Skip to main content

Come And Play: 'Sesame Street' Celebrates 40 Years

Four decades after its premiere, Sesame Street is the same happy neighborhood it always was. TV critic David Bianculli takes a look at the newest episode -- which features special guest Michelle Obama -- and assesses the show's enduring legacy.


Other segments from the episode on November 6, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 6, 2009: Interview with Jeff Moss; Interview with Frank Oz; Interview with Christopher Cerf; Review of the television show "Sesame Street."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
A Stroll Among The Memories On "Sesame Street"


This is FRESH AIR. I’M Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

On today’s show, we salute the talent behind “Sesame Street” which marks its
40th anniversary on television this Tuesday with a special appearance by
Michelle Obama. Later in the hour, we’ll hear Terry’s interviews with Chris
Cerf who co-created the show and wrote many of its song parodies and with Frank
Oz who did the voices for Cookie Monster and Bert and the Muppet’s Fozzie Bear
and Ms. Piggy.

But first, we remember Jeffrey Moss. He was one of the original writers on
“Sesame Street” and wrote many of the best known songs on the show, including
“I Love Trash,” “The People In Your Neighborhood” and “Rubber Ducky,” which was
a Top 40 hit. Moss won four Grammy Awards and 14 Emmys for his work on “Sesame
Street.” He received an Academy Award nomination for his songs in “The Muppets
Take Manhattan.” Moss also wrote children’s books.

He died of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 56. But four years before that,
he joined Terry at a piano in the FRESH AIR studios.

(Soundbite of archived interview)


Jeff Moss, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. JEFF MOSS (Head Writer, “Sesame Street”): Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Why don’t we start with the song that’s your – your chartbuster that
actually made it at number 16 on the Billboard chart?

Mr. MOSS: Something like that. Back a few years ago, the highest
(unintelligible) ever I think for a song sung by a guy in bathtub.

(Soundbite of song, “Rubber Ducky”)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) Rubber ducky, you’re the one. You make bath time lots of
fun. Rubber ducky, I’m awfully fond of you. Rubber ducky, joy of joys, when I
squeeze you, you make noise. Rubber ducky, you’re my very best friend, it’s
true. Oh, every day when I make my way to the tubby, I find a little fella
who’s cute and yellow and chubby. Rub-a-dub dubby. Rubber ducky, you’re so fine
and I’m lucky that you’re mine. Rubber ducky, I’m awfully fond of, rubber
ducky, I’d like a whole pond of, rubber I’m awfully fond of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I should have been squeezing it in the background.

Mr. MOSS: In fact, it was I who was squeezing it in the background nine years

GROSS: On the record?

Mr. MOSS: On the record, yeah.

GROSS: So, how did you write the song?

Mr. MOSS: Well, depending which story I tell you, either it was very late at
night and I was there loading my tub with my rubber duck just overcome with the
poetry of the song or I had created a character of the rubber duck for Ernie
and it was just – he loved it. It was his passion, his obsession. It just
overflowed that way.

GROSS: Jeff Moss, you were one of the original writers on “Sesame Street.” When
you signed on to do this show, was it understood you’d be writing songs too and
that songs would be an important part of the program?

Mr. MOSS: In fact we thought that songs might be an important part of the
program, but no. Joe Raposo was the original music director. And in fact, we
found out - we were going to use records and we found out because it was public
television, it was very hard to clear the rights to use them. So Joe came to me
and said, well, look, you write words and music, I write words and music, why
don’t we just do it. We’ll write two of the curriculum, we’ll do it faster. Joe
was wonderfully oblivion, he said we’ll do it better. Let’s just go do it and
we did it.

GROSS: You’re already writing songs.

Mr. MOSS: Oh, sure. Oh, sure.

GROSS: So he’s confident you can do it. What kind of songs have you been

Mr. MOSS: Well, from the time I was nine or 10, I’d been writing songs to, you
know, entertain my friends. And then in college I’d written musical comedy
stuff in college. And then my first job, which had been on another children’s
television show called “Captain Kangaroo.” I’d written a lot of songs for

GROSS: So, now you were also in on the creation of some of the characters…

Mr. MOSS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: …like Cookie Monster…

Mr. MOSS: Indeed.

GROSS: …and Oscar.

Mr. MOSS: Indeed.

GROSS: Tell us about creating Cookie Monster.

Mr. MOSS: Well, Cookie Monster - Jim and his people had created the physical
monsters before “Sesame Street” but they had always been quite scary and they
never spoke. But they were such wonderful puppets. And I went into somebody’s
office one day and said, how about that furry blue one with boggily(ph) eyes,
could he maybe talk? And they said, well, you know, the puppeteers don’t talk
very much and they’re scary. And so I said, well, what if he doesn’t talk very
much and I try to make him funny? And they said, well, go ahead and do it. And
I wrote a bit for him in which he had two words and one of them was milk and
the other one was cookie. And we were in the studio and Frank Oz performed them
just so brilliantly we all fell off the seats and I went back and started
writing more.

