“When Snuffy wasn’t being used, cables were attached to his head and back and he was hoisted 40 feet in the air, where he was out of the way and safe. […] What made this so much fun was that in those days, we had a lot of kids on the show […] Many of these kids spotted Snuffy hanging overhead. When they did, they went nuts! Kids would grab the leg of the nearest adult and yell, ‘Look! Look! It’s the Snuffle-upagus!’ And, the adult response was always the same: ‘Aw, c’mon, kid. You can’t fool me. There’s no such thing as a Snuffle-upagus.'”
–Joseph A. Bailey, demonstrating the sadistic attitude of the adults on Sesame Street in the ’70s and early ’80s in his book, Memoirs of a Muppet Writer.
Someone once asked Street Gang author Michael Davis, in an interview that seems to have become lost among the shifting sands of the Internet, what was the most significant episode of Sesame Street.
I thought about the question myself and I decided that, for me, there’s an objective answer and a subjective answer. The objective answer is the same that Davis gave, the death of Mr. Hooper. But the subjective answer, for me, is the episode in which Snuffy was revealed to be nonimaginary, which aired 32 years ago on November 18, 1985. I was five years old at the time, and I was watching.
There was reality subtext beneath the decision to reveal Snuffy to everyone on the Street, some of it quite serious. This is an article that covers the whole thing very well, but I don’t really want to get into that right now because I wasn’t aware of any of it as a five-year-old.
I hated it when everybody thought Snuffy was imaginary. If you’ve never seen any Sesame Street from the ’70s or early ’80s, you would probably be shocked by how mean the adults on Sesame Street were to Big Bird on the subject. (I’m looking at YOU, Bob!) Even if the adults did believe that Snuffy was only Big Bird’s imaginary friend, why couldn’t they humor him? What did it cost them to just play along?
Moreover, the arguments that they used to try to convince Big Bird that he was wrong just didn’t make any sense. For example, here is an actual argument that they once used on Big Bird: “Nothing could be that big and furry.” Okay, first of all, that’s just plain not true; what about the wooly mammoth? Second of all, you do realize that you’re talking to an eight-foot-tall, talking, yellow bird, right? Oh sure, an eight-foot yellow bird is completely rational, but an elephantine furry thing? THAT’S just crazy!
I regret to say that I was skeptical at the top of the episode when Big Bird told us that this was the day that the adults were finally going to see Snuffy. Big Bird had never lied to me; I should have had more faith in him. But there had been so many false alarms, so many near-misses, that I had become as cynical on the topic as it is possible for a five-year-old living a sheltered life in rural South Dakota to be.
Nowadays, the street stories on Sesame Street happen in one block segment at the top of the show, but in the ’80s, the street story was told in fragments interspersed throughout the episode, which in this case really amped up the suspense. Without making value judgments about which method of storytelling is better, I think that in this instance they really took advantage of the format to tell the story as effectively as possible. I know that I was certainly glued to the TV to find out if it was really going to happen. It may have been my first experience of suspense.
Revisiting this episode as an adult, I was surprised to see that Elmo played a significant part in it, because I didn’t remember him being in it at all. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even remember Elmo being on Sesame Street at all until 1987 or 1988. Selective memory, perhaps; I’m not a particular fan of Elmo, so maybe I subconsciously purged him from my early memories of Sesame Street.
The moment of relevation was bizarre, they way they edited it so that they showed the adults’ reaction to Snuffy before showing them face-to-face with him. Also, apparently no one directed them on how to react, because their reactions are all over the place: David seems frozen in fear, Bob seems confused, and Maria seems sad…or perhaps disappointed? Also there’s a teenage kid there–whose name I don’t remember, but he kind of looks like Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid–who just stands there looking on with no reaction whatsoever. As a kid watching, it was hard for me to figure out exactly what had happened.
But when Big Bird comes in and says, “At last! Oh joy, joy!”…that was exactly my reaction as well. All my frustration and righteous indignation on Big Bird’s behalf was FINALLY over. Big Bird was finally vindicated, and I felt vindicated as well.
From the perspective of an adult, I really believe that it was a good thing for the show, as well. It allowed the character of Snuffy to evolve out of a one-joke character and explore new possibilities for growth. I can only imagine that it opened up new writing possibilities for plotlines, etc., instead of just variations on the same old theme.
You can watch Snuffy’s reveal here, in all its glory: