Ironic Muppets and Horny Houseplants: Sesame Street’s Dual Address

Curator's Note

Over the years Sesame Street has featured brief skits that parody television programs and films that are made for adult audiences. In most cases these parodies isolate selected semantic elements—the show’s title, mise en scene, plots, characters—and then reenact them quite literally. For example, in a spoof of 30 Rock Liz Lemon is portrayed as…a giant lemon with horn-rimmed glasses. In the skit Liz receives pallet of thirty rocks for her variety show and must verify that the full amount is there. And a recent Mad Men parody features a trio of advertising executives in three-piece suits and fedoras who demonstrate a range of emotions in reaction to a series of ad mockups for honey; they go from being “mad men” who shake with anger, to sad men who weep, to happy men who clap with joy. The clip I have selected for discussion is a Sesame Street parody of Desperate Housewives entitled “Desperate Houseplants.” This skit mimics many of the melodramatic elements of Desperate Housewives (plangent background music, longing women, illicit affairs), but it substitutes plants for the show’s female characters.



All three clips are addressed at children. The 30 Rock and Mad Men skits ostensibly teach a lesson in counting and emotions, respectively, while the Desperate Housewives skit teaches children how to care for plants. And all three parodies effectively recreate a child’s surface engagement with the complex narratives of adult programming, garnered through stolen glimpses, commercials and overheard dialogue. They are parodies of adult programs filtered through a child’s point of view.


These skits are also clearly aimed at an adult audience. The 30 Rock parody takes a jab at managers, the Mad Men skit uses the word “sycophants,” and "Desperate Houseplants" is an extended joke about horny housewives. I have singled out the latter, however, because it seems to be least accessible to its young audience (i.e., I am confident no 5 year old would understand the meaning of the plant’s simulated orgasm). So what, exactly, is the purpose and function of Sesame Street’s dual address to children and to adults?


Children’s movies like Up! contain nods to the adult audience since these often expensive films aim to pull in adult viewers not accompanied by children. However, Sesame Street is a medium created explicitly for home viewing by children. Are the inclusion of these alternately racy and ironic skits are an attempt to gain a viral presence for the show? Would this have any positive impact on the show (ratings, water cooler conversation, etc.)? 


Both Amanda's clip and Heather's from yesterday intrigue me as examples of adult appropriation of kids' content.  While Heather's case is more explicity so (in that Amanda's actually aired on SS), like Amanda I wonder what motivates this sort of adult usage.  In the case of content that appears on the show, I agree with Amanda.  This seems designed to amuse the adults watching alongside kids (a longtime SS staple) but also perhaps to go viral, maintaining SS's cultural credibility amongst adults, and thereby making them more amenable to not only introducing their kids to SS but also to buying the many SS licensed products.  

In contrast, the user-generated appropriations surely do not have the same sort of market drive.  Yet perhaps they do play upon some of the same efforts at cultural credibility.  E/B is cool because it is subversive but also closely tied to the actual Ernie and Bert skits that adults remember seeing as kids--it's not that far removed from the original.  Thus adults can have even their childhood tastes reinforced and validated.  Maybe not that different from the skits such as those Amanda references that can allow adults to feel like the choices they make (or help make) for their kids are also suitably cool and knowing.

The dual appeal typified here by Sesame Street is part of a long tradition of kids' media reaching back to animation of the 1930s and before, often using racy content and pop culture references as a code for adults to enjoy alongside their (presumably) oblivious kids - and is something I'll talk about on Friday as well. I do think the rise of online video has enabled Sesame to reach an audience that wouldn't otherwise be watching, as few adults without preschoolers would watch a whole hour for the few minutes with direct adult appeal. But the Mad Men clip has gotten almost 1/2 million hits on YouTube and was all the rage among the TV twitterers/bloggers, with a typically scattered discussion thread praising or condemning the parody.

The Muppets have been more strategic in using YouTube - for instance, this officially-released original clip of Beaker singing ( has over 6 million hits! (I believe this is part of a campaign to promote a new Muppet program in production.)

 Yes I was specifically wondering about the viral presence of these skits--the Mad Men clip was all over Facebook and Twitter. For those who do have kids, this sort of viral marketing makes sense. As Elana points out, those adults may be more motivated to let their kids watch Sesame Street and/or buy their merchandise after these videos are forwarded to them by a coworker.

But I do wonder why Sesame Street is seemingly reaching out to an audience that will probably never sit down to watch an episode (i.e., folks without small children). It almost seems like a form of validation for the show's writers/creators, as in, "Yes we apply most of our creative talent to talking about the number 3 but we can be hip and funny too. We watch Mad Men too!"

Amanda - I think it's like any product: brand awareness and positive association is more central than direct sales. They want everyone to feel like Sesame Street is a positive entity, and that it's still on the cutting edge after 40 years, even in the multichannel era where PBS is less vital (arguably at least). And even if you don't have young kids, you might be more likely to buy your nephew an Elmo doll or video or book, etc. Plus I still believe that the producers are primarily interested in making a positive difference in young kids, so having people respect their work helps with that validation as well.

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