Sixty for 60: Ernie

Welcome back to 60 for 60, a celebration of the work of Steve Whitmire in anticipation of his 60th birthday coming up later this year. This month is a celebration of Steve’s work as the irrepressible Ernie.

Just as Ernie and Bert are undervalued as one of the great comedy teams of all time, I feel that Steve Whitmire’s work as Ernie is tragically under-appreciated, especially by Muppet fans of a certain age. Whether playing alongside Frank Oz or Eric Jacobson, he’s done some stellar work in skits, songs, and bits that stack up against any of the great Bert and Ernie sketches of the pre-1990 Sesame Street era.

This was the hardest 60 for 60 entry that I’ve put together since I talked about Wembley last November. I could easily devote at least three months of this project to Steve’s work as Ernie. I would run out of months of the year before I ran out of material.

Bert and Ernie go fishing again (Sesame Street, circa 1993)

This is one of the first, if not the first, times that Steve ever performed Ernie. It was the first new Bert-and-Ernie sketch in over three years, and it seems that the writers were being very careful and cautious not to let Ernie be too much of a jerk, and not to let Bert get too mad at him. That’s not a criticism, by the way; as entertaining as Bert and Ernie are when they’re butting heads, I kind of prefer it when they get along. However, it seems that the honeymoon period didn’t last long, which is probably for the best.

“Ernie’s Show and Tell”: Sidney’s drawing (Sesame Street, circa 2001)

I think I’ve said this before, but unscripted interactions between Muppets and kids are one of my favorite things in the world. For those who are interested, Ernie/Steve’s questioning technique is apparently based on the work of Faber and Mazlish.

There was another installment of “Ernie’s Show and Tell” featuring another drawing by Sidney, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube. In it, Sidney’s drawing depicts Ernie on a playground slide, and Steve/Ernie responds by saying, “You were so sweet to draw me sliding on the sliding board!” which is kind of funny to me because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone outside of a book use the phrase “sliding board.”

Tangentially related, but I really like the still photo of Bert, Grover, and Ernie on the vanity plate for this video.

“I Wonder” (Sesame Street, circa 2010)

As far as I’m concerned, this song is to 21st-century Sesame Street what “I Don’t Want To Live on the Moon” is to 1980s Sesame Street. I would cheerfully hold it up against any of the classic Sesame songs of the past with confidence that it would hold its own.

Also, kudos to whoever was performing Ernie’s right hand, especially during the lines “What makes popcorn pop, pop, pop? / What makes the rain fall drop by drop?”

Guess That Animal Sound game (Sesame Street, circa 2003)

This one is special for a lot of reasons. It marks one of Frank Oz’s return performances, which I think I would have figured out even without looking it up on the Wiki, because I can hardly imagine anyone else pausing the sketch to say, “Would you stop pecking my clavicle?” It features some very cool puppetry with Ernie hanging from the ceiling, and Steve’s animal sounds are very funny.

“Best Friends” (International Sesame Street, circa 2011)

To the best of my knowledge, this sketch has never aired on the domestic program, only internationally. It’s a shame; this sketch is very funny, but there’s some depth to it as well.

I have a theory about Ernie. It may be an insane fan theory, or it may be projection on my part. I think that Ernie looks up to Bert a great deal, but Bert doesn’t pay as much attention to Ernie as Ernie would like, because he’s preoccupied with his books and his pigeons and his paperclips, so when Ernie provokes him, it’s really just a bid to get attention. That’s my theory.

It’s hard to believe that 60 for 60 is already winding down! Come back next month for interviews and mixed media. 

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