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HBO documentary sheds light on the creation of 'Sesame Street'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a new HBO documentary called "Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street." It sheds light on the creation of a show that transformed children's television. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has this review.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: One of the biggest lessons from "Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street" is that the creation of one of the most beloved kids shows in TV history was kind of a political act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOAN GANZ COONEY: There is no question. The people who control the system read, and the people who make it in the system read.

DEGGANS: That's Joan Ganz Cooney, who became the first executive director of the Children's Television Workshop, the nonprofit entity that created "Sesame Street." But in the mid-1960s, Cooney was a TV producer. She connected with a psychologist named Lloyd Morrisett over a then-revolutionary idea - that TV could improve the lives of young, low-income kids - especially non-white inner-city kids - by helping prepare them for school. Morrisett explains.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET")

LLOYD MORRISETT: We found that those children would enter school three months behind and by the end of first grade, be a year behind. I wondered whether television could be used to help children with school.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SESAME STREET")

CHARLIE'S ANGELS: (Singing) Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away.

DEGGANS: Inspired by a 2008 book called "Street Gang" by Michael Davis, "Street Gang" the documentary tells the story of how Cooney and Morrisett, who co-founded the Children's Television Workshop, got together with director, writer, executive producer Jon Stone in 1969 to create "Sesame Street."

The film credits Stone with bringing in a puppeteer who'd been making cheeky commercials and late-night TV appearances by the name of Jim Henson. Henson, playing Kermit the Frog in a video, even suggested the program's name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog) Why don't you call your show "Sesame Street"?

(As Rowlf the Dog) What was that?

(As Kermit the Frog) You know, like open sesame? It kind of gives the idea of a street where neat stuff happens.

(As Rowlf the Dog) Why, you're a genius.

(As Kermit the Frog) Yuck.

(As Rowlf the Dog) "Sesame Street."

DEGGANS: "Street Gang" shows how, back then, it was revolutionary for the show's producers to test the material in front of kids to see what they liked, to bring educators, producers and researchers together to create TV that didn't talk down to children.

For folks of a certain age - OK, me - watching "Street Gang" is like a gateway to your childhood. Growing up in Gary, Ind., a Black child with a single mom, I was the show's target audience. The front steps of our first apartment looked like the front steps to Gordon and Susan's apartment on the show.

"Street Gang" features so many great "Sesame Street" moments, from Stevie Wonder...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Sesame Street.

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) ABC, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Sesame Street.

DEGGANS: ...To the Reverend Jesse Jackson...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

JESSE JACKSON: I just want you to repeat after me. I am.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: I am.

JACKSON: Somebody.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Somebody.

JACKSON: I am.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: I am.

JACKSON: Somebody.

DEGGANS: ...And bloopers with Muppets like Big Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Big Bird) I wonder if I got any mail yet today. Oh, there's something. Where the hell did it go?

DEGGANS: There are tough stories, too, like the moment the original actor who played Gordon, a proud Black man named Matt Robinson, quit the show not long after African American parents complained about the slang speech of a Black Muppet he helped create named Roosevelt Franklin; or the decision to portray the death of the character Mr. Hooper, when the actor who played him, Will Lee, died in 1982; and the death of Henson in 1990.

Mostly, "Street Gang" shows how an unlikely family of producers, researchers and performers bonded over a mission of educating and entertaining children that's endured for more than 50 years.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SESAME STREET THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Can you tell me how to get, how to get to... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.