes the show’s blinding sheen.
I adore Elmo but I now understand how he could be seen as a Furry Red Menace, a show-corrupter, if not quite a show ruiner. For pretty much as long as Sesame Street has been available on home video it’s pretty much been Elmo & Friends and while I think Elmo is one of the greatest characters in pop culture history, I will be the first to concede that something important was lost when he became the monomaniacal focus of the show.
Watching these ancient episodes on Amazon is a glorious trip back in time to the good old days when the genius likes of Jim Henson and Frank Oz were working in the trenches of a show infinitely capable of magic and wonder.
I’m bummed that it seems like Sesame Street will never be available in total on home video but I’m just trying to be grateful for what we have and also for the fact that Sesame Street will probably never go off the air, and if it does, then I will be the first one to riot in protest, even if I am an eighty-three year old man with the mind and television tastes of a small child when that happens, which will probably be the case.
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