The Songsmiths of Sesame Street

“The rule was you should never go over the heads of the kids. Anything that appealed to adults had to appeal to the kids too.”

Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks to two former Sesame Street songwriters, who co-wrote many songs for the children’s program in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, including perhaps the show’s best-known tune, “Put Down the Duckie.” They went on to found a children’s-entertainment company together, and produced the PBS show Between the Lions. Here, they tell the stories behind some of their greatest hits, and the bond they formed while collaborating on them.

The Friends

Chris Cerf, 77, a writer-composer, formerly for Sesame Street, and co-founder of the children’s-entertainment company Sirius Thinking Ltd. He lives in New York City.

Norm Stiles, 76, a former head writer of Sesame Street and co-founder of Sirius Thinking Ltd. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: When did you two first meet?

Norm Stiles: When I started at Sesame Street—I think it was the end of the second season, which was 1971.

Chris Cerf: I started in 1970. I was working on books, records, toys, and products. The writers of Sesame Street actually got to write the books, so I knew everybody on the writing staff. And I got to write songs pretty early, so I got to work with Norm and others on that very soon after getting here.

Beck: What was your day-to-day like at Sesame Street? Did you two collaborate often?

Norm: If we were writing songs, I would have an idea or some lyrics written down. A hook. And I’d say to Chris, “I have this idea for a song. Let’s go out to dinner.” We would go to Elaine’s, which was a show-business hangout. Elaine was particularly fond of writers, but it ended up being a pretty big celebrity hangout. Chris would have his trusty book. What do you call those books?

Chris Cerf on the set of a Sesame Street live performance. Judy Ross / Courtesy of Sesame Workshop.

Chris: Notebook. It’s a term I invented.

Norm: No, but it’s a particular—

Chris: Composition book.

Norm: Chris probably has a million of those.

Chris: I have one for every month back to 1972.

Norm: He puts in all his notes, all his receipts, every meeting he had.

Chris: As long as I don’t lose it, I can work on anything, and the notes are right in front.

Norm: Chris is an amazing poet and lyric writer, as well as being the person who wrote all the music. We would sit down together and try to come up with rhymes and a basic structure, and then Chris would go off and refine it, and write the music. And I’d get half the credit. It was wonderful!

Chris: Norm is being very modest. Norm came up with lyric hooks incredibly quickly. It took me days to do the same thing. For example, one of our most popular songs, I think, was called “Monster in the Mirror.” And Norm wrote “wubba wubba wubba wubba woo woo woo,” which is the only part that everyone remembers. All the other parts took, like, three weeks to write.

Norm: Also, I did add, “There’s a monster in the mirror, and it could be you.” I’m just saying it was much more elaborate than “wubba wubba wubba.”

This process is really what built our friendship, because we would sometimes go out to Elaine’s without having business to do.

Beck: What was the first thing you worked on together?

Norm: The first thing we worked on together was a book called The Amazing Mumford and His Amazing Subtracting Trick. He’s a magician on the show. The book involved Mumford and Grover doing a trick to make pineapples disappear. We showed, I think, five pineapples on the first page. Then we did cutouts so that every time he did his trick, you turned the page and a pineapple disappeared.

Jim Henson with the Muppet Little Chrissy. From the personal collection of Jim Henson.

Chris: But nobody figured out that if they were gonna print 100,000 copies, there would be something like two and a half million little pineapples on the ground when they punched them all out of the book. They cluttered up the printing press. It was a minor catastrophe.

Beck: What happened to all the pineapples?

Chris: Well, that’s the big question in the book. I have no idea.

Norm: And then the first song we wrote together was called “Exit,” which was sung by a Muppet called Little Chrissy—which was based on Chris. He had a Muppet character that had kind of an Afro of blond hair.

Chris: I had a lot of hair then. That was me singing and playing piano. Jim Henson actually puppeteered my little character. And Frank Oz was a big part of that first piece as well.

Norm: What that song really exemplifies about the show is that it was fun, and it had all this repetition of the word exit, which is what we were trying to teach. It not only taught the word, but it taught the meaning of the word in a funny way. That was all by design that the room emptied out.

Chris: I was the guy who couldn’t figure out how to get out of the room at the end of the song. I didn’t listen to my own lyrics, I guess.

Norm: I think the songs were also fun for parents at the same time that they were fun for kids.

Chris: But the rule was you should never go over the heads of the kids. Anything that appealed to adults had to either appeal to the kids too or be something that they didn’t need to know.

