Ernie and Bert: Just Good Friends?

Curator's Note

Since the Culture Wars of the 1980s, the Children’s Television Workshop has several times officially announced that Ernie and Bert are “just good friends.” These days, though, it would be rare to see these two engaged in one of their famous bickering-in-the-bedroom scenes. While it is not unlikely that the Workshop rotated these skits out of Sesame Street, in part, to eliminate the gay panic once and for all, Ernie and Bert were doomed by the 1990s simply because they were too old for the show. In the years since the introduction of Baby Bear and Elmo, the sort-of-grown-up Ernie and Bert have become expendable.

 

 

Yet they live on via the diffuse phenomenon of Ernie and Bert slash. I say diffuse, because it’s hard to call this stuff slash in the strictest sense. (If you are looking for something hot, seek out K/S, not E/B.) While the main thrust (ahem) of slash is to give viewers a charge, sometimes a chuckle, and often food for thought, the goal of manipulated Ernie and Bert footage is often to point to the ridiculousness of a true E/B pairing, simply turning on the crude premise that it’s funny to pretend that puppets could be fags. The typical move is to cut in bleeps whenever Ernie and Bert converse in the bedroom.  The best bleeping approach to Sesame Street I’ve seen is not E/B specific—and it comes from mainstream TV, not resourceful fans—but at least it is dirty without being mean spirited.

 

My favorite E/B video, though, gets everything just right. The Dutch audio is simply a translation of what the characters say in the U.S. version: Bert is excited to read about the big National Pigeon Show, while Ernie tries to hog the newspaper. The subtitles tell a different story, in which the characters bicker over gay marriage (don’t ask me what’s up with the short PSA in English that follows). The whole thing works not because the dialogue is funny—though it is—but because it reveals what made E/B a couple all along. Not that they lived together and shared a bedroom, but that they bickered constantly like an old married couple. Bert was the bitchy top; Ernie was the goofy bottom, the one who really wore the pants in the relationship.  In other words, the original Dutch footage centered on the newspaper shtick is every bit as gay as the subtitled, reworked scenario.

 

The Workshop always had one trump card they used to prove that E/B was “really” a straight coupling: the characters were originally based on Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison of The Odd Couple.  Need I say more?

 

 

 

Comments

Michael Z. Newman's picture

Ambiguous Puppets

This video is great, Heather.  Thanks for sharing it.

 

One thing I have always found intriguing about Sesame Street muppets is how many of them never quite seem to have a determinate age.  For instance, Big Bird is child-like (originally described as a six year-old) but also seems to live independently and of course is 8 feet tall. Some of the characters like Oscar and The Count may be more like adults, but others like Elmo and Cookie Monster are more like little kids.  So with Ernie and Bert, I often wondered growing up whether they were really supposed to be grown-ups even though they were living on their own as roommates.  In some ways Bert is more adult than Ernie, with his goofy antics, rubber duckie, etc.  One reason I think the bleeping videos and E/B work as subversive critique is that they sexualize children and childhood, on the basic level of finding sexual subtext in a kids’ show, but also in making child-like characters (and actual children in the Jimmy Kimmel video) seem to be sexual beings.

 

You suggest that one reason E & B have been phased out is that they’re "sort-of-grown-up."  I wonder why Sesame Street’s producers might want to move away from characters who are like grown-ups.

Amanda Ann Klein's picture

And tomorrow I too will discuss sex on Sesame Street...

 I agree with Michael. The humor in the Jimmy Kimmel clip (which had me in tears I was laughing so hard) is definitely found in taking "innocent" activities—back-scratching, a discussion of finger painting, playing with a beach ball—and making them pornographic simply by replacing key words with beeps (or pixillation). 

Heather, the subtitled Dutch clip is fantastic! Other than Ernie saying that Bert’s mom should die (I’d like to think that Ernie isn’t that petty) the subtitled dialogue doesn’t really seem like that much of a stretch for these characters—Bert cares for Ernie but isn’t demonstrative, Ernie is open with his love and expects the same from Bert and they would both totally get fired from PBS if they "came out." It totally works. 

Heather Hendershot's picture

dirty but clean

Yes, the Kimmel clip operates by simple reversals.  It seems almost TOO simple…but it is so funny!  I think it’s "dirty but clean" insofar as the sexy bits are for fun, not to hurt anyone’s feelings or to offend.

