Thursday, August 17, 2006

Joel Stein: Elmo Is an Evildoer

The self-obsessed Sesame Street Muppet is destroying all that is holy on children's TV.

Joel Stein
Los Angeles Times

ELMO REFUSED to be interviewed for this column. I consider this to be a supreme act of cowardice. And it doesn't surprise me one bit. Elmo is an annoying tool.

Yes, I know that children love Elmo. But children are idiots. That's why we don't let them have jobs. Could you imagine an office full of children? They'd spend all day telling dumb jokes and talking about their poop. It would be like it was before women entered the workplace.

"Sesame Street" — which still has sharp, funny writing — is being destroyed by idiot cuteness. Not only is the patronizing, baby-talking Elmo usurping most of the hour, but "Sesame Street" — which debuted its 37th season Monday — added its first new female Muppet in 13 years: the sparkly haired, tutu-wearing, button-nosed, pink-skinned fairy goddaughter Abby Cadabby. Her shaky magic skills get her in situations she needs to get bailed out of, like the anti-"Bewitched."

Plus, she's got that creepy, throaty, little-girl Lindsay Lohan kind of voice, and a Paris Hilton-esque catchphrase: "That's so magic." When I watched "Sesame Street" in the '70s, the human cast and the Muppets were quirky adults who didn't talk down to me with baby voices. Now the human cast gets almost no airtime, and the show is dominated by Elmo, Baby Bear and, now, Abby Cadabby — preschoolers enamored by their own adorable stupidity.

The lesson they teach — in opposition to Oscar, Big Bird, Grover or Bert — is that bland neediness gets you stuff much more easily than character. We are breeding a nation of Anna Nicole Smiths.

I am not the only one who hates Elmo. Vernon Chatman and John Lee, the creators of MTV2's dark "Sesame Street" parody, "Wonder Showzen," think the evil red one is destroying the show.

"Elmo doesn't grow. People show him something and he laughs. He doesn't learn a lesson," says Lee. "It's the exact opposite of what old 'Sesame Street' used to do. Elmo has been learning the same lesson his whole life, which is that Elmo likes Elmo."

Chatman, who refers to Elmo as the Jar Jar Binks of "Sesame Street," worries that Elmo teaches kids to care only about themselves.

"Elmo is just a baby-voiced, self-obsessed character who is only concerned with Elmo," says Lee. "He just passively observes things: 'Elmo is looking at a sandwich. Elmo is eating a sandwich. Elmo is crapping out the sandwich and writing his name on the wall with it.' " The last celebrity to so obsessively refer to himself in the third person was Richard Nixon.

Whereas Count Von Count markets math and Oscar markets the acceptability of negative emotions, Elmo, brilliantly, just markets Elmo, leading him to be the show's cash cow, or whatever misshapen animal he's supposed to be.

I question not only Abby Cadabby but all of Elmo's associates. You may recall that Elmo testified before Congress about music education. But you may not remember who requested Elmo's appearance: Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now in jail for taking at least $2.4 million in bribes. I'm not implying that Elmo has taken dirty money, but these are the kind of people Elmo surrounds himself with.

I understand that "Sesame Street" has to compete in a Nickelodeon-Disney Channel-Wiggles-Pixar universe. In fact, the new episodes start with " 'Sesame Street' is brought to you by the following … " and then, instead of gently mocking consumerism by listing letters and numbers, they actually show real spots for McDonald's, Beaches resorts, Pampers and — the last of which apparently helps children spell only if they want to be rappers.

I desperately don't want the show to go away, so I know they can't afford to run the "Elmo accidentally drank bleach and died" episode. Instead, they need to simply take Elmo and his buddies and give them their own hourlong show for the idiot spawn. Then put Luis, Gordon and the cool Muppets on their own half-hour "Classic Sesame" for the kids who will one day actually contribute to our society.

Whichever of the two shows you watched would serve as a convenient litmus test for the rest of your life. "Which 'Sesame Street' did you watch?" will be code on college applications, Internet dating and job applications. Blue and red states will be divided not by presidential choices, but by Grover and Elmo.

If we can't save all the kids, let's at least save the ones who can master speaking in first-person. The rest we'll use for reality TV stars.


  1. I remember when I was little and watching the show in the early-mid '90s, Elmo was there, but he didn't get nearly as much camera time as he does now. The times they are a changin'.

  2. Obviously this writer either has no kids (people with kids do not usually refer to kids as "idiots". ) or this writer has forgotten that Sesame Street is for KIDS, not adults.

    I grew up watching it from the earliest of earliest shows. (I am 39) I watched it as I started having kids myself (and they loved it)

    Elmo plain and simple is cute-and was made to appeal to a certain age group.

    This sort of reminds me of the ruckus that Barney's creators had to endure because people(adults) said the show was dumb. I loved how they said that it wasnt for adults, but for kids...and not meant to be entertaining to adults muddy

  3. that should adults-signed muddy...

  4. My kids can't stand Sesame Street. I don't remember caring for it, or any muppets or puppets shows at all as a kid either. The only one I could stand was The Count, and I think that is because he seemed Halloweeny, and I loved anything to do with Halloween.

