Spotlight: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
April 23, 2021
The new documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is here! Chronicling the first 20 years of the show, the filmmakers interweave archival footage and interviews with the original creators and cast of Sesame Street (including our founder Joan Ganz Cooney). The film features clips from the show’s early days, evoking a sense of nostalgia for those of us who grew up watching the show. But it also highlights how the show’s original mission remains as relevant as ever.
Street Gang tells the story of how Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett spoke at a dinner party about the possibility of harnessing the power of television to teach children. Sesame Street is often called the beginning of educational television and media as we know it, but as Street Gang reminds us, it was wildly experimental at the time. No one knew if it would work and it took a staggering amount of work to succeed.
We all know that Sesame Street used the ABCs and 123s as a starting point for children’s learning, but as Street Gang shows, a focus on social change and positive, relevant experiences for young audiences has been key to the show’s mission from the beginning. From the outset, the show’s producers started by considering and respecting the audience. Finding out what kids needed, really listening to them to keep improving, and helping otherwise underserved kids feel seen and represented shaped the process for creating the show, and still does today.
One thing that comes across clearly in the documentary is how much fun the creators were having despite the stress of a busy production schedule. Behind-the-scenes footage with puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz performing Bert and Ernie, and of director Jon Stone and the cast working together, show the joy and camaraderie of the whole experience that shines through in the show itself. Joan Ganz Cooney talks about how she realized how essential play was for young children’s learning and let the show be about that. In a time where the approaches seemed radical to some, she valued creativity and gave the team freedom to experiment.
Here at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, we continue to explore the landscape of educational media today. We still ask questions about what kids need, how they use media, and how to make learning playful. While some things have changed, some things are very much the same. Solutions that got us to Sesame Street can still make an impact now. For anyone working in this space with children, media, and learning, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a must-see film, both to celebrate how we got to where we are today, and consider how to keep moving forward.