GROSS: Oh, this is a song cue, why don’t you Cookie Monster.

Mr. MOSS: Now, this is what he has for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner but he
sings about breakfast today.

(Soundbite of song, “Breakfast Time”)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) Me have a soft boiled cookie with a glass of cookie juice
on the side. But for a change, one morning me will have me cookie scrambled or
fried. It isn’t hard each morning to keep me satisfied, just give me a soft
boiled cookie please with a glass of cookie juice on the side.

GROSS: That’s great. So was the voice your idea.

Mr. MOSS: Oh, no, no, no.

GROSS: Is that you?

Mr. MOSS: That’s a poor imitation of Frank Oz who’s idea it was.

GROSS: Now you created, co-created Oscar.

Mr. MOSS: Co-created Oscar, yeah.

GROSS: And how did he come about?

Mr. MOSS: He came about because the educators had suggested that we have a
character who showed kids that are watching necessary cheerful all the time…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: …so a grouch was created and it was decided that he lived in a
trashcan and then we sat down and kind of created this wonderful, vicious
circle for him, where if you make him happy, he hates that and that makes him
unhappy. But being unhappy makes him happy so he likes that, but that makes him
unhappy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And meanwhile, he has his obsession
and his passion which is Oscar sings…

(Soundbite of song, “I Love Trash”)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) Oh I love trash, anything dirty or dingy or dusty. Anything
ragged or rotten or rusty, oh I love trash.

GROSS: I like the idea that you put that in waltz.

Mr. MOSS: Yes, indeed. That was a good juxtaposition trying to write a pretty
waltz for a yucky character.

GROSS: Did educators ever object to the fact that he was an unsanitary puppet?

Mr. MOSS: You know, they didn’t. But we think that today, if we were creating
today, they might have, you know, they might have worried that kids would crawl
in garbage cans and all that, but they never did. So the writers feel that the
kids can discriminate. The educators test it out, we don’t.

GROSS: When you were younger, you had ambitions of writing Broadway musicals?

Mr. MOSS: Well, in fact, I probably did, yeah. I grew up, I guess, during the
late ‘50s and I can – my father was on the stage, my father was an actor…

GROSS: Oh, yeah?

Mr. MOSS: ...and I can remember…

GROSS: Would I know him?

Mr. MOSS: Arnold Moss, his name was and he was a Shakespearean actor and my
earliest memories are theater memories and I can remember “The King and I” and
that kind of stuff. But by the time I was old enough to try it, it kind of was
going in a different direction than it had been going. And I found “Sesame
Street” and that’s the direction everything went.

GROSS: Broadway, I imagine, was going in the ersatz, rock direction?

Mr. MOSS: It was going rock and it was going in the area where the songs were
less important, where the production was more important and Bob Fosses and
Tommy Tunes and those people who were brilliant, but they were the stars. They
were the people who were using, you know, the Gershwin songs rather than the
new writer songs.

GROSS: Now you got to write a Broadway musical in a sense that you wrote the
songs for "The Muppets Take Manhattan."

Mr. MOSS: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

GROSS: Which is about the Muppets going to Manhattan to do a Broadway show.

Mr. MOSS: And putting on a Broadway musical.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: Yes, at the Biltmore Theater.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So did you get a chance to write the kinds of songs for that that were
very close to what you would've written for the stage?

Mr. MOSS: I don’t think so. They were more the kinds of songs that I would've
written if I have been doing the Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland movies of...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MOSS: ...the 30s, which is another way that one might look at Kermit and
Piggy and the show that they put on was a very glitzy Broadway show. But, you
know, there was jazz in that score that I wrote, and it was rock, and there was
waltzes, and again and kind of ragtime.

GROSS: Well, you got an Academy Award nomination for the songs...

Mr. MOSS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that you wrote for "The Muppets Take Manhattan." Let me ask you to do
one of the songs from there. It was a song you wrote for Miss Piggy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...about how she wants to be a movie star.

Mr. MOSS: Yeah, she wanted to be everything and love her man at the same time.
She sings:

(Soundbite of song, “I’m Gonna Always Love You”)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) I wanna be a movie star and I wanna learn to drive a car. I
wanna be a veterinarian too and I'm gonna always love you. Then she sings. I'll
be the cutest model you ever saw and then I think I'll study criminal law and
I'm gonna to learn to scuba dive too and I'm gonna always love you.

Mr. MOSS: Went on and she wanted to climb the Matterhorn, but only after all
her children were born. And she wanted to be a good mommy, too, but I want to
always love you.


Jeffrey Moss, singing and speaking with Terry Gross in 1994.

We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Today we're celebrating Sesame Street as the show celebrates its 40th
anniversary on the air. We're listening to Terry's 1994 interview with the late
Jeffrey Moss, who wrote many memorable songs for the show.

GROSS: Your first job after college, I think, was working on "Captain Kangaroo"
as a production assistant.

