Sesame Saturday: Oscar the Enigma

Part Two of my two-part celebration of Mr. Caroll Spinney and his two most famous characters on the occasion of his retirement, in which I attempt to unravel the fascinating enigma that is Oscar the Grouch.

When I was a kid, I was confused by Oscar the Grouch. While I thought he was funny, I wasn’t quite sure what his purpose was, why there was a character on Sesame Street who was so rude all the time, or whether or not it was okay to laugh at him. 

I was an adult before I realized that Oscar represents the dark side of the street. He’s the rain cloud that helps us appreciate the sunshine. He’s the pinch of salt that keeps all the sweetness on Sesame Street from becoming too saccharine.

In reality, not every day can be sunny, not every stranger is friendly, and sometimes people growl and gripe at you for no apparent reason. And while it’s hurtful when this happens, especially when it comes from someone you love, most of the time it has nothing to do with you, in which case you have to try to learn not to take it personally, and even to see the humor in it. 

Furthermore, living and functioning as a human being in this world means that you have to form interpersonal relationships with other human beings, and in order to do that successfully, you have to learn to accept qualities and behaviors that you don’t like in other people. The citizens of Sesame Street are often bemused and frustrated by Oscar’s behavior, but they accept him because they know that grouchiness is part of Oscar’s essence, and if he stopped being grouchy, he would cease to be. 

I also think that Oscar represents a certain degree of wish fulfillment. We’ve all had to deal with people who rub us the wrong way, but to whom we still need to be polite and pleasant. Oscar does what we can’t do in telling them to get lost, and so we get to experience that vicarious thrill through him without having to face the consequences ourselves.

While Oscar himself may insist that he’s a born misanthrope, in reality, most people who behave the way he does have a secret pain or inner heartache that they’re trying to cover up. Oscar wouldn’t be interesting to watch if he were just a mean, horrible character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and I doubt very highly if such a shallow characterization would have sustained him for 50 years and counting. I have no idea what Oscar’s secret pain might be, but I know from the documentary I Am Big Bird that Caroll Spinney has had his fair share of heartache AT LEAST, which may have had some influence on Oscar’s development.

If nothing else, I know that Mr. Spinney had to fight in order to maintain Oscar’s dimensionality, insisting to Sesame Street‘s temperamental founding father Jon Stone that Oscar has a hidden heart of gold. “There’s no heart of gold,” Stone countered, as related in Jones’ Jim Henson: The Biography, “The guy is a $#!t, right to the core.” I don’t mean to cast aspersions upon a deceased individual who was so instrumental to the creation of Sesame Street, but I wonder if that exchange didn’t reveal more about Jon Stone’s character than about Oscar’s.

Ultimately, however, it was Mr. Spinney who won the battle for Oscar’s soul, and Oscar is a richer, more relatable, more realistic character because of it. 

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