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Monsterpiece Theatre

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Cookie Monster at LPA. Photo by Jonathan Blanc.

Sesame Street is justly famous for the early childhood education components—making young children comfortable with the alphabet and numbers. One key component is providing pre-literacy experiences for children to share with parents or caregivers. To make that work, the Sesame Street writing and production staff develops songs and skits that attract adult attention. They provide television that is experienced together, although on different levels by adults and children. One well-loved method is via television parodies.

One of my favorite Sesame Street series has been Monsterpiece Theatre, parodying PBS's long-running Masterpiece Theatre. It was one of a series of take-offs from PBS cultural programming, which includes Live from the Nest and Barnegie Hall and other bites on the hands that fed them. It may have been inevitable, but Cookie Monster was selected to host, in a direct parody of Masterpiece Theatre's original host, Alistair Cooke.

Alistair Cooke was a British journalist based in the US, known for his "Letter from America" radio broadcasts on the BBC (1946-2004). He had hosted Omnibus, one of network television's earliest performing arts series, from 1952, and was seen as a spokesperson for culture. Cooke hosted Masterpiece Theatre for its first 21 years. To understand his importance as a journalist, as well as a spokesman for culture, check out his writings. NYPL has circulating and non-circulating copies of most of his publications.

The theme music and introductory sequence in a room filled with fine bindings and framed photographs connected at least the adults watching Sesame Street with the Sunday evening experience of viewing the costumed dramas on PBS. Cookie's take on Cooke is so persuasive that I wasted research time searching for photos of the journalist in a silk smoking jacking to match the Muppet's, which is on display in the gallery. Cooke wore a good wool jacket.

The Monsterpiece Theatre parodies are not generally of Masterpiece Theatre shows, which were most often multi-episode serials. But like them, they are usually based on classic novels or plays. Check them out on the Sesame Street website or the Sesame Street YouTube. Some are short gags—in The King and I, Grover does "Shall We Dance" with a Muppetized letter i. One Flies Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but only after 3 flies over the chicken coop and 4 flies over the pig sty. Some are themselves Muppetized, such as Waiting for Elmo, with a Beckett-approved desiccated tree on the set. Other episodes are a continuous series of jokes, as in the Cyrano de Bergerac with characters trying to avoid using the word "nose." One of my favorites is a standard Grover driving Mr. Johnson crazy routines, except that in Much Ado About Nothing, they are in Elizabethan doublet and, as Edward Eager would say, speaking "forsoothly."

More on Cookie and the current series of parodies in my next post.

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