Mr. MOSS: Production assistant.

GROSS: What was the job description?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: There was no job description. The woman who hired me said well, we
have jobs for production assistant. You could choose either the CBS News or
"Captain Kangaroo" and I was being very young and flippant. I said well, I've
seen the news and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: ...I hadn't seen “Kangaroo” and that's where I ended up.

GROSS: So you didn’t grow up watching "Captain Kangaroo?"

Mr. MOSS: No.

GROSS: I'll confess, I never liked the show when I was growing up. I couldn’t
understand the attraction of what seemed to me to be an old man wearing

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it was such a non-urban show to me, that I just never related to it.

Mr. MOSS: Well, it wasn’t non-urban, though it did have a moose who liked to
drop ping pong balls on people's heads, which was not urban but neither was it
particularly rural. But it's funny. It had a lot of funny stuff in it and a lot
of educational stuff that I guess maybe we didn’t realize, or the people who
made the show didn’t realize, that it had. And I did that for six months and
then came back as a writer for a couple of years and it was a very nice place
to begin.

GROSS: So when you got the job on "Sesame Street," were there things you felt
you wanted to do different than the way you'd seen it done on "Captain

Mr. MOSS: Everything about "Sesame Street" was new. The great thing was that we
had a marvelous freedom that we didn’t realize we had then - this is looking
back on it - but Joan Cooney had raised a lot of money that couldn’t be paid to
anyone in salaries but could be spent on production. And we didn’t have a
network that we had to please, we didn’t have stars that we had to please, we
didn’t have sponsors that we had to please and we were committed to doing 130
hours of television. And there were four of us wrote 90 percent of the first
year's show. And we could just have the most wonderful time as long as we were
willing to work 37 hours a day. And we just did whatever we wanted to do that
stuck to the curriculum.

In the early years, when I was head writer, I used to say to the writers look,
the two jobs you have is one; to keep the three to five-year-old watching the
TV; and the other one is to write a show that if you were spinning the dial,
you would stop and watch yourself. And that's what we did creatively from the
very, very beginning.

GROSS: Was every song supposed to carry a lesson with it?

Mr. MOSS: Yes. And almost every song did, and almost every piece of material on
"Sesame Street" did and does.

GROSS: Do you have a song that's your favorite lyric for teaching something in
a really entertaining way?

Mr. MOSS: Of the recent songs that I've done, we began doing racial relations
as a goal a few years ago, just several years ago, and they wanted a song that
would kind of be the corner post of that. It's a film of kids at the beach,
kids playing at the beach in their bathing suits, and this is the way I chose
to deal with it.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) Skin, covered all over with beautiful. Skin, covered all
over from ankle to chin, lovely skin on knee's and the nose's and everywhere,
skin on tummies and toes and under your hair? It's even there. Oh skin,
wonderful colors and beautiful toes. Skin; think of without it, you’re nothing
but bones. Skin is ever so lovely no matter the color you’re in. Let's hear it
for skin, beautiful skin. Let's hear it for skin. Beautiful skin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: Out.

GROSS: Now who sings that on the show?

Mr. MOSS: It's the voice of Kevin Clash, who's one of the Muppet's but it’s
just a film of the kids playing at the beach. It's not a Muppet song.

GROSS: That's a good song.

Mr. MOSS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Another one of your little Tin Pan Alley numbers.

Mr. MOSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, you’ve been writing more books, lately, focusing more on the
books. And your new book is called "Hieronymus White." Tell us a little bit
about the story and then I want you to read the beginning of it.

Mr. MOSS: Yeah. "Hieronymus White," it's subtitled "A Bird Who Believed That He
Always Was Right." And it's about a bird who comes to believe that he always
was right. It begins - goes back to way before he was born when his parents are
very young and goes through to the point that his granddaughter has grown up
and it shows the good things about believing you’re always right and the bad
things. And it traces his life and comes to a point where something happens
that causes him to no longer believe that he's always right.

(Reading) This is the story of Hieronymus White, a bird who believed that he
always was right. He was always an expert, whatever the task. He would share
his advice. There was no need to ask. When his children came down with a fever
or chills, he'd order the doctor to choose different pills. When the postman
delivered a package or letter, Hieronymus told him how he could do better. He
approached every issue so confidently he'd seem shocked at the thought that you
might not agree.

Yes, all through a life that was famous and long, Hieronymus thought that he
couldn’t be wrong, till one day, late in life, when his feathers were thinning,
so now let's go back to the very beginning. This is the story of Hieronymus
White, a bird who believed that he always was right.

GROSS: I really like that. I'm sure I know this character.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: Yes. I think we all do...

GROSS: This character has given me too much advice over the years.

Mr. MOSS: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: So what inspired you to write this story?

Mr. MOSS: I think I wanted to write firstly about a person who believed that he
always was right. I have known a number of them in my life and sometime don’t
have to go too much farther than the mirror to find one. And also, I wanted to
write about continuity and about passing things on from one generation to the
next. And I began the story and it kind of took off and became what it became.

