It's easy to confuse fuzzy juvenile recollections of watching Sesame Street with shameful ones of being caught, at age nine, enjoying Barney and Friends by an older brother. It all falls into that hazy arena of the formative years: a force-fed alphabet soup of educational children's programming, graham crackers and learning your 1-2-3s.
Though these warm, fuzzy memories of Sesame Street may linger, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' More Muppet Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy seeks to demystify those vague impressions. Celebrating the 40-year anniversary of Sesame Street, the YBCA's month-long retrospective is an effort not only to entertain the kids, but also to provide their parents with a new perspective with which to revisit familiar material.
The four-part tribute runs throughout the month of October, focusing on the scope of America's longest-running children's television series. The variety of programs addresses specific aspects of its production, from best-of compilations to behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, also covering music and a lesser-known history of the evolution of the Muppets themselves. Programs in the retrospective include Sesame Street at 40: Milestones on the Street, Jim Henson & Friends: Inside the Sesame Street Vault, Sing! The Music of Sesame Street and Muppets History 201: Rarities from the Henson Vault.
This isn't Sesame Street as you may remember it. You might have, in your murky recollections, relegated it to the stuff of kid-friendly buzz-words, as a show embodying "multicultural" and "educational" while "addressing real-life social issues" within each episode. The YBCA's presentation of Sesame Street reveals the show to be the handiwork of adults armed with a bevy of puns and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. The schmaltz and good cheer that characterize its material aren't the result of child-safe pandering, but the work of grown-ups who know how to produce kid-centric material and have fun while doing it. Need proof? Just watch Patrick Stewart (aka Charles Francis Xavier from X-men) waxing Shakespearean with a molded letter B, "B or not a B?"
What becomes evident while watching the films in the More Muppet Magic series is that Sesame Street is located in one hip borough. It's not today's deadpan and ironic version of hip, but more in tune with a simple, sincere, and silly aesthetic -- with a dash of sophisticated humor on the side. The show is creative, with an arts & crafts, DIY mentality that keeps it endearingly accessible and young. And the musical and celebrity guests are further proof that Sesame Street is clearly a cultural landmark: Robert De Niro doesn't show up just anywhere.
Sesame Street has definitely retained the multi-flavored atmosphere that made it so engaging in childhood: there's a lot to enjoy, from the simple pleasures (children ... so cute!) to the smart, adult-minded wit. Even the pop-culture critic can enjoy appearances from old classics -- C3PO and R2D2 teaching you how to count --- to modern performers (see: Feist) re-defining their classic songs with a child-like twist. It all lends itself to the legacy of a long-established program that keeps its content modern. Sesame Street is not -- as you may remember it -- a kids-only zone.
The More Muppet Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy runs October 1-30, 2010 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For tickets and information visit ybca.org/film.