On Mixing Fantasy with Real Life, A Lesson from Sesame Street (#WritingWednesdays)

writing_wednesdaysThis is the latest in a series called “Writing Wednesdays,” focusing on writing resources from the common to the unusual. This one is perhaps a little unusual.

For work I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000). It’s been on my to-read list for a decade or so, and I am now at a point where I have to predict a tipping point moment, so I have an excuse to pick it up.

Gladwell’s über-bestseller is like a self-help guide to social engineering. It predicted (or helped create?) the viral, memetic atmosphere of the Twitterverse we now live in, where youtube videos spread like medieval plagues. It’s a bit creepy, really.

One of Gladwell’s case studies in “The Stickiness Factor” is Sesame Street. First filmed in the Summer of ’69, Sesame Street was to be a different kind of show on two fronts. First, it was launched as an intervention in early childhood literacy. The brains behind Sesame Street wanted a preschool education device that almost everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. C.S. Lewis once observed a child who was enthralled at being read to. The boy had grown up in a household starved of imagination: “Not a fairy tale nor a nursery rhyme.” Too many kids in America were experiencing this imaginative malnutrition, and waiting until the child got to school wasn’t enough.

By the late 1960s, televisions were in most homes, and had begun to be daily companions even in the poorest of communities. So, armed with a goal, the Children’s Television Workshop did the second surprising thing: they hired a leading University researcher to help them out. Psychologist Ed Palmer provided “The Stickiness Factor” for the Sesame Street team. He did research into what children were actually interested in. He began playing television shows for kids in a room with great toys, and noting when kids would watch TV and when they went to their toys. Over time, they developed a way to test Sesame Street segments to determine when kids were paying attention and when they weren’t.

As they did this research, they discovered that they had to leave behind much of what they knew about television from their work on adult shows. They discovered that children like short, tight segments—not a big surprise. But in adult television, producers used confusion and rapid talking to create a sense of excitement on screen. When this happened in initial tests, kids tuned out. Slow, deliberate, expressive, friendly, supportive conversation was what kids want. That’s what I remember still of Sesame Street when I was growing up.

But when I think of Sesame Street, I also think of the Muppets, especially Super Grover (and the Near/Far skit), Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird, and Snuffleupagus. Intriguingly, these stock characters almost never happened.

Because they were a research-based show, the Workshop was in conversation with child psychologists. And these experts had warned about creating pretty clear spaces between the imaginary world and the fantastic. Gladwell explains:

“The problem was that when the show was originally conceived, the decision was made that all fantasy elements of the show be separated from the real elements. This was done at the insistence of many child psychologists, who felt that to mix fantasy and reality would be misleading to children. The Muppets, then, were only seen with other Muppets, and the scenes filmed on Sesame Street itself involved only real adults and children” (The Tipping Point, 105).

Dr. Palmer encouraged the Sesame team to produce five shows and play them for children on that sultry summer of 1969. It was so hot that kids were distracted, and there were better things to talk about—like the first time humanity stepped on the moon. The Sesame Street team were crushed by the results of the focus group.

What Palmer found out in Philadelphia, though, was that as soon as they switched to the street scenes, the kids lost all interest. “The street was supposed to be the glue,” Lesser said. “We would always come back to the street. It pulled the show together. But it was just adults doing things and talking about stuff and the kids weren’t interested. We were getting incredibly low attention levels. The kids were leaving the show. Levels would pop back up if the Muppets came back, but we couldn’t afford to keep losing them like that” (105-106).

It was deadly news for the producers and writers, and Sesame Street teetered on the edge of imagination and reality.

Fortunately, The Children’s Television Workshop was responsive, filled with researchers of the very best kind. They changed the show rather than sticking with Plan A. It was a “turning point in the history of Sesame Street” (106). It was a few weeks until broadcast, and they had to figure out what to do.

Intriguingly, Dr. Ed Palmer decided to write to his colleagues and explain why they were going to ignore the device of the best developmental psychologists.

Henson and his coworkers created puppets who could walk and talk with the adults of the show and could live alongside them on the street. “That’s when Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and Snuffleupagus were born,” said Palmer. What we now think of as the essence of Sesame Street — the artful blend of fluffy monsters and earnest adults — grew out of a desperate desire to be sticky (106).

So the best parts of Sesame Street were Plan B, it seems.

Should we be surprised by the discovery that children are not emotionally scarred by mixing fantasy and realism? Leave aside the fact that any parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, sibling, friend, teacher, principal, daycare worker, Sunday School teacher, or cab driver who has spent eight minutes with a real live child knows that children live in a blend of fantasy and real life. Let’s set that aside.

Most of us who are writers will not be surprised at all for two connected reasons.

The first is that fantasy writers know only too well the limits that non-fantasy critics have in understanding the genre of fantasy literature.

