Last year, when Sesame Street: Old School 1969-1974 came out on DVD, everybody made fun of the disclaimer. Before the first digitally remastered episode, a cartoon character comes out and cheerily announces, “Welcome to Sesame Street Nostalgia. I am Bob, your host, and I want you to know that these early 'Sesame Street' episodes are intended for grown-ups and may not meet the needs of today's preschool child." It was an easy punch line for a lot of us deadline types—ha, ha, look how ridiculously overprotective and wussy our society has become! These days, even Sesame Street needs a disclaimer!
Well, after seeing Avenue Q last night at the State Theatre—the blockbuster, Tony-winning, dirty Muppet Broadway musical created in 2003 by two Sesame devotees and Muppeteered by many Sesame alum—I just have to say, once again, “Thanks a lot, Mom.”
As everybody else in my generation believes, and as Avenue Q abundantly reaffirmed last night, it’s my parents’ fault that my life sucks. Sure, they didn’t have access to a disclaimer back in the mid-seventies when they abandoned me to Sesame Street’s electronic guardianship three hours a day. But they were supposed to be my personal cops, serving and protecting me, right? They should’ve realized the long-term repercussions of consuming so many overly optimistic, Muppet-performed song-and-dance numbers sponsored by the letter T. I mean, talk about negligence! I wish they had some money leftover after putting me through school, so I could sue.
Avenue Q should be required viewing for every Sesame casualty like me. Its cynical song cycle—from “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” to “The Internet is for Porn” to “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” to “There’s a Fine, Fine Line (Between Love and a Waste of Time)” exposes every chipper lie we’ve ever been told, from cradle to quarter-life crisis. It’s the perfect squirm-inducing soundtrack to our lives.
Avenue Q’s creators, Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez, have gone on record over and over again saying that Avenue Q is a love letter to their favorite childhood program, with clear parallels between the Sesame and Q casts: Sesame had Gordon and Maria, Q has Brian and Christmas Eve; Sesame had Burt and Ernie, Q has Rod and Nick; Sesame had Cookie Monster, Q has Trekkie Monster. But a love letter? If that’s the case, I would hate to read hate mail from these dudes. Because it seems to me that it’s pure exposé when a Muppet sings—in that strangled falsetto that all Muppets seem to possess (one of the fascinations of Avenue Q is watching the actors and actresses operating the Muppets throw their Muppet voices)—, poison-pen lines, such as this one from the big opening number, “It Sucks to be Me.”
“When I was little/I thought I would be/A big comedian on late night TV/But now I’m thirty-two/And as you can see/I’m not/Oh well/It sucks to be me.”
For our generation, Sesame Street was the first big lie. “You’re special!” turns out to be way more embittering than “There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” And they haven’t stopped telling us “You’re special!” yet; sold to us over and over again, in that very-PR, very-PC, shiny, happy, Sesame Street way—the way everything sounds these days. It’s the tone of our society, served everywhere from the commercials during Lost to the counter at Starbucks. And it’s bulls**t. No wonder this show tanked in Vegas.
Look, I hate to sound like a whiner, but clearly, it’s not my fault. We are the most selfish and least resilient generation ever—commitment-phobic while at the same time insufferably entitled—and Avenue Q points out exactly why. The second act of the play doesn’t work as well as the first, probably because it tries to offer myriad solutions for this situation (e.g., “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” “Schadenfreude,” and “Everything in Life is Only for Now”) when there really isn’t one. It’s too late to avoid these delayed and un-disclaimed growing pains now—we just have to suck it up upon being diagnosed as “adult.”
The latest New Yorker has set me off on the second major Raymond Carver kick in my life. Carver was no Big Bird. No Elmo. Maybe a little Oscar, though. He was writing during the same time Sesame Street was blowing up, before succumbing to lung cancer in 1984. Carver’s short stories are these heartbreaking little masterpieces that show how hard it is to communicate with others and how we usually don’t get what we want—whether it’s that job, or that girl, or that peace. His stories are full of grown men and women who have learned, the hard way, that a purpose remains elusive, usually bitterly so, and we self-medicate in order to temper the pain of our existential illness as it metastasizes. Although, unlike Sesame, it was certainly never his intent to instruct, Carver’s stories are instructive, if only in their brutal honesty. He seems to be saying: It has always sucked to be us.
He would’ve loved Avenue Q.