In 1966, a character who would come to fame as the cookie monster burst onto the scene. He was a blue, furry creature that devoured everything initially and cookies preferentially. After forty years of delighting children, though, it was decided that our blue friend was setting a bad example. Thus in 2007 he went on Martha Stewart and explained that cookies were no longer good enough for him. They were a sometimes food. An icon of two generations of children’s television caved to public pressure, and who is to blame? Elmo.
Perhaps it is not clear just WHY my brother and I agree that the red menace that is Elmo brought the downfall of this once great Muppet. Well, let me explain. The Cookie Monster, as his name implies, is a monster. He is one of many. In fact, a fair chunk of the Muppet lineup is made up of monsters. Monsters are easy to make out of felt and foam, can be grossly disproportionate enough to let you cram three human hands where they don’t belong, and leave room for a lot of imagination. Perfect Muppet bait. There were human and animal Muppets, too, but the monsters had one thing in common. They were screwups, every last one of them.
Think about it for a moment. Oscar the Grouch was an irritable jerk, Grover was an astounding idiot, and Telly was a coward. They all had massive, glaring character flaws. The Cookie Monster’s flaw was that he was a gluttonous oaf. They were ALL bad examples. That was the idea! They were monsters! Even the youngest viewer could appreciate that monsters are not things that you aspire to be. The monsters existed to illustrate “what not to do”. It was their job to misbehave, act silly, or make mistakes. In response, the childlike characters like Big Bird would learn from the adult authority figures why that was wrong, and what the right thing to do would have been. It was THOSE lessons the kids would take to heart. Monsters were just the counter examples… Until Elmo.
Elmo was a monster without any caricatured shortcoming. He was a wide eyed, new to the world child, just like the target audience. This is a role formerly played by Big Bird, but I guess the writers thought a seven foot tall bird was hard to identify with. And so here was a monster learning the lessons that the kids were supposed to learn. Here was a monster the kids were supposed to emulate. It was a wrench in the works, an extra variable in the formula. Maybe it wouldn’t have gotten too out of control, but Elmo’s popularity suddenly exploded! He was all over the show. He even got a weird show-within-a-show spinoff called Elmo’s World. Every plot revolved around him, and every lesson was learned by him. Pretty soon there were duplicate Elmos with various gender and ethnic flavors mixed in, all teaching us valuable lessons and setting good examples. “Monster” was no longer visual shorthand for screwup. It was just another character trying to teach us how to live. And that meant that we should be shoving plates full of cookies into our heads, because it is what Cookie Monster was doing.
I’m not sure why Cookie Monster was the sacrificial lamb on this one. I’d say that Oscar set the worst example. The guy lived in a garbage can and treated everybody like trash, but he’s still going strong. No, sir, only the noble Cookie Monster was forced to compromise his ideals, to violate his very identity under the weight of public outcry. The only mystery is where the public outcry actually came from. It would have to be people who are too busy to raise their own kids and thus have the Children’s Television Workshop do it for them, but with enough spare time to write angry letters to PBS and the Jim Henson company. Maybe there should have been a monster in the old days that had his priorities all out of whack, and Mr. Hooper could have explained that sometimes we should use our spare time to raise our own children rather than using it to find other people to blame for not raising them properly.