Wednesday, November 19, 2014

12 Sensational Sesame Street Songs (Ah-Ah-Ah!)

Last week marked Sesame Street's 45th anniversary, which you have no doubt already known since you've probably read at least one article online regarding the fact. Given that I usually write about either the Muppets or Phineas and Ferb on the few occasions I actually update this blog (a narrow subject list I promise to expand one of these days), you've probably expected that I'd write something about it. Well, I was planning to, but I couldn't actually think of anything to write about until an idea came to me: why not do a list of Sesame Street songs?

I know plenty of people have done lists of what they consider to be the best Sesame Street songs of all time, but this list is not one of those. Instead, it's a list of 12 of my own personal favorites, as a way to do what many of these anniversary articles have also been doing: to reflect on what the writer likes about Sesame Street or what they remember most about it. The reason there's 12 songs is because the list consists of 10 of my personal favorites plus 2 additional songs that also are my personal favorites, but are pretty much required by law to appear on any list of Sesame Street songs (not that I'm complaining). Besides, I like the number 12. It's fun to say.

Since it's impossible for me to rank these songs as being greater than each other, I'm giving letters a nod as well as numbers just as Sesame Street always has and listing them in alphabetical order, starting with:

The Batty Bat
Year: 1985
Composer: Joe Raposo
Performed by: Count von Count (Jerry Nelson)

The Count is a one-note character (One! One-note character! Ah ah ah!) who somehow transcends the simple pun behind his existence - "Count" being both a title of nobility famously associated with Dracula and the act of reciting numbers in order - to become much more than the sum of his parts (pun intended) and perhaps one of the most-loved recurring Sesame Street characters.

The Count loves to sing as much as he loves to count, and this number (no pun intended this time) has always been one of my favorites. There's no lesson to be learned here, but the combination of stereotypical "vampire" elements such as bats flying around and Eastern European-style music also help make the Count such a memorable character and this song such a memorable song. (As for the whole "vampire" thing, Sesame Workshop, or the Children's Television Workshop - CTW - as it was originally known, has been perhaps intentionally vague on whether or not the Count is indeed a vampire. The Muppet Wiki's page on the question is perhaps one of my favorites, if only for the bizarre 1979 letter complaining about the negative effects of "mislead[ing] children into trusting Dracula" that proves crackpots existed even before the Internet, even if they had to write out their bizarre opinions and mail them to be heard.)

C is for Cookie
Year: 1971
Composer: Joe Raposo
Performed by: Cookie Monster (Frank Oz)

This is one of the two songs that pretty much have to show up on every list of the best and/or one's personal favorite songs from Sesame Street. And there's nothing wrong with that - it's both a good song and a memorable one. I especially love Cookie Monster's introduction, which almost seems like self-parody of educational programming: "Cookie starts with C. Let's think of other things that start with, who cares about other things?" I don't have much to say about this song as I do most of the others on this list, but then again, there's really no need. C is for cookie, and that's good enough for me. As it is for us all.

Five People in My Family
Year: 1969
Composer: Jeff Moss
Performed by: The Anything Muppets (lead vocalist: Jim Henson)

As one of the very first songs ever written for Sesame Street, this is an incredibly short, simplistic song compared to some of the others on the list. Even the construction of the Muppets and the minimalism of the background are lacking compared to later sketches featuring Muppets performing in front of a wall in a blank room. But it's catchy and gets stuck in your head, and what it does, it does well. It's probably one of the earliest good examples of what Sesame Street originally set out to do (and still does).

In some of the earliest promotional materials (including This Way to Sesame Street, an NBC special which featured the song and aired two days before the first episode aired on public television), one of the original ideas behind Sesame Street was heavily promoted: can letters of the alphabet and numbers be "sold" in the same way products are in television commercials? (Perhaps coincidentally, Schoolhouse Rock would be born nearly a decade later to try and answer a similar question: could the multiplication tables be memorized in the same way youngsters memorize the lyrics to popular songs by setting them to music? I'd argue that the answer to both questions is "yes".) The sketch and song are set up very much like a television commercial: explaining what the "product" is (5 is a number larger than 1, 2, 3, or 4) and then "selling" it with a jingle explaining its uses (a family consisting of a father, mother, two brothers, and a sister has 5 members). Like most advertising jingles, it's incredibly simple but effective, and most of all, is written well enough that it gets stuck in your head.

