'Sesame Street' at 50: Why Bert and Ernie are central to the show's legacy

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Cast members of Sesame Street posing on the set with some of the puppet characters, 1969. Left to right: Will Lee, Matt Robinson, Bob McGrath and Loretta Long with (left to right) Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover, Ernie, Bert and Oscar the Grouch. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fifty years ago, a generation of children learned how to get to Sesame Street when the classic TV series premiered on PBS on November 10, 1969. Five decades later, that street is still a beloved destination for kids, which is why they’re throwing a televised block party with the help of some famous friends. Hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Sesame Street 50th Anniversary Celebration premieres on HBO on Nov. 9 at 7 p.m., and features the show’s regular cast of humans, oversized birds and trashcan dwelling grouches mixing it up with the likes of Sterling K. Brown, Norah Jones and Whoopi Goldberg.

That Sesame Street is able to regularly attract such A-list visitors is a testament to the warm, loving environment that Jim Henson and his fellow Muppeteers fostered in the show’s early days. Henson didn’t create the show — credit for that goes to Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett — but he instantly saw what it could become when he was brought in to create the block’s puppet cast. “Jim knew more about television than anybody I ever knew,” his longtime friend and collaborator, Frank Oz, told Yahoo Entertainment in 2018, adding that his appearance often made people discount the extent of his business savvy. “He looked like a beatnik. When Joan Cooney was trying to create Sesame Street, they had a large meeting with people, all the educators and everything, and they’d invited Jim. But Jim always had the beard, the leather jacket, the leather hat. And Joan Cooney had never met him. And she saw him... and she thought he was there to kill them. And they said, that’s Jim Henson!” (Henson died in 1990.)

Jim Henson holding an 'Anything Muppet' doctor and Frank Oz with an 'Anything Muppet' postman rehearse for an episode of Sesame Street at Reeves TeleTape Studio in 1970 in New York City. (Photo: David Attie/Getty Images)

Turn back the clock to 1969, and you’ll notice that life on Sesame Street used to be a lot more sedate. The first-ever episode opens with longtime resident, Gordon (originally played by Matt Robinson), introducing newcomer Sally to the people, and creatures, in her neighborhood. “Sally, you’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street,” he enthuses. “Everything happens here. You’re going to love it.”

Big Bird holds the distinction of being the first Muppet to appear onscreen in the very first episode, although the character’s appearance and voice is very different from the version we know today. (One thing that never changed? Caroll Spinney’s delightful performance.) After that encounter, Sally is introduced to Sesame Street’s most famous roommates, Bert and Ernie — voiced by Oz and Henson, respectively. “Whenever you hear Ernie singing, you can bet he’s taking a bath,” Gordon tells Sally. And, sure enough, Ernie is enjoying some tub time in good ol’ Rosie (as in “ring around the...”) before asking Bert to hand-deliver a bar of soap. That scene establishes a dynamic that continues to this day: Ernie’s childlike enthusiasm is forever balanced by Bert’s (slightly) more mature grumpiness.

Frank Oz and Jim Henson were the original voices of Bert and Ernie and the duo's relationship reflected their own professional collaboration. (Photo: PBS / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

As it happens, that was the kind of give-and-take that Henson and Oz had as well. “Part of the reason Bert and Ernie worked is because Jim flowed with the river,” Oz told us. “I fought against the river. I’ve told this story before, but this is how fatalistic he was and how he accepted things: We were in an airplane together, as we were many, many times. He was in the window seat and I was next to him. He was working. And I looked out, and the engine was on fire. And I said, ‘Jim, the engine’s on fire!’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ And he kept on working. But that was Jim. He would just say, ‘Whatever happens, it’ll be taken care of.’”

Puppeteers Daniel Seagren and Jim Henson working Ernie and Frank Oz with Bert rehearse for an episode of Sesame Street at Reeves TeleTape Studio in March 1970 in New York City. (Photo: David Attie/Getty Images)

While Oz and Henson modeled Bert and Ernie after their professional relationship, over the decades the nature of the characters’ personal relationship has become a regular source of speculation. That subject bubbled up again in 2018 when former Sesame Street scribe, Mark Saltzman, remarked in an interview with the website Queerty that he wrote them as a “loving couple,” modeled after his own relationship with his partner, Arnold Glassman. (Saltzman joined the Sesame Street writing staff in 1984, and left in 1999.) In the wake of those comments, the Sesame Workshop issued a statement emphasizing that Bert and Ernie are “best friends” and “Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation." Oz, meanwhile, addressed the issue on Twitter, initially by questioning the need to apply any additional labels to the characters’ relationship. “Does it really matter?” he wrote.

As it turns out, it did matter to numerous gay men who grew up with Sesame Street and saw themselves reflected in Bert and Ernie. And they took the time to educate their one-time educator through Twitter.

In the end, Oz came away from these exchanges with a new appreciation for how Bert and Ernie — and Sesame Street as a whole — left a lasting impact on its audience, even in ways that he never expected. “I have now learned that many view them as representative of a loving gay relationship,” he wrote on Twitter. “And that’s pretty wonderful. Thanks for helping me understand.”

The Sesame Street 50th Anniversary Celebration airs Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. on HBO.

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