 

Back to Michael’s comment…Yes, Big Bird was orginally created as a child.  In fact, he was the ONLY muppet who was specifically a child, except for Prairie Dawn (who was a throaway girlie character until after Jim Henson died and they were allowed to develop her character, as well as to introduce Zoe—Henson was not interested in female muppets, or female muppeteers, for that matter).  The other muppets were simply childish. 

 

If SS has now rotated in baby muppets and rotated out adult muppets, there are not operating on the cutting edge but, rather, following the pack.  Adults are out across much children’s TV.  This makes the most sense for shows targeting 6-11 year olds and the next demo up—tweens—insofar as these viewers particularly appreciate a "kids only" world (as per Allison James and other writers on kids’ culture).  However, to me, this seems strange in the context of shows targetting babies and preschoolers.  If there is any group of viewers that would not only tolerate but perhaps even enjoy grown ups mixed into their shows (Teletubbies, Boobah), it is the youngest group.  The lack of grown-ups certainly serves adults more than children—or, at the risk of sounding conspiratorial, it serves adult marketers/brand managers/kids’ TV producers.  The main reason to get adults out of baby and toddler TV is to make this seem the norm for children’s shows—a norm that will carry over when the kids graduate to older shows where more money is at stake (more sales of toys, games, etc.—not to discount the money that comes in from Teletubbies, et al.).

 

There are exceptions, of course.  Bob the Builder and many of his pals are adults, albeit simple ones.  Steve and Joe on Blue’s Clues are man-children.  Lazy Town has Sportacus, whom I can only describe as…disconcerting.

Jason Mittell's picture

Age and Appeals

Great clips & conversation! I’m not convinced that E&B have been marginalized for their age exactly - they were always outside the "street" culture, appearing primarily within their home, rather than interacting with the core group of cast/Muppets. Also once Henson died and Oz left the show, the voices were always a bit off, so I could see why shelving them just made logistical sense. Especially since the show does have so many adults, and other adult Muppets (Guy Smiley, Sully, other generic figures for skits & parodies).

These clips have got me thinking about why Muppets seem so ripe for shifting into "blue" content, whether on YouTube, Kimmel, or something like Avenue Q. The crazed energy of the early Muppets seemed so poorly contained by the kid-centered format (and of course Henson’s early work was for adults), that there seems like a natural overflow into lascivious content. Can’t wait to see Amanda’s continuation of this tomorrow!

 

Heather Hendershot's picture

a mise-en-abime of parody!

Yes, Avenue Q!  Check out this clip, which, as the intro states, brings Avenue Q full circle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqcYJzc6lKw.

 

I may just be out of the loop here, but I haven’t seen Guy Smiley in quite some time.  As an adult, empty game show host (personality?  no, he’s just, well, smiley) he seems best matched for the earliest SS epsisodes, produced when PBS still seemed like a commentary on/antidote to the "Vast Wasteland."

The ongoing presence of Ernie and Bert

That video is great, and the discussion of E/B fascinating.

However, I thought it worthwhile to add that Ernie and Bert do continue to feature on the show, so it is a little early to claim that Sesame Workshop is shying away from these characters.

In fact, since 2008 Bert and Ernie have their own animated segment on the show called "Bert and Ernie’s Great Adventures."  The voices are provided by the regular Muppeteers (Eric Jacobson and Steve Whitmire). For details on the segment see: B&E Great Adventures.

And if you are worried that they have moved away from the bedroom, watch the opening theme for the new segments here: B&E at the Bakers.  Not only does it start in the bedroom, but Ernie climbs into Bert’s bed to begin their adventure.  Perhaps Sesame Workshop isn’t as concerned with the E/B controversy as one might expect.

Heather Hendershot's picture

B&E at the Bakers

Thanks for your comments, Aaron.  I love the intro of the B&E at the Bakers segments, but I don’t like this format overall.  The clay animation (or computerized simulation thereof) makes these characters not look like the "real" Ernie and Bert, and the story at the bakeshop is distinctly un-Ernie and Bert like.  It’s as if these characters had no previous personalities!  Yes, Ernie is the one who gets it wrong, and that’s not totally out of character, but there’s none of the interesting old friction between the characters, Bert never gets angry and flustered…these characters just don’t seem like E&B, and the segment felt very generic and wholesomely bland, like a scene from Bob the Builder.

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