By the time Stevie Wonder got to Sesame Street, Cookie Monster had already driven a stolen steam engine into a game show. A blue guy in overalls cried, "Hey that's my train!" A purple banker in whiskers asked for his cane. An orange thing ran around with jumbled fangs and a poof of eyebrows lifted from the forehead of Leonid Brezhnev. The show was Beat the Time, and its host, Guy Smiley, had lost control. He could be heard shouting Cookie Monster's name as creatures frittered away nervous energy across the TV screen. A loose flap of hair leapt about Smiley's head, a thing in itself, egging on the chaos.
Cookie Monster was typically incoherent: a fuzzy bathroom rug with a rag-bag voice, trying to high-five the host ("Hi, Guy!"), his pupils jiggling everywhere at once, near lysergic, perhaps still feeling the effects from that appearance on Dick Cavett, when his stomach exploded after eating a time machine.
Backstage, a cubby full of reserve plastic eyeballs awaited its chance.
Special guest Stevie Wonder tried to make sense of it all, assembling this herky-jerky riot of felt and foam inside his head.
What's going on?
Cookie Monster has stolen a train.
No less confused was Sesame Street's target audience (age six, gnawing on a Matchbox truck) when Stevie Wonder later appeared on the show with a plastic tube that drooled, non-retractably, from his mouth and into a Moog synthesizer. Stevie's bass bufo was certainly not his own, a strep croak that made Kermit green with--"Hi-ho-ulp!"
Sesame Street's most important demographic that day was Roger Troutman--a twenty-one-year-old from Hamilton, Ohio who would spend the rest of his life sticking vinyl hardware tubing in his mouth.
As the Muppets of invention have often said: "It's so crazy, it just might work!"
Dave Tompkins' book on the history of the vocoder, How To Wreck A Nice Beach, is being published by Stop Smiling Books/Melville House.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes
about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.