Down with Elmo!

I am a big fan of the children’s TV show Sesame Street. I don’t watch it anymore but I used to watch it every day with my children when they were young and I got very fond of the characters on the show, particularly the Muppets, because the program was clever and funny. My children are all grown up now but I still watch some of the clips online where they parody popular culture

At the time I was watching, the character Elmo was a minor figure but even then I found him irritating, shrill, and generally obnoxious. It was with some dismay that he became the major figure on the show, elbowing out of the spotlight those Muppets that I liked better such as Grover, Cookie, Kermit, Bert, and Ernie.

Kevin Wong shares my dislike of Elmo and my affection for Grover but goes into the issue far more deeply, asserting that Elmo is actually harming the show not just because he is insufferable but because he is a bad role model for children.

Taken by himself, the character was lovable, but not substantial. His main job was to be unfailingly cute, cheerful, and naive—namely, to act like a happy three-and-a-half year-old. It’s extremely appropriate that Elmo refers to himself in the third person, because Elmo is the only thing that Elmo is concerned with. Other characters were more grounded and had specific, research-based reasons for being on the cast.

But Elmo only stood for Elmo—how the world would affect him, rather than how he could affect the world.

We’re a Grover family, the whole way. Now there’s a Muppet who never talked down to or regressed his audience. Grover would bust his furry blue butt to teach a lesson, even if he had to run himself into the ground to do it.

It still cracks me up. And there are so many Grover clips that I fondly remember.

It may seem silly for adults to analyze children’s shows and even Muppets. Picking on Elmo seems mean at first because it seems like you are picking on a child. You have to force yourself to realize that you are critiquing a character designed and performed by adults.

Children’s programming should not be exempt from the same kind of scrutiny that we give other shows. Just because TV programs are designed for children does not mean they are trivial. One could argue that they actually more important since they target such an impressionable age group. My children and I logged more hours of Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Square One and other public television shows than of any other shows and I feel that they learned many positive lessons from them. I would like to ensure that future generations of children get the same benefit.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    It’s pretty clear that the Elmo segment of the program is aimed at a younger set than the rest of it, but I think that was a mistake. There are vast developmental differences between toddlers and pre-schoolers, and the show shouldn’t have tried to appeal to both.

    Open italics tag at the end of the article, by the way.

  2. smrnda says

    I actually was watching some old sesame street a few weeks ago, mostly ones where Lefty would try to sell Ernie air or some other scam. I’m not old enough to have seen them as a child, but as an adult they were pretty funny.

    Sometimes I think that a way to judge any show aimed at kids is to see if adults find it watchable, and if not, the show is probably crap designed to sell merchandise, or a dull and uncreative way to keep kids occupied and pacified in front of a TV screen. There’s just not enough to the character of Elmo to create much in the way of stories.

    Though I get the idea of entertainment aimed at kids, I don’t really know if there’s much point in trying to specifically hit the 2 -- 3 year old demographic. Kids of that age were watching Sesame Street before. Maybe some of the content went over their heads, but that stage didn’t last for long, and then as kids grow up they would still find a show engaging.

    Maybe an issue with Elmo is it’s creating the 2 -- 3 year old as a consumer demographic. The kid will outgrow Elmo and want new toys sooner.

  3. says

    Telly Monster entered Sesame Street around the same time as Elmo and is a much more compelling and positive character. Telly first appears as a TV-obsessed character, but is gradually weaned off watching so much.

    Actor: “Do you want to play baseball?”
    Telly: “Sure. What channel is it on?”

    Telly starts off unsure of himself in the world, very worried and lacking confidence but gradually grows as other characters and people in the show treat him well. The character remains uncertain, but asks questions that many children have that don’t get answers, something kids really do need to see.

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