Big Bird Wasn’t The Best Thing Caroll Spinney Did For Kids
I have a confession: I watched 'Sesame Street' every arvo wayyyy after I aged out of the target audience.
After a hard day at primary school I’d walk up the road to Nana and Papa’s, politely ask for some Smarties, snakes and jelly babies from the lolly jar, and settle in to watch. I was mildly scared of the Egyptian mummy version of Ernie, loved when they played the pinball song and honed my impression of those uncanny yip yip yip yip yip yip aliens. When I finally got to visit New York, as an adult, I declared that it smelt just like I’d imagined Sesame Street to smell all those years ago.
And there, at the centre of it all, bridging the gap between Muppets and Maria (or Luis, or Mr Hooper, or…) was Big Bird. This enormous canary was the original identification character on Sesame Street, designed to fill in for us viewers as we learnt how the world worked. Big Bird started out dopey -- bird-brained, if you will -- but over time he evolved into more of an icon of endearing innocence. Officially, he’s meant to be the equivalent of a six year old. His first, 1969 appearance is fascinating to watch, and not only because his head is so tiny. He’s already a silly duffer, being introduced to a little girl by Gordon, and claiming he nearly laid an egg on the street.
But Big Bird wasn’t the best thing Caroll Spinney did for kids. For me, that honour belongs to Oscar the Grouch, a furry green monster who lives in a bin and hates everything. Much like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi or Basil Fawlty, his personality was based on a real, rude owner of a hospitality business (though his voice came from a New York cabbie that drove Spinney to the studio).
(Sidebar: All this Sesame Street trivia I’m dishing like there’s a prize should tell you something about my relationship to this show. It was a low-key exciting moment to see it cameo on Mad Men, just like Oscar cameoed in The Great Muppet Caper with Peter Ustinov...
Aaaaand we’re back on track.)
In a childhood where you’re rigorously encouraged to like things, where you have to pretend to enjoy the vegetables put before you, Oscar the Grouch is a godsend. As you sit at the dining table, dry-retching on beans and carrots, you can use that iconic voice to declare your hatred of the poisonous things. He’s a powerful role model for kids learning to assert their dislikes. At least until you get into trouble from Mum for being rude and/or breaking the kitchen bin.
Oh, while we’re on the topic, Spinney also played Bruno the Trashman -- a character only true fans remember (he just carried Oscar’s bin around, and usually didn’t talk).
When I read Caroll Spinney had died, it was like hearing of Mr Hooper’s passing all over again. Like thousands of people across the world, I headed straight to YouTube to watch all the old clips I remember from childhood. Sadly I couldn’t find the one where the teacher says “Tasha’s name is Tiptoe Tasha”. Even more sadly, there are no Smarties, snakes or jelly babies in my pantry. But everything else is just how I remember.
Vale, Caroll Spinney.
And Vale Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird. I hope Mr Snuffleupagus has someone around to explain what happened.