Good Morning, Mister Sun
Year: 1984
Composer: Tony Geiss
Performed by: Big Bird (Carroll Spinney)

I previously featured this song in my retrospective on Tony Geiss after his passing in 2011. This was one of my grandfather's favorite songs from the show, and I vividly recall crying as a young boy hearing this song on an audio cassette. In fact, I'm crying right now listening to the song as I'm writing this. Corny, I know, but something about this song just gets to me. It's not really an educational song, per se - though perhaps it could be argued that it explains the sun comes out in the morning - but like many of the songs on this list that don't really seem to have educational value on this list, it helps flesh out the personality of the character who's singing it. Big Bird is a friendly optimist who's willing to greet everyone he sees - even the sun. Sorry your greeting makes me cry, Big Bird, but I'm sure you'd be happy to know they're tears of joy (after you've been explained to that people don't just cry when they're sad).

I Don't Want to Live on the Moon
Year: 1978
Composer: Jeff Moss
Performed by: Ernie (Jim Henson)

This is a sweet song, somewhat melancholy but with a cute message that I haven't really come to appreciate until I became much older and started traveling more often: although it's really fun to go to different places and see unusual sights, it's satisfying to come back home afterwards. The full-body puppetry of Ernie - which, according to Muppet Wiki, required three puppeteers to move Ernie's head and all four of his limbs - is a rarity and quite impressive, especially the scene where he's swimming in the sea. His movements have sort of a dreamlike quality, which adds to the lullaby quality of this song.

I Hate Christmas
Year: 1978
Composers: David Axlerod and Sam Pottle
Performed by: Oscar the Grouch (Carroll Spinney)

Many of the cast members of Sesame Street consider 1978's Christmas Eve on Sesame Street to be original head writer Jon Stone's crowning achievement; while I don't know if I would go that far, I will agree that it's a darn good Christmas special.* Cleverly taking familiar elements of the show such as Muppets interviewing children and making them about how children celebrate Christmas and discussing the mysteries of Santa Claus's backstory rather than letters or numbers, the special sweetly and comically shows the traditional secular elements of Christmas as played by the Muppet and human cast of Sesame Street as Bert and Ernie inadvertently recreate O. Henry's Gift of the Magi while searching for the perfect present for each other, Cookie Monster's attempt to write a Christmas list (asking for cookies, of course) are foiled by his short-term desire to eat anything regardless of whether or not it's edible to satisfy his hunger, and Big Bird puts his childlike curiosity over spending Christmas at home to gain first-hand evidence to prove a doubting Oscar that Santa Claus is real. Alongside 1987's A Muppet Family Christmas, it's a great example of how the Christmas brings the best out of the Muppets (and vice versa); both are definitely on my list of my personal favorite Christmas specials besides the "Big Three" of Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch. (Say, there's an idea for another list...)

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street features two sweet songs - True Blue Miracle and Keep Christmas With You - which are standard sentimental holiday fare of the sort that often shows up in specials like these and on the radio 24/7 throughout the month of December (and nowadays the latter half of November). They're fantastic songs, but my personal favorite from the special is Oscar's ode to the antithesis of the other two songs. I'm a sucker for funny songs and vaudevillian numbers, and this song is both, with quick and comical rhyming lyrics. And Oscar's remark that he'll "tell [Santa] where to put his toys is surprisingly ribald by Sesame Street standards. Then again, earlier in this same special, Oscar cusses out Big Bird for believing in Santa Claus - helpfully drowned out by the passing by of a very long subway train. Even when he's at his rudest, Oscar remains somehow upbeat, which makes this an anti-Christmas song (albeit in a playful, mocking matter) a sort even the kind of seasonal sentimentalist like myself can enjoy.

*1978's Christmas Eve on Sesame Street should be by no means confused with 1978's A Special Sesame Street Christmas. Due to a CTW executive's failure to realize that PBS did not work like a commercial network, he inexplicably licensed the Sesame Street characters for a variety special on CBS in case PBS rejected the other - an impossiblity, of course. The end result proves that 1978 was a heck of a year for Christmas-themed variety specials on CBS, and much like the more well-known (and notorious) of the two - The Star Wars Holiday Special - should be viewed at least once just to see how inexplicably odd the end result is.

