Ask Michael Davis what his favorite Sesame Street sketch is, and one comes to mind right away: “Bert and Ernie Fish Call.” In it, the laid-back Ernie confounds Bert with his unorthodox yet wildly successful method for fishing. It’s a sophisticated and pretty funny gag for such a simple conceit: two Muppets in a boat, dodging fish.
“I think they’re one of the great comedy teams of all time,” said Davis, author of the New York Times Bestseller Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, and speaker at this year’s TEDx Salem.
Fun fact – According to Davis, in Bert and Ernie you can see subtle hints of the real-life creative tension between the straight-laced Frank Oz, and the more mischievous Jim Henson, one that helped drive the show for years.
You can also see how a sketch that first aired in 1982 endures to this day, and still appeals to viewers both younger and older. Currently the clip has over 3 million views on YouTube.
“That’s the magic, that they’ve been able to keep [the show’s success] rolling for so many years,” he said.
For his TED talk Davis will share how the show has evolved to maintain its popularity with millions of children in its over 45-year history. He will also discuss how the show’s producers continue to parlay that power into positive social change both in the US and around the world. According to Davis they are currently working to bring awareness of sanitation and hygiene to audiences in India and Pakistan. In South Africa, the first-ever HIV-positive Muppet, Kami, has helped bring AIDS awareness to a country that has struggled to face the crisis. The Queen of Jordan Rania Al Abdullah also has credited the show (Hikayat Simsim) for empowering women in her country.
It’s one of the key missions of the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind Sesame Street: to use the show’s concepts in hotspots around the globe, from Northern Ireland to the Balkans to Central America, Davis said.
Everywhere it is seen, the show serves to “help children cope, and to teach them about their society,” he said.
Through a combination of comedy and television advertising techniques, Sesame Street has impacted generations of children worldwide, Davis said, exposing them to sometimes tough lessons through intelligence and wit – even if sometimes the lessons and occasionally even the wit are beyond the grasp of the show’s core demographic of 2- to 4-year-olds.
Sesame Street has had the staying power and the patience to wait for them.
“When children get older and more sophisticated, a light goes on,” Davis said. “They understand that somebody a long time ago taught them.”
Something to think about, the next time you come across a fisherman out on a lake yelling, “Heeere fishy-fishy-fishy!”
– To see Michael Davis and other TEDx Salem 2015 speakers, get your tickets here.