Josh Green: Welcome back to “Muppets Gone Missing”. This column focuses on the hidden treasures of The Muppets, Sesame Street, as well as any projects involving Jim Henson. Examples of this will consist of segments or characters that wound up on the cutting room floor, or were used, but not to their fullest extent. This interview is with the legendary Muppet writer, Emily Kingsley.
Josh Green: How did you get your start writing on Sesame Street?
Emily Kingsley: I was one of the earliest writers on Sesame Street, starting in Season Two! I spent the entire first season trying to get them to hire me! I had never done any writing before: EVER. I had worked in television in many other capacities but never writing.
When Sesame Street came on the air, I was out of work, having just been on a game show (as Associate Producer) that was cancelled. So I was home with nothing to do when Sesame came on: with lots of publicity: and so I watched it twice a day and fell in love! I was determined to get a job on that show in some capacity, it didn’t matter what I’d do! I’d have done anything.
I found out that the studio technicians on Sesame Street were guys I had worked with years before on another game show (Supermarket Sweep, but that’s a whole other story!!) so I wangled an interview with the floor producer and begged for a production job.
JG: You were determined.
EK: But Sesame Street was brand new and fully staffed. They didn’t need anybody else. They knew me and knew that I was bright and experienced: but they didn’t need anybody. They did refer me, however, to the director of Research. I had worked on other shows doing Research (EAST SIDE/WEST SIDE, the Dick Cavett Show, etc.). So I got an interview in the Research Dept.
Well they didn’t need anybody either. They were fully staffed too. They liked me a lot but didn’t need any more people. So they sent me to the Production Department.
I had worked in Production on several other shows. So I had several other interviews in various parts of the production area of this new show called Sesame Street – regular production, editing, tape, film, etc., etc., etc. But nobody needed anybody!
JG: How long was this going on for?
EK: This process was taking months and months. Every few weeks I would have another interview! (I sometimes say they ended up hiring me because it was the only way to get rid of me! I was such a pest! But I was determined to get onto the show somehow!)
One day I heard that they needed people to work on the Muppets: to pin and sew and paste and glue. I went over to interview over there. Diana Birkenfeld said they had just hired somebody and didn’t need anybody there … but she had heard that over at Sesame Street they were about to start a Writer’s Workshop to train people to write the show. They simply could not find people who could write this stuff!
Apparently writing comedy for three-year-olds was very difficult. To write educational stuff, that was funny. But that was no longer than three minutes long which was comprehensible by a three year old and they couldn’t find people who could do it well. They were going to start a workshop to train people to do it right.
So I rushed back to (legendary Sesame Street director, producer, and writer) Jon Stone and begged him to put me on the Writer’s Workshop. He said, “You can’t afford to do that. That’s for kids out of school. You’ve been working in the business for several years. We’re not going to pay these kids anything.” I said, “Give me a production job for a couple of days a week and on the other days put me on the Writers Workshop and train me to write this stuff.”
So he asked me to write two audition pieces: a Kermit piece and a Bert & Ernie piece. I ran home (7 blocks away) and had them back on his deck in one hour.
The next day he called me up and said, “Emily I looked at your two audition pieces with great care and we don’t want to put you on the Writer’s Workshop.” My heart sank. I said to myself, “Where do I go from here?” He said, “Those two pieces are right on! They can go on the air exactly as they are! We want to put you on as a full time writer immediately!”
JG: That story is incredible, Emily! Do you remember the specifics about these sketches?
EK: The two pieces that I did for audition were a Bert & Ernie Quiet/Loud piece and I think the Kermit piece was about Heavy and Light. The Bert & Ernie was the classic situation where Bert is explaining the difference between Quiet and Loud (“This is quiet, Ernie.”) and Ernie keeps saying, “What did you say, Bert? I can’t hear you.” Bert keeps saying it again, upping the volume until he is finally shrieking “I said THIS IS VERY VERY QUIIIEEETTT!!!” to which Ernie replies, sweetly, “That’s not quiet, that’s loud, Bert.” and laughs his Ernie-laugh. Bert groans.
JG: Before we talk about your greatest accomplishments on Sesame Street, let’s tackle the heart of this column, Muppet magic that has gone missing. Can you tell me about stories that you had written for Sesame Street that weren’t used as much as you would have liked?
