Big Bird: The Most American Muppet on Sesame Street?


Reading the literature on Big Bird's job prospects

big bird romney.jpg
AP Images; PBS / Sesame Workshop

TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: In last night's presidential debate, Governor Mitt Romney said he would consider cutting federal funding for PBS, which could put Sesame Street's beloved yellow puppet Big Bird out of a job. And that would, as Romney admitted, be kind of a bummer.

BUT ACCORDING TO SOME EXPERTS WHO ARE REALLY INTERESTED IN BIG BIRD: Big Bird himself is already an endangered species. In 1990, when there were just 13 foreign-language versions of Sesame Street, Sesame Workshop producer Gregory J. Gettas wrote in an Educational Technology Research and Development article called "The Globalization of 'Sesame Street': A Producer's Perspective" that Big Bird was sometimes replaced in international versions of Sesame Street by a character with more local appeal.

For example, rather than the character of "Big Bird," the star of the American version of Sesame Street, the Israeli version features "Kippy Ben-Kipod," a prickly-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside hedgehog said to represent the Israeli national character. In the Arabic-language series, on the other hand, the principal character is "No'Man," a camel drawn from Arabic history and tradition.

Sesame Street and its adaptations are now broadcast in more than 140 countries, and local adaptations of Sesame Street are produced in more than 18 international locations. Which means two things: That children all over the world are learning wholesome lessons about positivity and counting from a bunch of cute, heartwarming puppets, and that Big Bird's territory is being even further usurped. Mexico's adaptation Plaza Sésamo, for instance, replaces Big Bird with his "cousin," a rainbow parrot named Abelardo.

Big Bird does, however, appear on the Afghan adaptation Baghch-e-Simsim—in his pure, unadulterated, original yellow form.

AND... ANYTHING ELSE? Yup. Just because the towering game fowl—who stands at 8'2"—might have a few choice chirps for Romney, don't expect Big Bird himself to comment on the matter. According to a 1979 Antioch Review interview with Big Bird's puppeteer Carroll Spinney, Big Bird is strictly apolitical:

Q: Does Sesame Street ever focus directly on political issues?
A: Rarely. Even the Earth Day celebration was thought too controversial.
Q: Maybe avoidance of things political protects more than it limits.
A: It probably does. Besides, Big Bird is too young to be concerned about political things. Still, if I were allowed free reign, he would appear in a few places in which he has not appeared. ... Because my brother David was a victim of cerebral palsy, I wanted Big Bird to attend a cerebral palsy fund-raiser. The committee that owns Sesame Street didn't let Big Bird go, explaining that if Big Bird went to one charity fund-raiser he would be obligated to go to many more. We get at least one request a day for Big Bird's appearance, so it could easily get out of hand.

AND THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: If he fires Big Bird, Mitt Romney won't just put a Sesame Street character out of work. He'll put its most American character out of work. Infer as you will.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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