Monster in the Mirror
Year: 1989
Composers: Christopher Cerf and Norman Stiles
Performed by: Grover (Frank Oz)

I'm not sure who my favorite Sesame Street characters were as a kid, but they were probably my favorite ones they are now - the Count and especially Grover. I'm not sure what's so appealing about Grover, but it's probably his eagerness and his desire to keep on proving he can do whatever task he's been given - be it a waiter, a superhero, or practically anything under the sun - even though most of the time he comically messes up. That's something all children (and adults, for that matter) - not just middle children, as Michael Davis (author of the Sesame Street history Street Gang) hypothesizes are those who can relate to Grover the most - can identify with (and as an only child, I should know). I also loved the books in which Grover starred as a kid - Lovable Furry Old Grover's Resting Places, Would You Like To Play Hide and Seek in This Book with Grover?, and of course, the most famous and best-selling Sesame Street book of all time, The Monster at the End of This Book. All of them are fantastic in the conceit that Grover is interacting directly with the reader, but what I really came to appreciate over the years is Michael Smollin's illustrations - especially the backgrounds depicting pages that get increasingly crumpled and stuffed with various objects Grover has tried to use to hide himself either for a game of hide and seek or from the monster at the end of the book he so fears. These - and especially all of the items Grover pulls out of his toybox in Resting Places while trying to locate the titular places he rests various parts of his body - are probably what made me come to appreciate little jokes and details in the background of detailed drawings (what the famed MAD artist Will Elder would call "chicken fat" - it's not necessary, but it makes the end result more appetizing).

I'm not sure if spoiler alerts are required for a book over 40 years old that every kid in America has practically read at one time or another, but if you haven't read The Monster at the End of This Book (and if you haven't - or just want to take another look - here it is on Smollin's official website), it turns out the monster at the end of the book is, of course, Grover himself. This tendency to miss the obvious which makes up another part of Grover's charmingly childlike persona sets up this song: Grover sees a monster in his mirror. Instead of running away in fright, he decides to show the monster he isn't scared by making silly noises. When the "other monster" makes them back, he slowly realizes over the course of the song that it's really his own reflection. A cute concept for a song, and the song itself is really upbeat and memorable - especially the later version which features a number of well-known personalities including Siskel & Ebert, Ray Charles, and Robin Williams joining in on the nonsense chorus of "wubba wubba wubba wubba woo woo woo". (As a kid, probably the biggest celebrities in the video in my mind were The Simpsons - a surprising choice for a number of reasons if you think about it, but one that's ended up standing the test of time and sadly one of the few I can still recognize by sight 20 years later.) A fun song that does Grover justice - and, all things considered, it is really fun to say "wubba wubba wubba".

Put Down the Duckie
Year: 1986
Composers: Christopher Cerf and Norman Stiles
Performed by: Ernie and Hoots the Owl (Kevin Clash)

Again, this is a song that really seems to have no educational lesson, unless you count "you can't play a saxophone and hold a rubber duckie at the same time" to be educational - although at least one person has interpreted the song to be about having to get rid of our old habits in order to do the things we desire that are better for us. That's probably not what was intended, but even if there's no deeper meaning, it's a jazzy song that, much like "Monster in the Mirror", has a memorable celebrity cameo version. (There were actually two - the version shown here is the second, which replaces a few of the celebrities from the original that appeared in the simply named 1988 Sesame Street special Sesame Street Special, renamed Put Down the Duckie for its home video release. Most notably, Phil Donahue appears in place of Pee-Wee Herman due to Paul Reubens's 1991 arrest. Thankfully, in the case of crimes that don't threaten others such as Reubens's, time heals all wounds, and the original celebrity montage with Pee-Wee was reinstated on the 40th anniversary DVD, much as Pee-Wee has been reinstated to the public at large.) As fun as the celebrity version[s] is, it messes up the rhyme scheme of the song by cutting half of a verse from the original non-celebrity version to make room for all the cameos:

I've learned a thing or two from playing music in a band
It's hard to play a saxophone with something in your hand
To be a fine musician, you're gonna have to face the facts
Though you're blessed with flying fingers, when you wanna wail you're stuck
What good are flying fingers if they're wrapped around a duck?
Change the toy's position if you wanna ace the sax

(I'm both a fan of and a stickler for clever rhymes, in case you haven't guessed by now.)

Rubber Duckie
Year: 1970
Composer: Jeff Moss
Performed by: Ernie

Along with "C is for Cookie", this is one of those two songs that probably belongs on every list of personal favorite Sesame Street songs - and for good reason. Other than the show's theme song, this is arguably the most famous Sesame Street song, making it to number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and being so popular on radio stations that Columbia Records took out this fantastic ad in Billboard magazine jokingly apologizing "Don't doubt us, please, we still know what we're doing":

Jim Henson recorded a Spanish translation with Herb Alpert-style backing in 1974, Little Richard did a cover in his inimitable style in 1995, it was even remixed as a disco song in 1978 on an album called Sesame Street Fever, with a fantastic cover of Grover mimicking John Travolta. (Then again, everyone, and I mean everyone, from Mickey Mouse to Ethel Merman to Ray J. Johnson - a one-gag performer nowadays better known as a recurring Simpsons punchline - cashed in on the disco craze). No matter how it's performed, Rubber Duckie is one of those few Sesame Street songs with no educational message, but definitely helps flesh out the characterization of one of its residents in an upbeat and memorable way. Much like Ernie, we're all awfully fond of Rubber Duckie - or at least his theme song.

