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A Chat With Big Bird’s Boss

It’s hard to believe “Sesame Street” is turning 35. It still looks so dewy and youthful. Big Bird still peers out at the world with his big innocent unwrinkled birdie eyes; nerdy Bert still does his patented slow burn at Ernie’s goofball antics; Oscar still snarls when excessive sappiness and sentiment get too near his trash can. But time does march on. Enter any home with a toddler, and odds are good that it’s a second-generation House of Street.

My daughter Josie, age 2, is as obsessive about the Street as I was as a toddler. She bellows the songs at the top of her lungs, cackles when Cookie Monster loses his self-control, absorbs the lessons about sharing and cooperation. She announces, “Someday I want a pet snake named Zoe,” a tribute to her favorite Muppet. When she’s tired, she asks me to sing the lovely “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon,” a duet crooned by Ernie and rhythm and blues great Aaron Neville.

“Sesame Street” has won 91 Emmy Awards, more than any other TV show of any genre. It’s spawned co-productions in 120 countries. Some studies have shown that the program increases school readiness in little kids; others have found that frequent viewers earn better grades in English, math and science than non-viewers, and that watching “Sesame Street” is correlated with appreciation for the value of academic achievement in general.

None of this matters much to me. What I care about is that it’s smart, sweet but not vomitous, and blissfully devoid of shrill, brain-piercing cartoon voices and explosions. I needn’t leap like SuperGrover for the TiVo remote to fast-forward past commercials. And best of all, it’s funny for both kids and parents, on different levels. This season there will be a parody of Dr. Phil called Dr. Feel; Norah Jones will appear to sing “Don’t Know Why ‘Y’ Didn’t Come,” about a letter who misses a playdate; Julianne Moore and Count von Count will melodramatically share their love of a numeral that dare not speak its name in “Far from Seven.”

Sesame Street’s executive producer, Lewis Bernstein, chatted with the Forward about the show’s future and past. He’s been with the company for nearly 30 years, serving in his current post for the past two. Under his watch, “Sesame Street” has expanded its coverage of international issues (before his current gig, Bernstein was the vice president of Global Sesame Street Productions, training teams from foreign countries to create their own versions of the show, and before that he produced “Sesame English,” a program that teaches conversational English in foreign countries). Last year, the show added a segment called “Global Grover,” in which Grover introduces viewers to children all over the world. (Josie’s favorite is a little girl in Trinidad who learns to dance on stilts for Carnival, after which Josie delighted our Trinidadian babysitter by dancing on a box and screaming, “I’m a Moko Jumby!” which is a West African term for a traditional robed stilt-dancer — who knew?)

“After September 11, we wanted to teach children to be sensitive and respectful of our difference,” he said. “We only had four shows left to write when September 11 occurred. We ended up doing two shows about fear and loss and two shows about standing up to intolerance.” For instance, Elmo panics when there is a fire at Mr. Hooper’s store, but learns that firefighters are helpers. And Big Bird tells his seagull friend Gulliver, who refuses to play with Snuffleupagus because Snuffy isn’t a bird, that if Gulliver won’t play with Snuffy, Big Bird won’t play with him.

“The next season, in addition to literacy and numeracy, we wanted to talk about being socially reasonable,” Bernstein added. “Through ‘Global Grover’ showing real children sewing banana leaves in Jordan or balancing bowls on their heads in Mongolia or building a house together on a kibbutz in Israel, kids see that we are all interconnected. Those segments will also go into our international library, so viewers all over the world will see them.” After “Global Grover” comes another new segment, a wordless animated feature called “Global Thingy.” In it, squeaky, wiggly-lined friends learn lessons about cooperation, empathy and dealing with disagreement.

These are lessons Bernstein learned well in an earlier role at Sesame Workshop, spearheading the production of the Israeli/Palestinian versions of the show. He moved to Israel in 1988 to produce the project. (He has a master’s degree in communications from Hebrew University, as well as a doctorate in communications research from Columbia University and an undergrad degree in psychology from Queens College.)

“In the beginning,” he said, “the participants wanted to see their characters visiting each other, see the potential for friendship,” he said. “But there was always tension. Even then, the Palestinians said, ‘We never meet on one street!’ The Israelis would say, ‘But it’s a fantasy!’ and the Palestinians would say, ‘But if it’s too far from reality, our viewers won’t watch!’” But as the years passed and the matzav, the situation, worsened, so did the tensions.

“I always looked at it as a ‘Dayenu’ approach,” Bernstein said ruefully. “You want everything, but it’s enough to start a project, to share some materials, to teach respect for difference. We couldn’t go as far as we wanted this time around, but at least they’re continuing to till the garden.”

In 1990, Bernstein moved back to the States with his family. “I didn’t want to work on the second phase of the project, for both personal and political reasons,” he said. “Professionally, I felt I’d moved the ball as far as I could. Politically, I watched the process collapse and the intifada begin. And my personal barometer was broken, swinging wildly from side to side.”

Today, Bernstein is happily ensconced at the helm of the most successful children’s show ever. Not a bad place to be.

E-mail Marjorie at [email protected].

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