GROSS: Let me get you to do a short grumpy poem...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...from a previous collection of poems called the "The Butterfly Jar."

Mr. MOSS: This is called "Hi. How Are You Today?"

(Reading) I'm feeling very horrible and low and mean and mad and dreadful and
deplorable, and rotten, sick and sad, and nasty and unbearable and hateful,
vile and blue. But thanks a lot for asking and please tell me, how are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Very good.

Well, it’s really been a pleasure...

Mr. MOSS: Me too.

GROSS: ...having you here on the show. I've really enjoyed it a lot. I'd love
for you to end with a song. And you have actually a very sweet song about
goodbyes. Maybe you can do that. Tell us first how you wrote it.

Mr. MOSS: It's from "The Muppets Take Manhattan" and it comes at a time when
the Muppets are not being successful in their quest to become stars on Broadway
so they all have to split up and go in their various directions and this is the
song they sing.

(Soundbite of song, “Saying Goodbye”)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) Saying goodbye, going away, seems like goodbye's such a
hard thing to say. Touching a hand, wondering why it’s time for saying goodbye.
Saying goodbye, why is it sad? Makes us remember the good times we’ve had. Much
more to say, foolish to try, it’s time for saying goodbye. Don’t want to leave.
Still we both know, sometimes it's better to go. Somehow I know we'll meet
again, don’t know just where, and I'm not sure just when. You’re in my heart,
so until then, want to smile. Want to cry saying goodbye.

DAVIES: Jeffrey Moss recorded in 1994. He was one of the original writers on
"Sesame Street" and wrote many of the show's more memorable songs. Moss died in

"Sesame Street" was known for using every trick in the book to get kids to
learn the alphabet, including enlisting stars like Richard Pryor for the job.

I’m Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

Mr. RICHARD PRYOR (Comedian, actor): That's an A, and here’s a B, and nobody
care about no C. And ain't nobody interested in D, right? Because E's got it
all covered as we shift to the F, hang up with the G. Huh? Move down to H.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: Jump to the I, and then the J. Now here come K, walking in the place
along with L. You know, what I mean? And M was cool. M said to N, O, P, Q, R.
Now S comes stepping up, right? T was mean though. T didn’t take no U because V
was W. Mm. Mm. Mm. And X had it covered because Y was mean, because that's the
Z of the game.

(Soundbite of "Sesame Street" theme song)

Unknown Artist: Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away. On my way to where the air
is sweet. Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Coming up, Chris Cerf, who wrote many rock and roll song parodies for
"Sesame Street." Also we hear from Frank Oz, who was the voice of Burt, Grover,
Cookie Monster, and The Muppets Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy. And David Bianculli
reflects on 40 years of "Sesame Street."

(Soundbite of "Born to Add")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER CERF (Singer, songwriter): (Singing) don't matter why we
like to add one and one out here it's the thing to do. Now some say that
screaming one plus one all night means we're thoughtless, cruel, and bad, but
kids like you and me, baby, we were born to add. Yes, sir, we were.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The Man Behind Miss Piggy


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Sesame Street”)

Mr. PATRICK STEWART (Actor): B or not a B? That is the question. Whether ‘tis
the second letter of the alphabet, or some other merry letter. B or not a B?
This letter doth have a stiff, straight back. And the word back begineth with
B. B or not a B? This letter doth have two bumps in the front. And I reckon the
word bump begineth with B. Zoons, the word begineth, begineth with B, if
begineth be a word. Now, by my sword, I declare, B or not a B, ‘tis B. Good
night, sweet B.

DAVIES: That’s Patrick Stewart teaching kids about the letter B on “Sesame
Street.” Today we celebrate the poetry, music and puppets of “Sesame Street,”
which marks its 40th anniversary on television Tuesday. Frank Oz is an actor,
puppeteer and film director who helped create and did the voices for Cookie
Monster, Bert and Grover, and for the Muppets, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear.

Frank Oz joined Jim Hensen and the Muppets in 1963. He directed the Muppets on
the big screen in “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” He directed a blood-sucking
plant and a cast of humans in the movie musical comedy “A Little Shop of
Horrors.” And he was directed by George Lucas in “The Empire Strikes Back,”
where Oz handled the puppet and the voice for Yoda, the Jedi master. Terry
spoke with Frank Oz in 1988, when his comedy with Steve Martin and Michael
Caine, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” was released.


You did puppets as a kid. And I wonder what kind of puppet shows you did.

Mr. FRANK OZ (Actor, Director): Oh, I did variety shows, marionette variety
shows, three minute little act, strung together for about 20 minutes for
supermarket openings and birthday parties and parking lots and fairs and church
gatherings and anything like that. I made about $30 for a half an hour show.

GROSS: What do you think is different about the Muppets than puppets which
preceded it?

