Tuesday, December 03, 2019

The countercultural cartoons of Sesame Street

A few weeks ago, venerable children's television program Sesame Street turned 50 years old. And although we might not have realized it as children, there's an awful lot about that show that reflects the time period in which it was incubated in; namely, the drug-infused counterculture late '60s and early '70s. Mike McPadden, writing in the cannabis-oriented website Merry Jane, explains:
In 1969, society’s counterculture upheaval and a drive to expand cosmic consciousness resulted in the psychedelic convergence of Woodstock and the literally spaced-out giant leap of the moon landing. 
Less audacious, but perhaps even more revolutionary, another monumental undertaking from that year channeled the era’s turned-on vibes and anything-is-possible ambitions into an ongoing source of uplift, wisdom, and inspiration for young people and, as such, humanity’s future.  
On November 9, 1969, Sesame Street debuted on PBS. Yes, the show has been on the air for exactly half a century now!
To be technical, Sesame Street didn't even premier on PBS. It premiered on NET, which was PBS's predecessor. PBS itself came into existence one year later. The entire first episode is available here (spoiler alert: Oscar the Grouch was originally orangish-brown, not green).
Unlike previous children’s TV, Sesame Street showcased a diverse array of kids, adults and, of course, Muppets in funny, heartfelt, and believable situations. It also took place in an urban setting that reflected the communities of most of the show’s audience.  
In addition, fueled by the desire to educate and enlighten in the most effective way possible, Sesame Street tapped into 1969’s heady, funky, freewheeling zeitgeist. The show empowered cutting-edge artists, writers, and musicians to create its cartoons, short films, sketches, and sing-alongs. Awash over every element of Sesame Street, as well, were the intrinsic values of love, acceptance, kindness, and inclusion.  
All that’s to say, if Sesame Street’s creators weren’t potheads themselves — although just look at Muppet-master Jim Henson; how could he not have been? — the show positively incorporated the most inspired and inspirational aspects of late-60s drug culture. 
Sesame Street, in other words, happened because the hippies of the 60s got jobs in the entertainment industry and created countercultural and psychedelic imagery under the guise of "children's television." Looking back, it was pretty obvious: would any straight-laced, sober television producer of that era really envision a children's show with a puppet cast that featured a giant canary, an orange woolly mammoth only visible to said giant canary, a green monster living in a garbage can, a blue monster with an addiction problem, and an ambiguously gay couple? The cartoons and animations interspersed between the antics of said cast only further argue the point.

The Merry Jane list features "tripped-out moments that have delighted tokers and children alike" from the entire fifty-year span of Sesame Street and is worth a full perusal.  I've limited my own trippy favorites to the 1970s, when I watched the show as a small child and well before I understood Sesame Street's peace, love and drugs provenance.

E-Imagination: this cartoon appeared in the very first episode in 1969. The watercolor animation and sitar-inflected music are transparently psychedelic. Riding an eagle, following a beagle? Far out, man! Also, the Land of Steam sounds pretty cool.

Counting Raga: Speaking of tripped-out sitar chords, how about Ravi Shankar himself providing the music for this kaleidoscopic counting animation from 1971? This cartoon was likely the first exposure many young children had to the Indian aesthetic so beloved by hippie culture.


Lost Boy Remembers His Way Home - This is what happens when a hallucination becomes a cartoon. One of the comments on this video's YouTube page says it all: "if you are a member of Generation X, your childhood entertainment was created by people who were tripping balls."

Daddy Dear - Every letter of the alphabet got its own animation on Sesame Street, and this ode to the letter "D" from 1972 is, well, delightfully druggy. Do dandelions roar? Well, maybe when you're on DMT!

Pinball Number Count - this series of cartoons (one for every number between two and twelve; all segments can be seen here) made its debut in the mid-70s; the tune, sung by the Pointers Sisters, is something any Gen-Xer living today can easily recite. As cool as the music was, the animation of a pinball rolling through a series of trippy landscapes was positively sublime. It's what happens when a pinball eats a mushroom and enters a multilevel, Alice-In-Wonderland pinball machine.

Geometry of Circles - Animated by Cathryn Aison and featuring music by composer Philip Glass, this engaging series of cartoons first appeared in 1979. The abstract, vivid mix of sound, color and geometry was as mesmerizing to elementary students getting ready for school as it was to college students coming down from an all-night LSD trip. This particular video stitches all four of the cartoons from the series into one.

New Ball in Town - This stop-motion animation of one ball trying to play with three others was supposed to teach kids the importance of inclusivity. While not as psychedelic as some of these other cartoons, the jarring red-and-purple patterns of the balls and the awesome riffs of the Moog synthesizer nevertheless produce an effect that may be especially pleasant if you're high.

The Yip Yips - While not an animation, these Martian Muppet characters were surely envisioned by Jim Henson when he was baked out of his gourd. Which is why their signature "yip yip yip yipyipyipyipyip uh-huh" dialogue is just as hilarious after a hit of the bong today as it was when you were four. When they weren't engaging in stoner antics like mistaking a clock for a human, the Yip Yips were also trying to communicate with telephones, searching for tunes on a 1930's era radio, trying to operate a fan, or visiting Ernie and Bert.

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