Sesame Saturday: All About Ernie

Not counting Kermit, who appeared on Sesame Street but wasn’t created specifically for it, Ernie is probably my favorite Sesame Street character of all time, although it is hard for me to choose between him and Bert (they’re always at their best when they’re together).  If you were to ask former classmates of mine whether I was more like Ernie or Bert in school, most of them would probably say Bert.  But in my own mind, I always identified with Ernie.  Certainly, Ernie is everything that I would like to be: clever, funny, easygoing, with an infectious laugh and a perpetual smile on his face.

And yet, I said before that, of all of the Muppet (and non-Muppet) characters that Jim Henson created, Kermit the Frog is the most “real” to me.  So when Sesame Workshop recast Ernie in 2014, my reaction was one of mild annoyance rather than panic.

It was the episode in which Bert learns to ride his bike without training wheels (clip).  At first, I was happy to see a street story featuring Bert and Ernie because that hadn’t happened since who knows when.  Then Ernie opened his mouth to speak and I said to myself, “Is Ernie going through puberty?  Because his voice seems to have changed.”

It was clearly not Steve Whitmire performing Ernie, and I didn’t quite know what to think, mostly because I didn’t know if it was a one-time thing or if it would be permanent.

Let me be perfectly clear: my preference would be for Steve to perform Ernie in perpetuity and, in a perfect world, that’s exactly what would happen.  But ours is not a perfect world, and I could understand why there might be practical reasons to want to recast Ernie, the most obvious (to me) being geography, because Sesame Street production is based in New York, and Steve lives in Atlanta.  So I could see how it would be advantageous to have a local puppeteer perform Ernie instead.

Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit organization that has done a lot of good in the world, both measurably and immeasurably.  They have an ethos and a bank of credibility that they’ve been investing in for almost 50 years.  Therefore, if they had to recast Ernie, I trusted that they had a good reason for it.  So my reaction was not grief and panic but annoyance that eventually settled into resignation.  My big concern was consistency; my thought was, “Okay, if you’re going to recast Ernie, then fine, do what you have to do, but please just pick one performer and stick to him; don’t keep switching them around all the time, because that’s not fair to anyone.”

But alas, my silent plea went unanswered (I probably should have said it out loud or, better yet, put it in writing).  From 2014 to 2017, Ernie was performed by someone named Billy Barkhurst, about whom I really know nothing else, then they replaced him with Peter Linz.  At first I was angry that they had recast Ernie yet again, (“Stop playing with my emotions already!”) but then I ran across a video from the Sesame Street YouTube channel of Barkhurst as Ernie singing “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon”–which, incidentally, is not only my favorite Sesame Street song but one of my very favorite songs, period.

It was terrible.  I couldn’t watch the whole thing.  I’m not even going to link to it because I don’t want to inflict such an ear-sore on anybody.

So then I started warming up to the idea of Peter Linz performing Ernie, because at least I know that he can sing.  Moreover, I do kind of like the idea of Ernie being distantly related to Walter.

Last week on his blog, Steve discussed Sesame Street and why Ernie was recast.  As I expected, it was nothing so dramatic or acrimonious as what happened at Disney; in fact, it was a story that has become sadly commonplace across many companies and organizations over the past 10 years or so: due to financial constraints, Sesame Workshop was restructuring, which resulted in a lot of people being dismissed from their jobs.

Coincidentally, I recently went through something similar back in the spring.  I had worked for nearly seven years doing medical transcription for a local orthopedic clinic.  Like Steve, I was an independent contractor.  But the clinic put in a new electronic health record (EHR) system that, when used to its fullest potential, eliminated the need for doctors’ dictations and, therefore, the need for transcriptionists.  It wasn’t something that they wanted to do; they had been resisting it for a long time, but they were facing heavy tax penalties if they refused to implement the EHR, and it was no longer cost-effective for them to hold out.  I understood that, and we parted on good terms.  There was no drama.

Anyway, back to Sesame Street.  It seems to me that the whole question of who’s performing Ernie becomes a moot point if they don’t write him into the show anyway.  He and Bert have been largely relegated to the status of background characters for quite a few years.  For a while, about the only way we saw Bert and Ernie was in claymation form with “Bert and Ernie’s Great Adventures.”

I love “Bert and Ernie’s Great Adventures.”  I really do.  They allow Bert and Ernie to go places and do things that it would difficult to accomplish in puppet form.  The stories are engaging, the writing is clever, the artistry that goes into making the claymation is masterful; what’s not to like?  And yet…I didn’t like that we seemed to be seeing Bert and Ernie less and less often on the Street in puppet form and more often as claymation.  At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy who walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways, etc., when I was a kid watching Sesame Street, Bert and Ernie were featured on Sesame Street (in puppet form) every day, sometimes more than once a day.  I think the claymation stuff makes for good supplemental material, but I didn’t like that Bert and Ernie’s actual, physical presence on the Street itself seemed to be dwindling, and that the primary, and sometimes only, exposure that kids were getting to Bert and Ernie was in claymation form.  I was afraid that, eventually, Bert and Ernie would be relegated to the same status as the “Teeny Little Super Guy.”  After nearly 50 years, they deserve better than that.

I said before that “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” is one of my very favorite songs of all time, and that is absolutely true.  My list of favorite songs is fluid and changes all the time, according to many different factors, including the time of year and my mood, but “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon is always near the top of the list.  I also said that I wasn’t going to link to the mediocre version, and I won’t.  Instead, I will embed one of my favorite performances of “I Don’t Want to  Live on the Moon,” in which Steve (as Ernie) sang it with Shawn Colvin in the Elmopalooza special from 1998.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that the first time I saw this particular performance, it was a transcendent, almost spiritual experience:

(Thank you, Steve.)

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