Norm: They might not get the adult joke, but it wouldn’t stop them from enjoying the piece or laughing at something else.

Beck: So if you were writing a song, would the origins be some idea or lesson that you were trying to teach in that episode? Or was it ever like, “We just have this funny idea and let’s see how it fits in”?

Chris: At the beginning of every season, there would be meetings with writers, researchers, and educators, and we would talk about the goals that were going to be emphasized in the next year. The writers at Sesame Street weren’t really supposed to set the curriculum. And the educators weren’t supposed to write the material. Almost always, [our ideas] came from the curriculum somewhere.

If somebody says, “We need a song about the letter j, and we don’t have enough songs for Cookie Monster, and reggae is really popular now,” that’s a lot easier than to say, “Go write something, whatever you want, and bring it in tomorrow.”

Beck: Were you involved in performing the songs or being on set when they were being filmed?

Norm: Chris often was at the recording session.

Chris: Almost always. Because I played piano on quite a few of them, on the rock-and-roll ones. I’m really good at banging. In fact, I broke so many pianos in the studio over the years that they began to have my character Muppet on the show break pianos too.

Beck: Oh, I remember that!

Norm: I would also be at the Muppet tapings, but not all the time. I was more often than not in the office, reading scripts and things. We had one experience where we had received a number of complaints about a song that Chris wrote for an animation.

Chris: It was a song that was supposed to teach the idea of zero. We came up with the idea that we would teach subtraction too. We thought it would be fun to show different animals. A rabbit would have three carrots, and two, one, and finally zero after the rabbit ate them all. And the animation ended with a goat eating sneakers. That was our big joke. It ended with no sneakers left. But that was not the end of the story, Norm.

Norm: No. The executive producer at the time began getting letters from the American Dairy Goat Association complaining that goats don’t eat things like sneakers. They eat healthy food. So this is misinformation, and they wanted this animation taken off the air.

Chris: We ignored these letters for a while. But then came a letter from a senator, saying that our funding would be in jeopardy unless we stopped slandering dairy goats.

Norm: This was around the time that Chris and I took a research trip down to Florida. We were at Busch Gardens, in the children’s zoo. We decided to ask one of the zoo attendants about goats and what they eat. Chris actually posed the question: “Will goats eat things like sneakers?” And the attendant said, “If you don’t feed them and they’re hungry, they will eat anything, like sneakers.” And at that moment a goat walked over and started nibbling on Chris’s sneakers.

I don’t know if the curriculum of Sesame Street influenced me, but I like to think it did. There was a part of the curriculum at the time that was about being able to understand somebody else’s perspective. I thought, What’s going on with the Dairy Goat Association? They’re trying to sell their cheese. They don’t want people to think goats eat stuff like this. So that’s what this is about.

So I thought, I know what we’ll do. We’ll have an editorial reply from an angry dairy goat, a puppet, that will follow and be attached to the animation forever. That’s what we did. We had a dairy goat who came on, complaining that dairy goats do not eat sneakers! “We eat healthy foods like grasses and corn. I repeat, we do not eat sneakers!” At that point, another puppet goat comes in and says, “Are you gonna eat those sneakers?” He says, “Certainly not!” She says, “Mm, good!” And she starts to chew on them and says, “I’m glad I’m not a dairy goat!”

Chris: We never heard from the Dairy Goat Association again.

Norm: We also got complaints about the Count, who I conceived. Some people wrote in and thought that he was the agent of the devil. Because he was based on Bela Lugosi [the actor who played Count Dracula], even though he wasn’t a vampire.

Chris: Of course, Bela Lugosi was the devil.

Sheet music for “Put Down the Duckie.” Courtesy of Chris Cerf.

Beck: It would be remiss of me not to ask about what the people are most clamoring to hear. Can you tell me the story about how you wrote “Put Down the Duckie”?

Norm: Every once in a while, I would go have a vodka on the rocks all by myself.

Beck: Great origin.

Norm: I think I was at a restaurant on West 79th Street. For some reason, the thought Put down the duckie came to mind. The hook came to me at that point, and I remember thinking we had never done a big-band kind of thing. I thought that might be nice.

Chris: I recall, Norm, that whatever led to that was influenced by something in the curriculum, which was that sometimes in order to accomplish something, you had to stop doing something else. That was one of the problem-solving goals, to teach kids that you could put something aside and later on you could pick it up again.

Norm: Ernie has a problem because he’s hearing this silly squeak. And he’s trying to play the saxophone. It’s letting go of something that you really care about in order to do something else. I always felt that there were more adult messages embedded in some of the work that we did.

Chris: I think probably what made that song so popular was an idea that Norm and I first had. We thought it would be fun if a whole bunch of celebrities sang “Put Down the Duckie,” very much the way celebrities sang “We Are the World,” which was coming out at that time. But that seemed like an impossible dream.

Jon Stone, the really brilliant creator of Sesame, said, “Well, are you a patient guy?” I said, “Why do you ask?” And he said, “What if we asked each celebrity who came on the show for the next couple of years to sing one line of this song? Within a couple of years, we’ll have an all-star piece.” And that’s exactly what happened. Everybody sang a different line in the song, and then Jon edited it all together.

The thrill for me, among many, was that a lot of people who I absolutely idolized were in that song. Like Paul Simon, and Keith Hernandez, who was a New York Mets star at the time. I’ve run into him several times in recent years, and he always says, “Put down the duckie!” without even saying hello.

Norm: I was in the studio when Paul Simon came to do this. And also in the studio that day was Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a chill the way I got a chill when they went into an a cappella version of “Put Down the Duckie.” It was just thrilling.

Beck: Do you guys have a favorite song that you wrote together?

Norm: One of my favorite songs we wrote together is a country song that Cookie Monster sang, called “Handful of Crumbs.” Because it’s got such a deep message.

Chris: His cookie crumbled in his hand.

Norm [singing]: “Me cookie, it crumbled. Me broke it last night.”

Chris: And then he cries about how all he has left is a handful of crumbs. Then he opens his hand up. One of the saddest moments.

Norm [singing]: “Oh, what me gonna do with a handful of crumbs?”

Chris: It was to teach sadness and that you get over it.

Norm: And he ends up eating the crumbs because that does solve the problem.

Chris: I think probably my favorite, other than the famous ones, is a song called “Dance Myself to Sleep.” It was a song in which Ernie has a method of falling asleep, which is to get up and dance and blow the bugle and invite sheep into his bedroom to dance with him. And, of course, Bert is trying to get to sleep this whole time and can’t because of all the noise Ernie’s making.
It’s also a great performance by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. If these songs had not all been performed by the Muppets, probably no one would care about them. You have these geniuses performing things that you write and making them 10 times funnier than they would’ve been otherwise.

Norm: There’s one more that I also just love. It’s “Do De Duckie.” It’s a ska-reggae piece. And it’s got our favorite rhyme in it, maybe of all time.

Chris: You mean “All around the woild, whenever folks get soiled”?

Norm: Yes.

Chris: There were complaints about that song because it had all the Muppets taking a bath together. People wrote in and thought it was offensive.

Beck: When did you leave Sesame Street? Where did you go from there?

Norm: Every once in a while during those dinners at Elaine’s, after a number of years of working at Sesame Street, we talked about, well, what’s the next thing? Can we do something else? We came up with the idea to do a show to teach reading. That’s where Between the Lions was born.

Chris: And that ran on PBS for 10 seasons. We’re very proud of that. And now we’re working on using that in schools.

Norm: Between the Lions, I have to say, is one of Chris’s classic puns. The show is set in a library. It’s run by a family of lions, and it’s designed to teach beginning reading to kids who are a little bit older than Sesame Street. We said, “What are we gonna call this show? It’s gonna be set in a library.” And Chris said, “Well, of course, Between the Lions.” And we said, “Well, that’s cause for another martini.”

Beck: Did you have music in that show as well?

Norm: Oh, yeah.

Chris: A lot of the same people who wrote for Sesame wrote songs and scripts for that show. All of our friends. I continued to write songs for Sesame during that time too. But the show won 10 Emmy Awards, including Best Kids Show one year. Sesame usually beat us, but we beat Sesame one year! I felt both good and bad about that.

Norm with the Muppet Telly Monster on the set of the show. Charles Baum / Courtesy of Sesame Workshop.

Norm: At that Emmy Awards ceremony, when our name was announced, all of our friends at Sesame Street stood up and cheered for us.

Chris: That’s also because they were among the winners, because they wrote on our show.

Norm: Yeah, well, I choose to believe that they were just happy for us. It was like a family. It’s been said before about show business, but we really had dear, dear people working with us.

Chris: People who wanted to change the world as well as have fun writing. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have done what I’ve been able to do, with the people I’ve been able to do it with. Like this guy sitting here.

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