EK: Some of the pieces that I’ve enjoyed most over the years have been parodies. We have research evidence that kids who watch the show along with someone learn three times as much as kids who watch alone. This is the basis for much of the “adult” humor, the “double level” of humor that has been the recognizable characteristic of Sesame Street which differentiates it from other kids’ shows. I have loved writing parodies and they are some of the bits I’m most proud of.
My favorite one of all is the Monsterpiece Theatre bit which was a takeoff on Fiddler On the Roof. They built a very wonderful set showing a shtetl with a house with a thatched roof that had a guy playing the fiddle up on top. A Tevye-looking Muppet came in and sang:
“Each morning I wake up with the rising of the sun
I check the roof for fiddlers and see there’s only one
But when I look around, another’s come in view
And when I count the fiddlers, then one and one make two!
Addition! Addition! Addition!”
And a bunch of Russian-dressed Muppets come dancing in to a very-close takeoff on “Tradition” and sure enough, there are now two fiddlers up on the roof of the house. It goes on that way until there are four fiddlers on the roof and the whole thing collapses in a heap. It was very funny and taught addition.
JG: What were the most famous characters that you had created for the show? Who did you enjoy writing the most?
EK: I invented the character Polly Darton, country western singing sweetheart, who sang a parody song called “1 to 5″ (“1 to 5, didn’t think that I could do it, countin’ 1 to 5, now I know I can get through it,” etc.)JG: What would you say is your most important contribution to Sesame Street?
EK: The contribution to Sesame Street that has been the most meaningful to me has been my involvement with the inclusion of disability content on the show. This goes back to Season Two and has had profound importance to me ever since.
During Season Two (1970) I was asked to check out a performance of the Little Theater of the Deaf and report back on whether I thought they would do well as guest performers on Sesame Street. They were charming and wonderful and I enthusiastically recommended them for the show. They were performing short segments in public schools to entertain and to demonstrate sign language. In the course of their performance, hearing children could learn some basic signs and could understand something of the deaf experience. It was seamless and delightful.
The National Theater of the Deaf have appeared many times over Sesame Street’s long run.
I wrote some short simple pieces for them to perform on Sesame Street: including our hearing cast: showing some inclusive activities (acting out building a fire engine together, for example) and teaching some very basic signs, some letters, and modeling warm interrelationships. We received an avalanche of enthusiastic positive mail! People loved learning the sign language and people loved seeing the deaf actors interacting with the hearing cast. We decided to use them more often and starting using Linda Bove, a very attractive actress in the company, on a regular basis.
During this period that I was writing the material for the Little Theater of the Deaf, I was socializing with the deaf actors privately and getting to know them and becoming educated and politicized about some of their disability issues. I learned about the pain of their experiences of exclusion and discrimination. I felt good about being able to use them on Sesame Street to model comfortable inclusion in a neighborhood of friendliness and normalcy.
Shortly after that, in 1974, my own son Jason was born with Down syndrome. Overnight the issues I had been discussing with the deaf actors became a harsh reality in my own life. Suddenly I was struck with the grim absence of people with disabilities in the media. Television shows were not reflecting my family any more. Magazines, television and print advertising never depicted any children with physical or intellectual disabilities. It was extremely painful to feel so completely excluded from all mainstream media.
Jason with Will Lee
I started to wonder whether I wasn’t in a position to do something about that! Within a short time it became apparent that my son Jason was quite bright. He was beginning to understand letters and numbers, was, in fact, beginning to read simple words when he was only three years old. This was in stark contradiction to what we had been told to expect from doctors and educators. The supposition was that children with Down syndrome were profoundly retarded and incapable of academic achievement: ever. And here was my son: reading at three!
I thought: wouldn’t it be exciting to show the world that a kid with Down syndrome is breaking the rules and is actually learning to read! I asked the Sesame Street producers if we could tape Jason doing some simple letter identification segments and basic word identification bits and put them on the show. They were enthusiastic and supportive and we went ahead and put Jason on the show. Jason went on the show for the first time at the age of 15 months (the first person with Down syndrome on Sesame Street and, I believe, the first person with DS on any kids’ show). It has been my proudest accomplishment on Sesame Street over the years.
The mail response was amazing! People were astonished: to see a child with Down syndrome at all! And reading!! It was astonishing!! And incredible! People wrote to thank us for showing a child like that at all. People wrote to say that they had a child with DS and that they never knew that academic work was possible and that now they were going to try to work with their own children! It was phenomenal!