A Song from Kermit
Year: 1977?
Composers: David Axlerod and Sam Pottle
Performed by: Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson)

Another song that arguably lacks educational value but makes up for it in memorability, this lesser-known Kermit number has a lot in common with the frog's signature song, Bein' Green (composed by Joe Raposo and first performed by Kermit on Sesame Street in 1970). Both songs pretty much have the same theme, although this one puts it less subtly on the table in its lyrics (and lacks the possible racial interpretation of Bein' Green). Kermit's not perfect, but he's happy with who he is. He may not be a great singer - he is a frog, after all - but he sings from the heart to make his friends, the TV audience, happy. Of course, Kermit underestimates himself; he - and by extension, Jim Henson - is (like most of the Muppet performers) a fantastic singer, and his deep voice and the wind instrument backing give this little song a sweet melancholy quality. Both Bein' Green and A Song from Kermit are fantastic, of course, but this is my favorite of the two.

We All Sing with the Same Voice
Year: 1981
Composers: Sheppard Greene and J. Philip Miller
Performed by: Various children

This is the only song on my list that isn't performed by a Muppet, and it discusses one educational factor that Sesame Street has always taught that has nothing to do with letters or numbers: respect and tolerance for others. Showing blacks and whites sharing the same street, though realistic especially for the New York setting, was of course surprisingly not often done on television at the time Sesame Street debuted (and got the show briefly banned in Mississippi). Even then, Sesame Street has been criticized over the years for not doing enough to represent diversity, with female and Hispanic organizations having heated discussions with CTW over their lack of representation in the early years. Even when trying to cater to minority audiences the show felt the effect of how an attempt at trying to recreate their overall culture can be seen as racist by critics; most famously in the case of Roosevelt Franklin, a Muppet whose sketches were written and performed by a black actor (Matt Robinson, the original Gordon), but were criticized by black critics for reinforcing negative stereotypes of black dialect and behavior (in 1973, Black World magazine criticized Franklin's slang as a "stage Negro dialect" that was "little more than standard English with a slightly ethnicized or southernized pronunciation").

Sesame Street has had better luck in showing what makes people alike rather than what makes them different, and this song is a good example. It's admittedly a little corny, sounding somewhat like a Raffi song or something that would show up on Barney and Friends, but for some reason, I like it. And as a long-time fan of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs long before it became a movie, it always pleased me that one of the kids is seen reading it. (As an aside, hearing the lyric "I've got one daddy, I've got two" surprises me in a good way, as it's an early example of the subtle indication that some children have same-sex parents that other kids' shows - for example - Postcards from Buster and Good Luck Charlie - have in recent years faced criticism for just as subtly hinting at, Buster infamously from no less than their PBS funders at the U.S. Department of Education.)

What's the Name of That Song?
Year: 1974
Composers: David Axlerod and Sam Pottle
Performed by: Various

An unusual idea for a song: a song called "What's the Name of That Song?" which is literally about forgetting the words of a non-existent song. Another comically upbeat, showtune-y number from the same folks who gave us "I Hate Christmas" earlier on this list (perhaps not coincidentally, Pottle would later write the similarly vaudevillian theme song for The Muppet Show). This song was originally peformed by the human cast of Sesame Street, but I've decided to highlight Bert and Ernie's version of the song. It fits the duo well, as Ernie, ever the instigator, is the one who poses the question, content in his typical fashion to wait for the answer another day while forcing poor Bert to stay up all night pondering. Bert's self-aware "Oh, music cue?!" is pretty amusing (as is Ernie's call to modulate during the key change, something Jim Henson would apparently often due during rehearsals of musical numbers over the years).

This song makes an unusual but appropriate way to end a list of Sesame Street songs - hopefully it's left you with songs that bring back memories, songs you may not have heard before, and above all songs that, like all those on this list and hundreds more over Sesame Street's 45-year history, we'll have stuck in our heads and be singing for years. Hopefully that doesn't torment you as much as it does Bert.

This post is dedicated to Tony Geiss, Jim Henson, Richard Hunt, Will "Mr. Hooper" Lee, Jeff Moss, Jerry Nelson, Joe Raposo, Jon Stone, and all the others we've lost over the years who've laid a cobblestone or two on Sesame Street by their presence and their contributions.

The Columbia Records advertisement for the Rubber Duckie single appeared in the August 1, 1970 Billboard magazine and was accessed via Google Books.