    The Wiggle's, on the other hand...That's just good entertainment.

  5. I think Elmo is okay, not as good as the classic Muppet characters, to be sure, but not horrible. I also think the show devotes way too much time to him.

    However, I give him an out on the issue when you consider how much noteriety he's brought to what was considered a moribound children's show. He saved Seasame Street from the chopping block by being more or less inescapable.

    Pre-Superstar Elmo, the original puppeteers were still performing (and approaching retirement age or death) and basically showed up by chance. Bert, Ernie, Grover, and all the rest were slowly disappearing, and the show was being held up by second-rate Muppets like Telly and Baby Bear.

    With a reason to survive, more or less, the original performers passed their Muppets on to people who could devote more time to performing and we have seen as of late a resurgence in the classic Muppets on screen. Despite the Elmo haters complaints, that in itself is a great development.

  6. Marrie: I'm the opposite, as you can tell. I still love the Muppets, but could care less about The Wiggles. that's what makes the world go round i guess :-)

  7. why do you know so much about the machinations of pop culture? scary.

    I'm with you on your muppet taste. one of my favorite people in the world, about a million years my junior, got 'the entire first year of the muppet show on DVD' for his birthday. how fucking cool is it for a 26-year-old to think that's the shizzle? i do (obviously) like what jim henson and co. did by expanding the dying muppet scene to prime time. pure genius. [and yes, i was old enough at the time to babysit, and as the nerdiest 11-year old in the solar system, free ice cream, bratty kids and the muppet show on a nice color tv on a friday night (and getting paid??) were the bizzrom]

    I don't actually dislike elmo. my son's taste followed: like elmo, barney not so much...

    the only argument to be made is perhaps one of the restructuring of the show: I realized in retrospect how educational the original show had been when I went to turn it on for my son. Sounding out words by putting syllables together (with a rhythmic and visual component), a number-of-the day sponsor, those little slice-of-life vignettes narrated by kids...the show was originally much richer. ironically, i really kind of hated those things as a kid because i could already read and stuff by the show's inauguration and i was a bit of a snob.

    however, S.S. was targeted for younger kids. as an adult, however, elmo seemed palatable to me.

    to fill in the gap, 'teletubbies,' 'barney,' and 'between the lions' became ultimately charged with emulating and perpetuating the vision that had once driven the creators of S.S.

    I once quipped to my brother that sesame street wasn't sesame street anymore in the educational sense of the word: it's now all, I don't know I can't put my finger on it..... "Elmo?" he responded.

    oh, and the count? pimp. daddy. always counting his nasty money, and making you wait for it... yecch.

  8. Some people just like to hate on Elmo. He's no Kermit the Frog, or Burt and/or Ernie! Back in the day, I was a fan of the Count and Kermit on SS.

    I have to admit, I have not watched Sesame Street in years, except to catch REM singing with the "Happy Furry Monsters" on there.


  9. Heather: I think how I absorbed all this pop culture has a lot to do with a lack of high culture in my early years. We were not patrons of the arts. We did what we could, but really, a whole world of information came with the television age, and there’s only so much that could be taken in. The stuff on TV is what stuck with me. Thankfully, we had PBS, and I still watch it today. It’s the easiest, cheapest way to expand your mind.

    Concerning Sesame Street in particular, it’s hard not to notice the marketing push the show has taken on of late. Elmo was an unintentional hit, while Abby Cadabby is extremely calculated. This is not a good change.

    Traditionally, when Muppets have been created to “scratch a marketing itch,” they have failed with consumers and viewers, whereas Muppets with actual character traits that aren’t that appealing on the surface have had lifelong fans. A pointy-headed anal retentive and his goofy, but earnest sidekick? A blue furry blob with an obsessive-compulsive disorder? A nasty green jerk with a bad attitude? All of these are iconic characters, not because they were perfectly suited for marketing, but because they taught kids that being boring, mean, greedy or silly was just as much a part of life as being nice. That why the original Muppets worked.

    Sometimes I wonder what Jim Henson would think about the latter-day commerciality of the show he helped shoot to the stratosphere. Then again, this is a man (Henson) that built a literal shrine to the almighty dollar. Maybe he wouldn’t be quite as opposed, but then again Sesame Street wasn’t his idea; he just enhanced it.

    Teletubbies, Barney, and Between the Lions have definitely picked up where Sesame Street left off, as well as Blue’s Clues. I can’t stand Barney, but then again, that’s not my demographic they’re targeting.

    In any event, none of these shows will ever be as good or as memorable as Sesame Street; there are simply too many distractions now to ever go back to what was. But somebody has to pick up the mantle. There is still a need, and sometimes, looking around, it seems more pertinent than ever.

    Ken: I think the Elmo bashing proves how universal Sesame Street has become. You wouldn’t have columns devoted to how D.W. from Arthur was ruining America.

  10. Don't you MESS with D.W.!

    great response, as always...

    google bought blogger? whoa. man, i'm a f*ck for not buying shares last august...

  11. Google has had its hand in Blogger for a while. They're apparently ready to make it less transparent. I just hope they don't start charging for Blogger, 'cause that would suck.