We were so encouraged by the response, we knew we were onto something wonderful. And, of course, we realized that it didn’t have to stop with Down syndrome. We realized that all kinds of children deserved to see themselves represented on Sesame Street. So we started casting children in wheelchairs, children with braces and crutches and helmets and all sorts of situations. We did segments about blindness, demonstrating Braille, service dogs, all sorts of things.
And we have continued this kind of comfortable inclusion throughout the years up to the present day.
There are two facets of the disability content of Sesame Street. On the one hand, I believe that children are entitled to solid hard information about disability, to have their questions answered. Too often kids are told, “Don’t look, don’t ask, don’t stare.” This is wrong. Kids should ask, should know, should have their questions answered. For that reason, I wrote many segments for the show which dealt with disability head on. I talked about why a person used a wheelchair, how the chair worked, why a kid had braces on her legs, how a dog was trained to help a person who was blind, how devices were designed to accommodate deafness, how ramps help people who can’t get up steps, etc., etc., etc.
I also wrote several bits for the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman who uses crutches as a result of having had polio as a child. He spoke plainly about how he hates the obstacles presented by steps everywhere. He talked about how some things are easy for you but hard for him.
JG: Can you tell me about the segment that was done with my personal hero, Christopher Reeve, on Sesame Street?
EK: I spent a lovely day with Christopher Reeve planning a segment on the show for him. He was very gracious and agreed to talk plainly about his accident. When Big Bird asks him why he is using this wheelchair, Chris explains that he had an accident and now his legs don’t work. Big Bird asks him what’s that tube in your neck? Chris explains that he needs that in order to get the air he needs to breathe. It’s very straight and clear.
I told Chris I wanted to use his son Will in the segment. Chris said no, he never permits his son to be used, and asked me why I wanted to use him. I explained that I wanted to show our audience that people with disabilities, even very significant disabilities, have families, families who love them, stand by them and continue to have normal relationships. Chris immediately changed his mind and said that it would be OK to use Will.
In the segment when Zoe expresses sadness that Chris had his accident, Chris says, thank you Zoe, it’s OK, there are some things I can’t do any more but with my friends and my family to help me, I can do lots and lots of things! (And Will gives a big grin and gives Chris a kiss.) Then Chris gives Zoe a ride and off they all go to the library.
I’m sad that they can’t air that segment any more, now that Chris Reeve has died. It’s one of the segments I’m most proud of in my career. It had tons of hard solid information in it, showed a person with a disability living a regular life and integrating into the community with warmth and humor and spirit. (You can watch it here)
So, as I said, one aspect of the disability segments was to give the audience information about disability and answer their questions. The other aspect is simply to SHOW THEM, without even mentioning anything about disability, just to show them as ordinary members of the community, going about their daily lives, as regular neighbors and friends, in there with everybody else. Use them as extras, in the background, or participating in segments that have nothing to do with disability, just as people. For example, the other bit I wrote for Chris Reeve had him reciting the alphabet with Ernie. It had nothing to do with disability whatsoever. It was just an alphabet bit. We need to show the audience that people with disabilities are just “folks.” That’s important too.
And fortunately, the casting folks have been very good about that, casting kids with disabilities as extras, just hanging around in the background along with the other kids. I believe, with all my heart, that Sesame Street has a better record of comfortable inclusion of people with disabilities than any other television show in history.
People with disabilities are America’s largest minority group. Larger than African Americans, larger than Hispanics, larger than Asians, larger than any other group. About 58,000,000. And then you add to that number the non-disabled people (the parents, spouses, siblings, relatives, teachers, friends) who care about them and their welfare, the number swells enormously. They deserve to see themselves represented in the media!
I’m proud and grateful that Sesame Street has been in the forefront of making that happen.
JG: What are your other favorite moments writing Sesame Street?
EK: I have a wonderful friendship with the actress Tyne Daly. She was in a movie I wrote for CBS-TV about my experience raising a son with Down syndrome [Kids Like These: which was on CBS in 1987]. Tyne and I have been good friends ever since. When Tyne was on Broadway starring in Gypsy, I wrote a parody song about body parts called “Everything’s Coming Up Noses.” She loved it and agreed to come sing it on Sesame Street.