Mr. OZ: Yeah. Well, I think it’s the tight shot of cameras. I think the tight
shot of television created a particular style that Jim did. And that is when
you’re working with normal puppets. And again, I’m not crazy about puppets. I
care much more about character, and that’s why I love Muppets because they do
characters. But I think the tight shot, the close-up in a TV situation, forces
a puppet not to be just a wooden doll. It forced Jim, I think, in his
creativity, to have a mouth that opens and speaks in sync and have a cloth
instead of wood and the cloth is malleable and you can be much more subtle with
you hand. I think that close-up really made the difference to Jim and it both
forced him and allowed him to break some bonds of puppetry. He did that. I had
nothing to do with that. I wasn’t even there.

GROSS: The puppets were also outside of the proscenium, there’s no little
puppet theater…

Mr. OZ: That’s it, yeah, because in a – you’re right - a proscenium situation,
you - first of all, it’s a wide shot, the puppets kind of wiggle. It bores the
hell out of me, puppets wiggling around, but they just kind of wiggle around
and move and you have to - your eye shifts to them. In a proscenium situation,
they have to make large motions, because it’s a proscenium, because there’s a
lot of space to play with.

In a close-up, that close-up is the new proscenium, was the new proscenium,
still is. And you don’t have to wiggle the doll, you have to be more subtle.
You have to be more succinct. You have to be more specific in your movements.
And I think all those - I think that close-up compared with the proscenium
really made the difference. It was the germ of what happened with the Muppets
and Jim.

GROSS: I think the superstar of all the puppets - of all the Muppets that you
created was Miss Piggy. If you could tell us what inspired her…

Mr. OZ: She was a pig as – there must have been half a dozen pigs in the first
year of “The Muppet Show,” which we kind of loosely used in the show. And at
one point it was Richard Hunt, who’s another performer, and myself, we kind of
used her at different times. And one show, I did her and she came out of the
course and attacked the frog, romantically. And from that moment on, people
started to laugh at her and I started to have ideas with her and the writers
and then I took over.

I said, Richie, it really seems like I’m getting somewhere with her and he said
fine. But I don’t know what happened. All I know is that whatever neuroses I
have has been filtered through her in some entertaining way or used to have,
maybe. And so she is now a – what I like about her, she’s a very layered
character. There’s a lot of neuroses built inside her. And I’ve always felt
that what’s humorous about her is that she hides her pain.

GROSS: I want to play a short clip of you – your voice as Miss Piggy from the
movie that you directed, “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” And in this scene, Miss
Piggy is working at the perfume counter of a department store.

Mr. OZ: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And working with her is Joan Rivers, and they’re selling a perfume
called Kel de Feron(ph).

Mr. OZ: I’ll tell you about that too.

GROSS: Let’s hear the scene first.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Muppets Take Manhattan”)

Mr. OZ: (As Miss Piggy) Get your Kel de Feron, it’s French, it’s feminine. It
will help you grab one of those rotten stinking men. Kel de Feron…

Ms. JOAN RIVERS (Actress): (As Perfume Saleswoman) (Unintelligible) You were
fine this morning. (Unintelligible) lunch?

Mr. OZ: (As Miss Piggy) My frog turned on me.

Ms. RIVERS: (As Perfume Saleswoman) (Unintelligible)

Mr. OZ: (As Miss Piggy) I’m going to fight for him though. I mean, do you think
I’m pretty?

Ms. RIVERS: (As Perfume Saleswoman) Of course you are. You’re more than pretty.

Mr. OZ: (As Miss Piggy) Gorgeous?

Mr. RIVERS: (As Perfume Saleswoman) Don’t push it, pig.

GROSS: You were saying there was a story behind that?

Mr. OZ: I was directing that movie also and we rented Bergdorf Goodman’s on a
Sunday morning, and Sunday all day, and Joan had to leave. She had an
engagement that evening, some performance she had to do. So we only had her for
one day and not a complete day either. So I had two cameras going and – in the
scene really, although you didn’t play it all, it ends with them hysterically
giggling and losing control, just laughing like two, you know, two friends
laugh. And we - it just wasn’t working. I mean, I - it’s very hard to if you
try, it’s very hard to have a spontaneous laughter. It wasn’t working. And Joan
- because I didn’t know Joan that well, I guess she didn’t know me. So I said
to one of the production assistants, we were close to the Plaza Hotel, I said,
Get about four Bloody Marys. And so they came back after looking and I had a
couple of Bloody Marys and Joan had a couple Bloody Marys. And we shot the
scene kind of like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OZ: And actually, then Joan left. I had to do some pickup work. And I was
feeling really good and I didn’t care where the hell the cameras were.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I’m trying to listen to your voice and hear how it’s become the
characters of Miss Piggy and Bert and Grover and Fozzie Bear…

Mr. OZ: Don’t even try. I’m amazed that I do Miss Piggy, first of all. The
others I can understand a bit more. Piggy is beyond me. I have no idea how I do
that. I mean it’s just – fortunately, I don’t even think about it. Neither do I
have to think about the other characters. They’re just there. They just happen
- they are there after all this – all these year.

