Sesame Street, the show, is what happens when people love children enough to try and help them grow up into better people… if that person has puppetry skills that have reached the point where puppets are no longer creepy. Jim Henson did not technically create Sesame Street, but he’s the reason you know what it is. When asked, Henson was more than willing to support the goals of the show: To promote the education of children. In fact, Sesame Street was the first children’s show to actually study the effects of educational television programming, largely to reevaluate and reconstruct the show to increase the impact. In short, Sesame Street wanted to teach kids stuff, while entertaining them with Muppets. While some of the Muppets would also try to work in some more adult fare later, the Street remains for kids (though some of their recent parodies, while still innocent, are hilarious to adults).
One of the original human characters on the show was Mr. Harold Hooper (Will Lee), the owner of “Hooper’s Store.” Hooper’s store was one of the few places on the show where Muppets and humans were allowed to interact in-between cartoons and Muppet segments, which usually showcased the slightly more complex personalities of the humans in contrast to the childlike personalities of the Muppets. Unlike most of the human characters on the show, Mr. Hooper was capable of being in a bad mood. Of course, he was always still a good person deep down, because it’s Sesame Street. He was, however, one of the few people who would ever get mad at Big Bird (Carroll Spinney), mostly because Bird would never get his name right. Mr. Hooper was also a believer in continuing education, once telling the people on Sesame Street, and thus the audience and their parents, that it was never too late to go back to school, which he later proved by getting his G.E.D. He was one of the more “real” people on Sesame Street, in that he seemed to have a wider range of feelings, and that would sometimes make him the emotional core of an episode. Sadly, Mr. Hooper was pretty old when the show started and, 13 years later, Will Lee died of a heart attack.
At the time, the usual practice for such a development would be to either re-cast the character or to have Mr. Hooper “move away.” The writers of the show decided instead to take this tragedy as an opportunity to try something new, and chose to teach the kids about death. Fortunately, they didn’t take this responsibility lightly, and consulted experts in child psychology, child development, and even religion and spirituality to make sure they managed to get the message across without traumatizing the audience. On Thanksgiving Day, 1983, a full year after Mr. Hooper died in real life, the show decided to tell the kids about how death works. Thanksgiving wasn’t a coincidence, either. They chose that day to ensure that there would likely be adults around to help the kids if they got sad.
Most of the episode was perfectly normal, honestly. Cartoons, Kermit, the guest was Madeleine Kahn (I miss her, too) and the letter was J. The first few human/Muppet segments were designed specifically to set up for the big lesson in the episode. At the beginning, Muppet Forgetful Jones is helped by human Gordon (Roscoe Orman) to remember something that makes him happy, which counters forgetting something that makes you sad. In another segment, Big Bird walks backwards with his head between his legs. When asked why, he says “just because,” which is sometimes the only answer there is. Big Bird overhears the adults talking about a new baby that’ll be visiting the street, and Big Bird remarks that the thing about babies is that one day they aren’t here, then the next day they are. This was a clever, elaborate, but extremely subtle build up to the main segment.
The episode continues as normal, but the next time the scene shifts to the brownstones, Big Bird brings the adults drawings he made of all of them (actually drawn by the woman inside the bird). When he gets to Mr. Hooper’s drawing, Bird says that he’ll give it to Mr. Hooper when he gets back. The adults tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper isn’t coming back. This is the moment in the show when the adults watching might notice that something is off. The adults then tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper has died, and can never come back. As they say this, they’re tearing up in the same way that they would when trying to explain it to a child. Bird naturally doesn’t understand at first, and is saddened by the news that Mr. Hooper won’t be around anymore. The other adults make sure to tell Big Bird that they love him, and that they will help take care of him now that Mr. Hooper isn’t around (Hooper sold Bird his seed). Big Bird asks one of the hardest questions any child, or any person, would ever have about death: “Why does it have to be this way? Give me one good reason!” and receives the only response he can: “It has to be this way… just because.” Big Bird looks at Mr. Hooper’s picture and sadly says “I’m going to miss you, Mr. Looper.”
At the end of the episode, Bird hangs Mr. Hooper’s picture next to his nest and goes to see the new baby from before, ending the episode with death’s counter-point, life: “You know, the one thing is about new babies, one day they’re not here and next day, here they are!”
Just to ensure that they’d done their jobs, Children’s Television Workshop did a poll and found that almost ¾ of the children above age 3 who watched the show understood the basics of death and loss now. Yes, they managed to convey one of the hardest concepts to internalize for humanity at a rate higher than we currently are able to convey basic math at that age. Or maybe any age. If we had let these people write our school curriculum, we’d have taken over China with giant robots by now.
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