Research information for this post came primarily from the Muppet Wiki, an invaluable source on all things Sesame Street, Muppetry, and Hensoniana. Additional resources included Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis (New York: Viking Press, 2008) and Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones (New York: Ballantine, 2013).

SESAME STREET and all related characters and elements ©2014 Sesame Workshop. KERMIT THE FROG, MUPPET, and MUPPETS are registered trademarks of Disney Enterprises, Inc. No ownership of these properties is intended or should be inferred.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bandai Namco's ShiftyLook to Close its Doors

Alphaman and Bravoman from Bravoman, ShiftyLook's signature comic strip and cartoon. ©2014 NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc.
I’ve wanted to write about ShiftyLook, the comic and cartoon initiative from Bandai Namco Games* and UDON Entertainment, for a while now. Unfortunately, it seems that if I cover it, it will have to be a postmortem: it was officially announced today that the site will cease producing original content as of March 20, with the website closing for good in September.

Founded in 2011, ShiftyLook was a website which featured original content based on some of the lesser-known characters from Namco’s vast library of quirky video games. I hope to showcase some of these before they’re gone for good, but some of the highlights which I recommend you check out are Galaga: The Movie: The Comic, a goofy take on the space shooter featuring two girls and the awesomest jingo-bombastic United States President in fictional history written by Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics, Adventure Time) which was named one of the best comics in any medium of 2013 by website Comics Alliance; Wonder Momo, a fun take on magical girl/sentai tropes which is far more entertaining than the recent run-of-the-mill anime adaptation ShiftyLook launched; Mappy, a very funny and surreal animated series which seems to take the best quirks and dry wit of an Adult Swim series and Homestar Runner and blends them into the workaday saga of a disgraced policeman in an office and his questionable boss; and Bravoman, arguably the site’s signature attraction and both a fantastic webcomic and cartoon with lots of fourth-wall humor and Warner Bros.-esque insanity (and whose animated incarnation features such veteran voice actors as Rob Paulsen and Dee Bradley Baker).

UDON’s official statement as to ShiftyLook’s closure is (perhaps intentionally) vague, but Matt Moylan, who wrote both the Bravoman comic strip and animated series, gave a very critical analysis of why he think the project failed to British comics fansite Bleeding Cool:

Looking at why Shiftylook failed though, there are a lot of reasons. In my opinion they spent far too much money and effort trying to SEEM successful rather than working to actually BE successful. Even though they were just starting out, they set up enormous booths at conventions with live music, arcade machines, free t-shirts etc. None of which seemed to promote what the company actually did – make webcomics. It also always felt like they were following some pre-made guide to how a company grows, constantly moving on to bigger things despite not yet really succeeding at the smaller things. I guess that is the danger of being the subsidiary of a large company like Bandai with near unlimited resources.

Besides that they didn’t seemed to have a monetization plan until very recently. They did finally come out with some minor games near the end of 2013, but I felt neither of them was very well thought out. The Bravoman mobile app to put it lightly was not very good, and add to that a freemium “pay to play” model which is never a fan-pleaser even for a good game. Their second game, Namco High, was a Japanese-style visual novel. It’s a game genre that is barely known in the west. Plus it seemed to be banking largely on Andrew Hussie’s mega-popular Homestuck characters as guest stars to bring in an audience, which kind of begs the question of why does it feature the Shiftylook characters at all? There is still the upcoming Wonder Momo game from WayForward, which actually seems like a perfect match, but too late to save the comics.

In the end, I feel the current webcomics like Bravoman, Wonder Momo, Katamari, and Klonoa are actually at the popularity levels that a decent webcomic SHOULD be at after only 1 or 2 years. If properly monetized, they would probably be able to modestly support their creators, but that’s not near enough to support a company with big expenses like Shiftylook.

UDON will be releasing the ShiftyLook comics in book form, and Moylan is both proud of the work he did and optimistic that perhaps the books will sell well enough to allow him to work with Bravoman again some day in the future. I certainly hope that happens, but even if it doesn’t, I’m glad he and all the folks involved got to have fun with these unusual characters. ShiftyLook introduced me to both some entertaining Namco properties and some entertaining comic creators, and hopefully you out there will get the chance to meet them before the end of the year. I’ll be introducing some of them to you in the weeks to come, but why not meet them for yourselves? I think you’ll be as entertained - and as sad to see them go - as I am.

*As of April 2014, Namco Bandai Games will be officially known as Bandai Namco Games, its Japanese name, worldwide. I’ve jumped the gun when it comes to which name comes first and will refer to the company as Bandai Namco.