GROSS: When you’re manipulating the character of Miss Piggy…

Mr. OZ: Uh-huh.

GROSS: …where are…

Mr. OZ: Which I don’t do much anymore, actually.

GROSS: You have other people to do that?

Mr. OZ: No, nobody does my characters, nobody does Jim’s characters, nobody
does the other performer’s characters. I just don’t use her that much anymore.
I try and save her for special occasions.

GROSS: I can’t believe she is allowing you retire her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OZ: I’m not retiring her.

GROSS: She is so aggressive.

Mr. OZ: No, not retiring her at all. I’m just saving – I’m saving her for
special situations, special TV shows, special moments, because she’s, you know,
she’s a very special character. And also because I’m - I don’t have time. I’ve
a family and I’m working on movies and all that stuff.

GROSS: Is that ever frustrating when you’re working with real actors, after you
worked with puppets for so long. You know, with a puppet, if you don’t like the
movement, you change it, you move your arm, you move the rod or whatever.
Working with an actor, they’re a real person and you can’t just, you know, do
the equivalent of pulling their strings.

Mr. OZ: You mean as a director or a performer?

GROSS: As a director.

Mr. OZ: Well, it’s a question that’s asked often in some form. And when I
direct, which is a misnomer in the first place, but when I - because you don’t
direct people, you work with them. But when I work with the performers, the
puppeteers, I don’t work with the puppets. I don’t, you know, I don’t talk to
the puppet. I talk to the professional hardworking people, you know, who work
for 20 years. And essentially the difference between them and the normal
actors, and they are actors, is that they will use puppets as a tool and the
actors will use their own body as a tool. Essentially, there’s not much

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OZ: And so I consider myself talking to actors either way.

DAVIS: Puppeteer and film director Frank Oz, who worked with Jim Henson to
create the Muppets on “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.” He spoke with
Terry in 1988.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified People: (As Muppets) (Singing) Asked a girl what she wanted to be?
She said, Elmo, can’t you see. I want be famous star on the screen. But you can
do something in between. Elmo, you can drive my car. Yes, I’m going to be a
star. Elmo, you can drive my car. And maybe, I love you. Elmo told that girl
that his prospects are good. She said, Elmo, it’s understood. Working for
peanuts is all very fine, but I can show you a better time. Elmo, you can drive
my car. Yes, I’m going to be a star. Elmo you can drive my car. And maybe I
love you. Beep, beep, beep, beep, yeah.

Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Composing Silly Songs For ‘Sesame Street’

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified People: (Singing) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,
nine, 10, 11, 12, we’re gonna, we’re gonna around the clock, we’re gonna around
the clock, we’re gonna around the clock, we’re gonna - 12, 11, 10, nine, eight,
seven, six, five, four three, two one, we’re gonna, we’re gonna, around the
clock, we’re gonna around the clock, we’re gonna around the clock, we’re gonna.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, we’re gonna,
we’re gonna.


Christ Cerf wrote or co-wrote more than 200 songs featured on “Sesame Street,”
including “Put Down The Duckie,” “The Word Is No,” and such memorable parodies
as “Born To Add” and “The Letter B.” He won two Grammy Awards and three Emmys
for song writing and music production on the show. Cerf is also an author and
satirist who helped launch National Lampoon. His most recent project is “Lomax:
The Hound Of Music,” a PBS children series he co-created and co-wrote. Terry
spoke with Chris Cerf in 1990, when a collection of songs from “Sesame Street”
had just been released.


There’s a new collection of Sesame Street rock and roll videos. And one of the
songs that you wrote for that collection of videos, or that’s featured on that
collection of videos, is “I Can’t Get No Cooperation,” performed by The

Mr. CHRISTOPHER CERF (Composer-Lyricist): Right.

GROSS: Are there copyright laws that you have to obey when you’re parodying
famous people’s famous songs?

Mr. CERF: Absolutely, though nobody knows exactly what the rules are. But you
really don’t copy the tune. You have to try to suggest the tune and suggest the
words. But you can’t use the original ones. And if you do, you can be sued. But
most of time we stay away from that. And you know, that came up in the sequels
book too. We were going to do a parody featuring the Bambi characters, a movie
called “Bambo,” that was a going to be a cross between “Rambo” and “Bambi,” and
the line that went with it was: They killed his mother, now it’s time to get

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CERF: And, in fact, we made a little postcard of that and brought it to the
book convention. And we were notified very quickly that there would be
injunctions against the book and all kinds of things if we tried to use those
characters, so, we left it out finally. And indeed, that was a case where we
had gone over the line because we were using not just a copyrighted name, you
know - and certainly parody is encouraged by free speech. But you can’t use
trademarks and the Bambi character was a trademark. So, there are rules. Nobody
knows exactly where the line is but parody is generally okay, as long as, you
can see that it’s not trying to trade on the original.

GROSS: Titles, you can parody titles without any problem.

