As a kid, you likely spent a lot of time learning your ABCs from characters like Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Elmo, and Oscar the Grouch. “Sesame Street” has been on the air since 1969, and has evolved quite a bit over the years. We spoke with Ben Lehmann, the executive producer of the popular children’s program to find out how they put the show together. We also got to take a peek behind the scenes at their studio in Queens, New York. Following is a transcript of the video.
Five, four, three, two, rehearsal.
Cookie Monster: Business Insider. Oh, this sounds exciting.
Ben Lehman: In 1969 our founders, Joan Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett had the revolutionary idea of asking, what if kids can learn from TV? They had noticed that kids could repeat beer jingles.♪ Where there’s life there’s Bud ♪ – What’ll you have? ♪ Pabst Blue Ribbon ♪Lehman: So they posed themselves that question and basically created Sesame Street which is a show that’s now been on the air almost 50 years. We film at Kaufman Astoria Studios which is in Astoria, Queens and is a very old studio that was built in the ’20s by what was United Artists at the time and has gone through many iterations over the years.
On a regular production day, like today, when you’re visiting, there’s about 60 people involved when you count the production staff that’s downstairs in the office as well as all of the technical and stage crew and camera people and costume designers, et cetera. It really does take a village to bring this show together.
Every year when we start a new season what we do is our curriculum team convenes an all-day seminar. And they basically consult with experts in child development, child psychology, preschool teachers. As the writers work the curriculum team works in tandem with the production team and they review all the scripts and give feedback from the educational standpoint. We also do a lot of research. So we’ll take some of the scripts into schools, we’ll read them to the kids and solicit feedback from them. Our production cycle is essentially a 12-month cycle. You know, from the moment of that curriculum seminar, which I described, to the moment we deliver shows to HBO.
Jim Henson, you know, obviously his impact on Sesame Street is massive and he was the one who brought The Muppets to Sesame Street. And so his legacy, I mean, is very solid and lives on on the show because all of our puppeteers are trained, basically, in a methodology that he invented. I mean, he took the puppet theatre and decided, I’m gonna get rid of that and just use the TV frame as my puppet theatre while looking at a monitor so that I can position my puppet and see exactly what I need to see. And so, basically he invented, you know, puppetry for television. And our puppeteers are trained in those methods that he came up with. It truly is, like, kind of a magic act.
So we have a core group of puppeteers that is 14 people, 14 performers. We have a mentee program that we run to identify new puppeteers. And so there’s a few of those and we’ll bring them in a day here, a day there.
There’s essentially three categories of puppets. There’s the walk around puppet. So that’s Big Bird or Snuffy, for example, where the person is inside the puppet and they’re operating it from inside. It’s a full suit.
You and me together, ol‘ pal.
Lehman: Then there’s what we call a bag puppet. So that’s, like, Cookie Monster or The Count.
Om, nom, nom, nom, nom, nom, nom.
One, two, three, four.
Lehman: And so there the puppet covers the puppeteer. The puppeteer’s operating the mouth with one hand and is operating one of the hands with another and then there’s a second puppeteer, which we usually call the assistant puppeteer, and that person comes behind and operates the other hand and helps hand props from below frame.
Then third kind of puppet is what we call a rod puppet. So that’s like an Elmo or an Abby. And so they have, those are typically operated by a single puppeteer. They hold two rods which operate the hands and then they’re operating the mouth this way. The primary puppeteer is always the person that does the voice.
Oh, Cookie Monster, how could you mistake the mushroom for cookies?
Lehman: So, the most recent and probably most talked about for the US is Julia, who’s a young girl who’s on the Autism spectrum.
Can Big Bird see your painting? – See your painting, yes.
Lehman: And she was developed originally by our Social Impact team. Another example on the international side, because we do a lot of international work, is Zari who was developed for Afghanistan.
Welcome to the street.Thank you Elmo. Today I’m so excited to be here.
Lehman: She’s six years old. She’s curious and also has a younger brother who looks up to her which is a great, kind of, gender equity role modelling.
Caroll Spinney has been here since season one, you know, and is the originator of both Oscar and Big Bird. He’s obviously a legend and an amazing performer and just an amazing guy. We have a couple of crew members, believe it or not, who’ve been here for nearly 50 years. Frankie, who’s our Camera One operator, has been here since the beginning. Our sound effects editor, Dick Maitland, has also been here since the beginning. They work on Sesame Street because they love Sesame Street. They believe in our mission. So people tend to stay.
In a given season of 35 episodes we’ll have, you know, 10 to 12 celebrity appearances. We love to do musical guests because kids love music. And, you know, the celebrities are for the parents you know, more so than the kids who may not know who John Legend is but when we can combine both, doing musical and a celebrity appearance, then it’s great for everyone. Celebrities will reach out to us especially if they have recently had kids and they think to themselves, wow, I would love for Junior to see me on TV.
Sesame Street has changed a lot and our production models evolve with new technology all the time. So we did a big kind of redesign of the set in season 46. So that was about four years ago. And it was, you know, obviously we kept 123, the brownstone and Hooper’s. Those are the touchstones of the set. But we wanted to modernise it some to give it a more colourful and vibrant atmosphere and also to position the puppets in specific places. So Abby, who is a fairy, we put her in her garden. And so now every kid who watches Sesame Street knows, like, that’s Abby’s garden, that’s where she lives, that’s where she hangs out and plays with her friends.
There’s hundreds of studies that have shown the effectiveness of Sesame Street and how kids who watch Sesame Street are ready for school in a fashion that’s greater than those who don’t.
Cookie Monster: Why me love cookies? Oh, they just the perfect food. They round, they crunchy, they soft in the middle, they chocolate, mmm, chocolatey. Sorry, me got to go get a cookie right now. Excuse me.
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