This is not a new phenomenon. J.R.R. Tolkien’s lecture series “On Fairy Tales” has a subtly defensive posture. C.S. Lewis isn’t subtle at all, and defends the use of fairy tale and fantasy in essays like, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” and “On 3 Ways of Writing for Children.” In that last essay—a classic that is reprinted often—Lewis has to remind readers that children will fantasize about real life things, hoping in school popularity that will never happen. They are unlikely to be emotionally scarred if they never take to the mountains to slay a murderous würme or recover a lost phoenix feather. Even as late as 1992, Brian Attebery has to take an entire chapter to answer the question, “Is Fantasy Literature?” (Strategies of Fantasy, ch. 2).

Of Other Worlds by CS LewisFantasy writers know the reality of literary ghettoization as much as anyone, so it is no surprise that developmental psychologists in the 1960s miss the essential element in fantasy that makes imaginative stories the first that children relish and enjoy: we love the fantastic. It sounds too basic, but so many miss this point. We love imagining that the threshold between Main Street and Fairyland is only a millimetre thick. We love the sense of the possible, the haunting tug of the liminal, the mystery of around the bend. By “we,” I mean both me and that preschooler down the block.

Lewis confirms this point in a letter to author Dorothy L. Sayers on Dec 6, 1945. Sayers had written with pleasure at her reading of his That Hideous Strength. Lewis wrote back with thanks, commenting that he was butchered by reviewers. His comment is intriguing:

Apparently reviewers will not tolerate a mixture of the realistic and the supernatural. Which is a pity, because (a) It’s just the mixture I like, and (b) We have to put
up with it in real life.

The second reason we aren’t surprised by the segregation between fantasy and realism is something pretty simple. The fairy tales we grew up on have for us an Otherworld quality that they didn’t have when they first appeared. Here C.S. Lewis explains. In his preface to the peculiar, dark apocalyptic fantasy, That Hideous Strength (1945), Lewis prepares his reader:

“I have called this a ‘fairy tale’ in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled first two chapters into reading further, and then complain of his disappointment. If you ask why—intending to write about magicians, devils, pantomime animals, and planetary angels, I nevertheless begin with such humdrum scenes and persons—reply that I am following the traditional fairy-tale. We do not always notice its method because the cottages, castles, woodcutters, and petty kings with which a fairy-tale opens have become to us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it proceeds. But they were not remote at all to the men who made and first enjoyed the stories. They were indeed more realistic or common place than Bracton College is to me: for many German peasants had actually met cruel stepmothers, whereas I have never, in any university, come across a college like Bracton” (7).

That Hideous Strength by CS LewisChildren’s stories have always blended the fantastic with real life. It is the core definition of the fairy tale. I know that for us the “wood” is a kind of faërie world separate from our everyday reality. Prue discovers this in Wildwood when she is forced to enter The Impassable Wilderness. But remember that most of us before the last century grew up with the forest in our back yard. The temenos—the threshold between us and faërie—was never very thick. It is only in the modern world that the wilderness becomes impassable, and thus the fantastic must be relegated to this or that shelf at the bookstore.

Urban fantasy and magic realism are challenging some of these notions, and Harry Potter has taught us to look more carefully at the mismatched bricks in city shops. But some of the old prejudices remain.

All of this is to remind us as writers what we already know. We don’t need Sesame Street research, or even the corrective tones of Lewis or Tolkien, to tell us what the value of the imaginative really is. The realism in writing situates our readers; the fantastic displaces them. Until we can get readers to tilt their heads a little at the hometown or backyard or cubicle they know so well, we can never get them to cross the threshold into whatever fantasyland we are creating. What we do when they get there is world-builder’s craft; how they return is the storyteller’s great challenge.

A case of muppet abuse:

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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14 Responses to On Mixing Fantasy with Real Life, A Lesson from Sesame Street (#WritingWednesdays)

  1. jubilare says:

    “we know live in” Now live in? By the way, do you appreciate people pointing out typos, or does it annoy you? Because if the latter is true, I will stop.

    Yes, and a thousand times yes to this. It’s comforting to be periodically reminded that I am not alone in wondering how and why so many people seem to miss what seems so obvious to me and to others about the intersection of fantasy and reality. How and why do these misunderstandings arise?

    Also, death by raging stuffed animals… muahahaha!


  2. robstroud says:

    Great essay. Now, what would they say about kids who tuned out the muppets and only paid attention to the interaction between the humans..?


  3. Wonderful post! It’s always surprising when you meet people who think so little of the imagination, but they’re out there, and the defensiveness of Tolkien and Lewis is still needed!


  4. L. Palmer says:

    First, life is far more fun when mixing fantasy with reality.
    Second, Sesame Street’s Muppets key into the power of the imagination. I think, with that creativity unlocked, far more is possible. I believe in the fine art of not even realizing you are learning. That’s how I’ve always tried to teach – bring in fun things, but have the facts and information secretly at the core.


    • I think we should consider this designation, “more fun,” more seriously. It seems to me that in social life today, the most important thing is economic efficiency. It’s hard to imagine me taking to my bosses an economic plan that was “more fun,” but it might be worth a try. There’s a lot of value there.


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