Mr. CERF: Oh, absolutely. Oh, sure.

GROSS: Have you ever been sued?

Mr. CERF: Actually, yes. We were sued for a “Sesame Street” song called “Letter
B,” that was a parody of “Let It Be.” And we weren’t sued by the Beatles who,
in fact, wrote an affidavit on our behalf, but by someone who had bought the
copyright to that song, an Australian firm. And eventually, it was settled out
of court but it does make you stop and think. And probably we might have gotten
a little closer than we should’ve to that tune. Actually, it was settled for
$500. So, it looks likely we would’ve won the case of if it had gone all the

GROSS: Yeah, that’s not exactly a grand settlement.

Mr. CERF: No, since they originally sued us for five and a half million.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CERF: I figure $500 is a pretty good settlement. The funny part of that was
that Michael Jackson, by this time, owned the company. So, I had to write the
check to Michael Jackson, who I’m sure needs the money more than I did.

GROSS: Let’s see what you did with “I Can’t Get No Cooperation,” by the
Cobblestones. You wrote the music for this, yes?

Mr. CERF: Yes, I wrote the music and tried to do a Mick Jagger imitation as

GROSS: Oh, you’re singing on this?

Mr. CERF: Yeah, though you’ll see that it doesn’t sound too much like him.

GROSS: Well, that means he won’t sue you.

Mr. CERF: Well, we hope not.

(Soundbite of song, “I Can’t Get No Cooperation”)

COBBLESTONES (Group): (Singing) Well I’m sitting on a seesaw seat. Thinking
seesawing would be neat. And I can’t find a friend to sit on the other side.
Yes, I’ve tried it all alone. But I crashed down like a stone. Couldn’t get no
cooperation if I tried. No, no, no, no cooperation. No, no, no, no cooperation.
No, no, no, no, no cooperation. If I tried, if I tried.

GROSS: There’s a Muppet based on you who sometimes sings the songs that you
wrote. Who designed the Muppet?

Mr. CERF: Actually it was based on a Muppet that Jim Henson designed years ago
called Fat Blue. In fact, if you watch “Sesame Street” closely you’ll see that
that Blue character is the basis of a lot of things that are known as anything
Muppets. You slap a different wig on them, or glasses or different costume, and
they look different. And basically what they did was put curly hair that looked
a little like mine, and glasses that looked a little like mine on the Fat Blue
Muppet, and gave him a piano, which usually gets broken in the course of
performing any of these songs. And I get to sing, which is really fun.

GROSS: What’s it been like to work on “Sesame Street” since the death of Jim
Henson? How have you been affected by that, you know, in terms of your work?

Mr. CERF: Well, it’s been a very sad year because not only Jim Hansen but Joe
Raposo, who was our principal composer, died within the last year as well. So,
I mean, I think really all of us have been doing this so long. It’s hard to
believe, but the show is in its 22nd year now. But because we all stayed
together pretty much, you don’t really feel that all that time is past. And I
don’t think any of us expected these things to happen. And Joe and Jim, of
course, are still pretty young guys - or would’ve been. So, we took it pretty
hard. But I think, you know, the show will go on and, of course, Jim built an
incredible group of performers and all the rest of them are still there.

So, you know, a lot of those characters were played by other people. So, really
only Kermit and Ernie are missing at the moment. And we have 20 years of them
on tape. So, the show looks pretty much the same still. I think it made us all
feel what a family we all were, you know, so that we’ve all gotten even closer
and everybody worked extra hard to fill the gap. So, it’s been a – it’s been an
exciting year in a way though it’s certainly been a sad one.

GROSS: Did the “Sesame Street” people do anything at the funeral about their
work for “Sesame Street?”

Mr. CERF: Well, there was work included because some of Jim’s most famous work
was on our show. And one of the nicest moments, I think, was that Caroll
Spinney, who plays Big Bird, appeared in the bird costume and sang “It’s Not
Easy Being Green,” which since he was yellow would sound weird. But it was
incredibly touching and made everybody cry. The whole service was remarkable
because it was filled with music and puppet performances and jokes.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CERF: Jim had left instructions and a series of letters that he wrote of
exactly what songs he wanted at his funeral, which included things like “Lydia,
the Tattooed Lady.” But the whole thing was - it just made it all sadder. But
definitely there were “Sesame Street” characters and things included

DAVIES: Chris Cerf, he wrote or co-wrote more than 200 songs for “Sesame
Street.” He spoke with Terry Gross in 1990.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Come And Play: “Sesame Street” Celebrates 40 Years

(Soundbite of song, “Sesame Street”)

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) Can you tell me how to get, can you tell me
how to get, sunny day sweepin’ the clouds away, on my way…


When “Sesame Street” begins its new season on Tuesday, it will be 40 years to
the day since the hugely influential program premiered on public television.
Our TV critic, David Bianculli, takes a look at Tuesday’s episode and its
special guest, first lady Michelle Obama, and assesses the show’s legacy.

