Growing up we were not allowed to watch much television. My parents allowed us to watch a limited amount and only the things that were on PBS. If it wasn’t on PBS I probably didn’t see it until years later. Children’s programs on PBS figured prominently in my childhood and none more than Sesame Street. This is why I was so saddened to learn that out writer Judy Freudberg died this week at the age of 63.
Freudberg started working for Sesame Street out of college in 1971. She became a writer for the show in 1975 and continued until 2010. She created the segment of the show called “Elmo’s World,” which has the most incredible effect on small children. Freudberg spoke in a 2010 interview about creating “Elmo’s World”:
When Sesame Street first started, it was the only game in town. So they could get away with a lot more. They weren’t worried about competition.
And then we were told, around Season 30, 12 years ago, that we were losing our audience, especially with about 20 to 30 minutes left in the show. We were the only hourlong program on, children’s television was almost all 30-minute shows, and that’s when we came up with “Elmo’s World,” to go in the last part of the show, to win back their attention. And it worked.
Photo from Sesame Street
It really worked. My daughter can be watching Sesame Street and maybe she wanders off partway through the show to cause mayhem and destruction but as soon as the first few bars of the “Elmo’s World” theme song come on she shouts “Elmo!” and races to watch.
This is the magic of Sesame Street. It catches hold of you and you can’t shake it. When I watch with my daughter I can’t help but light up when I recognize a skit from my youth, or sing along when the songs are the same (I love “Ladybugs’ Picnic” to an unreasonable degree). Sesame Street, for some of us raised in the sticks, was an eye at a world that looked very different from our own. Cities and diversity were novel ideas in a town of 800 people, most of whom had blond hair and blue eyes.
But more than that, Sesame Street was a place where all the weirdos loved each other. Bert and Ernie, who later made an appearance on the GSA T-shirts in my high school, were the odd couple. Oscar was mean and grumpy but loved his worm, Slimy. Big Bird was tall and awkward and loud. For kids who grew up feeling different from everyone around us, Sesame Street was a place we could go and see that difference was a good thing and that we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. This song can still bring me to tears.
Freudberg helped create that sense on Sesame Street. She also wrote An American Tail, The Land Before Time and Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird. Basically, she wrote everything you ever saw as a kid and loved.
It feels wrong that I didn’t know the name of someone who meant so much and gave me so many wonderful memories as a child until after she died. Her work brought joy to me as a child and now brings me more joy now that I can share it with my daughters. Sesame Street transports me back to my house as a child with the green shag carpeting, the blue couch, and the fuzzy television whenever I watch Super Grover, or laugh as the Beetles sing “Letter B.” Through the wonder of television and film Freudberg’s work will live on for generations to enjoy. For that I offer my sincerest gratitude.
What are your memories of Sesame Street and Freudberg’s other work? Did her work have as great an impact on you as it did on me?