Sesame Street was broadcast in over 140 countries to more than 120 million viewers, and became one of the most-watched children’s TV shows of all time. But the iconic series has still had its fair share of controversy since first airing on PBS way back in 1969. Here’s a look at 20 of the biggest scandals to rock the Street.
20. Elmo’s poor grammar
Elmo has become one of the show’s most popular characters since debuting in 1979. But the fluffy favorite has his fair share of detractors, too. Indeed, some linguists believe that his habit of talking about himself in the third person is a bad influence on young children. On the other hand, producers argue that the loveable red creature actually helps pre-schoolers with their pronouns.
19. Cookie Monster was once a keen smoker
Parents in the late ’60s and early ’70s had more to worry about than characters with poor grammar, however. Because, not content with an obsession with sugary baked goods, creators also made the early version of the Cookie Monster a chain smoker! Yes, in several episodes the fuzzy blue creature can be seen enjoying the distinctly child-unfriendly activity of smoking a pipe.
18. The show was once marked for “adults only”
Considering Cookie Monster’s smoking habit, it’s perhaps a good job that Sesame Street was originally given an “adults only” label. Yes, in 2009 The Week’s Dale Hrabi told NPR that episodes from 1969 to the early 1970s were given the warning. And little wonder – early episodes not only included a pipe-smoking Cookie Monster, they contained an early version of Grover wreaking havoc with a group of hippies.
17. Bigots once tried to get the show banned
Some disgruntled viewers went much further than simply boycotting the show back in the ’70s. In fact, a Mississippi state commission tried to get Sesame Street taken off air altogether. But not due to concerns over grammar or smoking. No, the bigoted commission instead took umbrage with the show’s “highly integrated cast of children.” Luckily, their attempts fell completely flat.
16. Mahboub the Arab angered Israeli viewers
Of course, Sesame Street has also been at the center of more recent controversies. In 2006, for example, the Israeli version introduced five-year-old Arab muppet Mahboub to teach youngsters acceptance and tolerance. Sadly, the character didn’t have the same effect on the adult population, and Mahboub ended up enraging many of the country’s Jewish viewers.
15. Roosevelt Franklin was accused of being a stereotype
Indeed, one puppet proved to be so controversial he was eventually dropped altogether. African-American character Roosevelt Franklin was introduced to the show in 1970 in order to teach kids valuable life lessons, as well as letters and numbers. Despite this, however, some viewers believed he was actually helping to reinforce negative African-American stereotypes instead. And as a result, he was written out of the show altogether in 1975.
14. Katy Perry’s revealing dress
Katy Perry got everyone hot under the collar in 2010 when she performed a duet with Elmo. But the pop superstar was deemed to have shown a little too much skin while performing “Hot and Cold” on a sketch first uploaded to YouTube. And subsequently, producers decided not to air the segment on television – something that bemused Perry herself.
13. The YouTube channel was once hacked and replaced with porn
Viewers of the show’s YouTube channel, however, were subjected to far more flesh than anyone could have imagined in 2011. Indeed, Sesame Workshop were forced to issue an apology when the channel was hacked and switched with porn. YouTube managed to get things back to normal relatively quickly, but many of the 148,000 subscribers would still have seen the offending material.
12. The Bert and Bin Laden poster
Bert – of Bert and Ernie fame – became an unlikely anti-U.S. propaganda tool when he was photoshopped looking decidedly threatening alongside Osama Bin Laden in 2001. The image of the pair was used on various posters put up in Bangladesh, something which understandably outraged Sesame Street fans and producers alike. In fact, the latter even discussed launching legal action in order to prevent a similar incident happening again.
11. Elmo was initially just a background character
Elmo has gone through several changes since first arriving in Sesame Street. The little puppet was initially just a background character before being upgraded to a regular in Season 12. And at first, he spoke only in sounds rather than words. Then, he had a gruff caveman-like voice before Kevin Clash finally gave him his signature squeaky tones.
10. Elmo’s puppeteer was accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour
Elmo subsequently became the center of the biggest scandal in Sesame Street history. Indeed, the man behind the puppet, Kevin Clash, resigned from the role in 2012 amidst allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior towards young boys. These accusations had been brought against Clash by several men. However, the case was eventually thrown out due to the statute of limitations deadline having passed.
9. The Cookie Monster was originally designed for a cracker commercial
He may have become one of Sesame Street’s most iconic characters, but the Cookie Monster wasn’t designed specifically for the show. In fact, Jim Henson created the puppet to feature in a cracker commercial several years before the show first aired. However, with the ad never making it onto the screen, Henson decided to utilize the character elsewhere.
8. Oscar the Grouch was orange
Several Sesame Street characters went through various costume changes before settling on their trademark look. For example, Mr. Snuffleupagus’s appearance was originally much more frightening, before he was given a softer makeover. Meanwhile, green trash-can dweller Oscar the Grouch began his life on the street with yellow fur, until producers decided that he was too similar in color to Big Bird.
7. Mr. Snuffleupagus was originally Big Bird’s imaginary friend
Mr. Snuffleupagus was not only given a brand new look, but he was also transformed from a fantasy figure into one that was real. Indeed, the character was originally intended to be an imaginary friend who only Big Bird could see. However, in the wake of various child abuse cases, producers became concerned about depicting a situation in which adults didn’t believe in the existence something that youngsters knew to be true.
6. The theme tune was used as a torture device
Metallica, Britney Spears and Sesame Street all have an unusual thing in common. In fact, their music has all been used as a torture device at Guantanamo Bay. Indeed, the show’s theme was deemed to be so annoying that it became a regular soundtrack at the detention camp. As a result, the song was often blasted on repeat by soldiers to cause distress to inmates.
5. Humans were initially the stars of the show
It seems hard to believe now, but muppets enjoyed next to no screentime in the early episodes of Sesame Street. Indeed, the now beloved characters were limited to a single sketch at first. However, producers soon realized that young viewers’ attention spans drifted during the human-only segments. Big Bird and co. were subsequently upgraded to the stars of the show.
4. There’s an unaired episode about divorce
Sesame Street often went where many other children’s shows wouldn’t dare to go. In 1992 the series addressed an issue affecting 40 percent of American kids, divorce, with a storyline involving Mr. Snuffleupagus’s parents. Unfortunately, the episode tested disastrously with young viewers, and producers consequently decided not to air it to the whole nation.
3. There’s another unaired episode in which Oscar falls in love
Oscar is so loved for his grouchiness that a sketch in which he fell in love left young viewers feeling scared. Of course, the fact that the object of his affections was the Wicked Witch of the West may not have helped, either. The episode in question was subsequently banned, although he was at least later allowed to fall for Germaine the Grouch.
2. It’s been accused of triggering ADD
Sesame Street’s format of 40 brief non-sequential scenes ensures that young viewers never have the chance to become bored. However, it’s a formula that has also been accused of triggering Attention Deficit Disorder. Moreover, educational psychologists have claimed that the show’s approach could cause kids to struggle with the mundanity of everyday life.
1. The show was nearly called 123 Avenue B
Sesame Street wasn’t the producers’ first choice of title. In fact, the show was actually going to be called 123 Avenue B until it was discovered that there was already a street with that name in New York. After initially struggling to come up with a title that was entirely original, the team eventually settled on Sesame Street and the rest is TV history.