The day before the taping, she called Jule Styne, the man who had written the original music for Gypsy, and told him that she was coming on Sesame Street to sing “Everything’s Coming Up Noses” with the Muppets and wasn’t that fun … and he became furious. He was outraged that somebody was making fun of his song and couldn’t see the humor in it. So at the last minute we had to cancel that and Tyne sang some other song for the show and my song was shelved.
Many years later, Jule Styne passed away and Bernadette Peters was on Broadway in a revival of Gypsy. I asked whether my old song could be resurrected and offered to Bernadette Peters. They sent it to her and she loved it but her vocal coach said that she was under a lot of stress and they didn’t want her doing anything besides her show: so she passed.
They then asked me how I would feel if they offered it to Harvey Fierstein!! Wow! I said that would be fantastic. Harvey came on the show and sang the song and it was fabulous! That one went:
“You’ll be great,
You’ll be swell
If there’s something that you wanna smell
Starting here, starting now
Honey everything’s coming up noses!”
A whole bunch of noseless Muppets came along and Harvey stuck a nose onto each one. It was really funny.
I wrote a takeoff on CaraNome from Rigoletto which was performed by Renee Fleming, the famous opera star, along with a bunch of pigs, sheep and singing bananas. She was absolutely charming and elegant and did the whole thing in one take. It was written to teach counting forwards and backwards and went:
“In this opera we will strive
To sing and count until we’re done
Here’s some pigs from Galveston
Count them quick before they’re gone
Backwards 5-4-3-2-1…” (and so on)
Andrea Bocelli came to sing a lullaby to Elmo which was new (my) words to his iconic song which was topping the regular charts at the time. I think all the writers loved to write new words for visiting celebrities and I particularly loved those segments.
I’m also a big Gilbert & Sullivan fan and I wrote about six or seven songs in the G&S style. They actually built a Gilbert puppet and a Sullivan puppet for these segments (that is: they took two “anything muppets” and dressed them up as Gilbert & Sullivan for these bits). The songs were fast patter-songs in the G&S style and were lots of fun. They took a lot of production. One was a huge production number called “You Are what You Eat” about all the different food groups. There was a verse about meat, a verse about vegetables, a verse about fish, one about cheese and dairy, etc. At the end everybody came together for a huge banquet chorus about if you eat the proper food and water, you’ll know you’re eating exactly as you oughta.
Another Gilbert & Sullivan song was called “At Your Library” and was about all the different kinds of books you can find at the library. Oscar’s looking for books about junk and Gilbert & Sullivan keep directing him to different sections of the library which feature all kinds of other types of books. He finally finds books about Trash and is very happy.
JG: Do you still write for Sesame Street currently? Regardless, how has the show changed over the years in its format?
EK: I’m still writing for Sesame Street but much less. There is less writing going on than there was. We are doing fewer shows and the show has been cut down from an hour to a half-hour format. There are new younger writers who need the money more than I do. I am content to write fewer scripts and let the other writers carry a larger portion of the material. I am about to turn 75 years old.
We are experimenting with new format elements all the time. Our research department is always working to keep us fresh and keep us current with the newest educational philosophies. We keep meeting with educators and parent groups and we keep getting the results of research being done on our material to determine what works and what doesn’t, what the kids learn from and what they don’t. There is so much new technology and the kids are getting the show from all sorts of different places nowadays. There is also tons more competition from many more other shows.
JG: Any last words that you want to say regarding your legacy at Sesame Street?
EK: I still believe that Sesame Street is the best thing out there, that we offer something that is research and curriculum based, that is unique and has a basic integrity of content and purpose. We really care deeply about what is best for the kids, what they really need and we will never sell out to commercialism or shallow flashiness. All of the writers believe in what we do and it is not “just a job” for any of us. I’ve been so proud to have been part of Sesame Street for 45 years.
Bill William’s caricature of Emily Kingsley, as seen in the book ‘What Do You Do?’
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Josh Green lives in Philadelphia, PA with his lovely wife Lauren. Having worked at Dynamite Entertainment and TV Guide, Josh is now a freelance writer for Graphic Policy and the creator of the “Muppets Gone Missing” column, so that he can still dabble in pop culture. While he is not dabbling, Josh lives a simple life, where his main enjoyment is spending as much time possible with his wife, whose very existence gives Josh purpose for everything.