(Soundbite of TV Program, “Sesame Street”)

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: And Elmo, you and I, we are going to plant some carrot

Mr. KEVIN CLASH (Actor): (As Elmo) Wow, look at how tiny those seeds are.

Ms. OBAMA: They sure are but these little seeds are going to make some great
tasting food.

Mr. MATT VOGEL (Actor): (As Big Bird) Wow, did I just hear right: The first
lady eat seeds?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OBAMA: Well, Big Bird.

Mr. VOGEL: (As Big Bird) Well, I love seeds. I didn’t know you ate the too. Are
you part bird?

Ms. OBAMA: No, Big Bird, I’m not.

Mr. VOGEL: (As Big Bird) You sure?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VOGEL: (As Big Bird) You and I are both really tall, maybe we’re from the
same family.

DAVID BIANCULLI: That was Michelle Obama, the first lady, popping in on “Sesame
Street” to hang out with Elmo, Big Bird and some kids, and to demonstrate one
of her pet projects: how to plant your own vegetable garden. Her point is that
from very small seeds, some delicious and wonderful things can grow. And in TV
terms, “Sesame Street” 40 years ago was one of those seeds — and it ended up
feeding many generations of young viewers. On November 10th, 1969, when we
first heard the theme to “Sesame Street,” public television itself was a new
and largely unproven entity.

There was no cable TV then, no Fox, by and large, just three commercial
networks and in each TV market, a local station or two. Children’s television
wasn't very regulated and certainly, by the end of the ‘60s, wasn’t very good.
“Sesame Street,” with its simple mandate of educating children as it
entertained them, changed all that. We live in such a different technological
world now that one of the basic principles of “Sesame Street” has been, quite
recently, overthrown.

“Sesame Street,” was available to any family, no matter how poor, so long as it
had electricity and a TV set. Tune in, and even the most disadvantaged
preschooler could learn his or her ABCs and count to 10 and begin attending
school without feeling left behind. Today, that’s no longer true. TV signals
are relayed digitally, and poorer families, without digital converters for
their TV sets, no longer have access to the “Sesame Street” neighborhood. Those
who can see “Sesame Street” today, though, will see something very different
from 40 years ago or even from last year.

The show is packaged in modules now, like a preschool “Today” show, and its
theme song has been rearranged to sound more modern. This year, in addition,
some of the Muppets have gone digital in an even bigger way. Abby Cadabby, a
young fairy in training, is seen in adventures that present her not as a flesh-
and-blood Muppet — well, foam-and-fabric, anyway — but as a computer-generated
CGI cartoon. And when Elmo is at his own computer, he watches Grover leading a
frog hunt in an intentional approximation of a YouTube video short.

(Soundbite of TV program, “Sesame Street”)

Mr. ERIC JACOBSON (Actor): (As Grover) Oh, now here - here is a froggy.

Unidentified Group #2: That’s not a frog. It’s a butterfly.

Ms. LESLIE CARRARA (Actor): (As Abby Cadabby) Butterflies have wings to fly.
Frogs don’t have wings to fly.

Mr. JACOBSON: (As Grover) I knew that.

Unidentified Person: Ribbit. Ribbit.

Mr. JACOBSON: (As Grover) Did you hear that? That is the sound that a frog
makes. There must be a frog around here some place. Froggy.

Unidentified Person: Ribbit. Ribbit.

BIANCULLI: I note these changes but I’m not complaining about them. Instead,
I’m reassured by the show’s many still-familiar elements. The 40th anniversary
hour of “Sesame Street” still has a cameo by Kermit the Frog, and lengthy
sketches that adults in the room are much more likely to laugh at than kids.
The show is still brought to us by letters — this one is sponsored by the
letter H - and one of the key words is habitat. And after all this time,
“Sesame Street” is a habitat that continues to attract some very watchable
visitors — not only Michelle Obama and Cameron Diaz, who are in the opener, but
others down the road. Me, I can’t wait for Ricky Gervais.

The delivery system may be different, the packaging may be different, even the
content and theme song may be different, but “Sesame Street” four decades later
is the same happy neighborhood it always was.

DAVIES: David Bianculli writes for and teaches television
and film at Rowan University. You can download Podcasts of our show at and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


'Bad guys never think they're bad guys,' says veteran character actor Clancy Brown

Brown's been working since the 1980s, voicing Mr. Krabs in Spongebob and playing memorable villains in movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Highlander. He now has a supporting role in John Wick 4.


Esperanza Spalding teams up with pianist Fred Hersch in this 'Vanguard' recording

When Hersch invited jazz, pop and opera composer Spalding to perform three nights with him at the Village Vanguard, he thought she'd bring her bass. Instead, Spalding just wanted to use her voice.


Eco-idealism and staggering wealth meet in 'Birnam Wood'

Birnam Wood is a whooshingly enjoyable new novel by Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander whose previous book, The Luminaries, made her, at 28, still the youngest person ever to win the Booker Prize.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue