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Show of the Day: Sesame Street – Snuffleupagus edition

25 Nov

There’s pages and books and so forth that could be written about Sesame Street, a kids show that’s run on PBS for over forty years and which several generations of children, including my own, have grown up with.  That’s way too much to handle in one entry.  Instead I’m going to focus on two moments both revolving around Snuffleupagus which I find particularly interesting.

Snuffleupagus (actually a last name – his first name is Aloysius) is a wooly mammoth-like creature with a trunk-like nose known as a “snuffle” (these are all technical terms).

The first moment is in regard to the ongoing question, which lasted for the first 15 years of the show, over whether Snuffleupagus (“Snuffy”) was real of merely a figment of Big Bird’s imagination.  Big Bird was constantly trying to convince everyone on Sesame Street that Snuffy was real, but there were many who didn’t buy what Big Bird was selling.  By the mid-80s, two camps had emerged – Snuffy believers and Snuffy non-believers.  As part of his attempts to persaude the adults, Big Bird would set up many scenarios to prove Snuffy’s existence, but Snuffy would walk away just before the adults could see him.  Kids and occasional guest starts sometimes saw Snuffy, but Big Bird was at loose ends trying to show the adults.

Eventually in episode 2096, airing on November 18, 1985, Big Bird concocts yet another plan to show the adults that Snuffy is real.  By now, he’s won some support to his side.  Gordon, Linda and Maria are in the Snuffy camp, but Bob and Susan still think he’s  imaginary.  Big Bird’s latest plan is to shout a secret word while Snuffy is present, in this case “food”, at which point the adults will run quickly and see Snuffy.  Bird tries it quickly once, but Snuffy has already run off to tell his mom about Big Bird’s plan.  Determined not to be foiled again, Big Bird assigns Elmo to watch out and ensure that Snuffy does not leave when Big Bird next yells the secret word.  Elmo does his job, hanging on to Snuffy’s snuffle, even as the snuffle goes flying back and forth, and just in time the adults come in and meet Snuffy for the very first time.  The disbelievers are surprised and very apologetic to Big Bird who reveals it was hard on him to know that his friends didn’t believe him.  Eventually all the adults introduce themselves to Snuffy, including Phil Donahue (what could be more ‘80s?) who was on Sesame Street to pick up his toaster from the fix-it shop.

The primary motivation to introduce Snuffy as real to the world was in response to a series of prominent child sexual abuse scandals in the early and mid-80s.  Sesame Street’s writers were concerned that the message they were sending, by having many adults not believe Big Bird, was that you couldn’t tell your parents everything because of the risk that they wouldn’t believe you and that it was better to just say nothing at all.  By showing that Big Bird is right, they were hoping to convey the opposite message, that parents will listen to their kids and that kids should not be afraid to tell their parents anything.  Secondarily, the writers may have been tired of constantly making up new ways for Snuffy to just avoid being seen by the adults.

The second pivotal Mr. Snuffleupagus moment is Snuffy’s parents getting divorced, which is part of an episode which never actually aired (colloquially known as “Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce”) from 1992.  Sesame Street doesn’t do “very special” episodes very often, and whether you love the show or not, I think it takes its responsibility with young children very seriously, so when it does an important episode, it’s worth taking notice.  The most notable of these episodes is the death of Mr. Hoooper in 1983 but perhaps the second most is “Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce.”  After years of debate, Sesame Street writers decided they wanted to attempt to address the issue of divorce on the program, and quickly decided that it would have to be related to the puppets rather than to any of the adults on the show.  Snffleupagus was chosen and the initial script was passed around to psychologists as well as members of the show’s advisory board.  Edits were suggested to quell the worry that children would think that arguments between parents automatically led to divorce.  The episode was filmed with these edits, but test audiences did not take well to the episode.  Even with the edits, kids still felt that arguments between their parents would inevitably lead to divorce.  They also were confused about whether Aloysius and his sister Alice would ever see their father again, and he was a rarely used character.  Maybe even worst of all, many of the kids watching got the idea that after divorce their parents would no longer love them.

The entire episode was scrapped and replaced with a storyline about Oscar’s brother visiting Sesame Street.  It was a noble attempt, but the writers decided that divorce was outside of the realm of issues they could address to kids of the age Sesame Street is aiming for.