Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street is TV Guide writer Michael Davis's book that chronicles the complete history of the show that pioneered educational television. I grew up on the program (who in the US didn't!?) and I'm now watching the new episodes with my own son, and the old ones thanks to the DVD reissue. But I realize that I know next to nothing about how the Street got paved. From CNN:
 Images I 51Wahk3U-0L "The idea they came up with was kind of radical: If you can sell kids sugared cereal and toys using Madison Avenue techniques, why couldn't you use the same techniques for teaching counting, the alphabet and basic social skills? And it works," (says Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson.)

Indeed, as Davis notes in "Street Gang" (Viking), the genesis of "Sesame Street" was when the 3-year-old daughter of a Carnegie foundation executive was fascinated by television, waking up to watch the broadcast day begin and memorizing commercial jingles. He talked about his daughter with a friend, producer Joan Ganz Cooney. In the liberal ferment of the mid-'60s, both wondered whether educational TV could go beyond the staid classroom shows of the era.

Cooney became the driving force of "Sesame Street." She put together the plan, helped recruit talent, located financing and oversaw production...

Cooney didn't hold much back in telling her story to Davis, and neither did others. From its debut on November 10, 1969, the show was a hit -- within a year, it was on the cover of Time magazine -- but it was not without its personality clashes.

The original Gordon, Matt Robinson, was a producer uncomfortable in the spotlight. Northern Calloway, who played David, struggled with mental illness. The show's primary songwriters, Joe Raposo and Jeff Moss, were constantly in competition; Raposo "fairly seethed with envy" when Moss' "Rubber Duckie" hit the Top 20, Davis writes. The book provides balanced biographies of a number of principals, including producer Jon Stone, whom Davis calls "the heart of the book."
Buy "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street" (, "How Do You Get To Sesame Street?" (, Street Gang web site (


  1. If you were raised on TV like me and don’t have the attention span to read this book (LOL reading), I’ve also seen a few short documentaries on the history of Sesame Street.

    My favorite is the A&E Biography one, which plays every few months in the wee hours and your Tivo can pickup if you set it to search for ‘Sesame’ and ‘Documentary’.

  2. As a compulsive proofreader, I just can’t let the headline alone without comment.

    “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street Street” ?

    As you were.

  3. The Sesame Street – Old School, Vol. 2 (1974-1979) DVD ends just as I started watching. I hope they’re planning a 3rd volume

  4. I remember visiting Sesame Place in Longhorn, PA when I was a kid. That’ place was awesome, except that I was disturbed to find Oscar’s trash can was empty.

  5. I can’t honestly claim to remember watching Sesame Street for the first time, but I do remember the reaction of the kids in my second grade class the next day.

    We were all acutely aware that we were a couple of years older than the show’s demographic. We also all thoroughly loved the show.

    So we prefaced our enthusiastic descriptions of the cookie monster and cake guy (Jim Hensen) tumbling downstairs with an almost identical excuse: “Yeah, well, my mom wanted my little brother to watch it, so I had to watch it too.”

  6. I picked this book up the other day and flipped through it, and then went looking for reviews on Amazon. Many people seem to have enjoyed it, but I was struck by a critique from “Tina Twice” which argued that the book focused on the less interesting side of the Sesame Street story. Here’s a bit of what she said:

    “….So what IS included in “Street Gang”? Davis spends much of the book answering questions that even the biggest Sesame Street fan would never think to ask. While the conception of “Sesame Street” makes for an interesting story, Davis bogs down the narrative in the first half of his book by introducing comprehensive mini-bios of every government bureaucrat and PR lackey that worked on the show during its formative years. That’s nearly the entire first half of the book. The second half of the book shifts its focus to the talents that made Sesame Street worthy of attention in the first place, but while this section of the book makes for a fairly entertaining read, one comes away with very little insight into the way the creative life of Sesame Street functions apart from the bureaucracy that runs the show.

    The most damaging omission in the book is an absence of meaningful analysis regarding the lasting influence – or lack thereof – that Sesame Street has had on children’s entertainment. While Davis has a lot to say about how early educational television influenced Sesame Street (though he excludes Mr. Rogers from this discussion entirely!) he has virtually nothing to say about how Sesame Street influenced children’s television in the 21st century. We are told that the game changed with Barney, but that’s about as far as it goes….”

  7. I still remember the morning when my daughter burst into our bedroom, shouting “Daddy! Daddy! My pillow — it’s a rectangle!”

  8. There is a ton of great children’s programming out there but access is a big issue. All kids (of all ages) should be able to see Sesame Street and the modern incarnations like Little Bill and Wonder Pets and Blue’s Clues, Dora, Diego, etc. Those shows should be available in every home without needing to buy a big screen tv or premium cable. I think the government should be bailing out public television instead of wall street. blah, blah, blah.

    I’d also really like to see better availability of children’s books… the ones that tie into these shows, as well as a ton of other kids’ books that are now out of print. How about a little stimulus money toward establishing a publishing entity that produces low cost high quality print media and distributes it at very low cost through schools, grocery stores, doctors’ offices, etc.

  9. Here’s a second order effect of Sesame Street. The mother of a couple of men I know well told me (around 1990) that she didn’t let her sons (born in the late 1960s) watch it when they were young. The family was white and socially conservative, living on Army bases or in working-class Catholic neighborhoods in the northeast. She said she “didn’t like having her boys starting to talk like they lived in some ghetto. [She} worked hard to raise them better than that.” She didn’t *explicitly* say she was uncomfortable having her impressionable preschoolers watch a happily idealized community with any racial integration at all. I just picked it up from context.

    I didn’t meet her sons until they were both in grad school, and were reasonably enlightened. By that time, even their mother had learned a thing or two. Sesame Street taught literacy in quick and measurable ways. They tried to teach values, but teaching that sort of thing is intrinsically slower…kids who watched Sesame Street weren’t old enough to have an impact when Boston had so much trouble coping with school integration in 1975. But what effect is it having now?


  10. Funny, even though I was age 6 when it first appeared, I felt Sesame Street was for little kids. Too busy watching Julius Sumner Miller. “Why is it so?”

  11. Just in case anyone’s interested, a few years ago I picked up a book called “Sesame Street: Unpaved.” Although probably not as insightful as “Street Gang”, it was a ton of fun, with some weird facts, as well as the words to many of the songs and a brief history of the show.

    Did YOU know that Grover is a libra?

  12. The author of this book was on Dallas/Fort Worth’s local NPR station, KERA 90.1 discussing this book with Chris Boyd on Think. Very fascinating discussion.

  13. chasie “Too busy watching Julius Sumner Miller. ‘Why is it so?'”
    On The Hilarious House of Frightenstein?
    Ah…the memories. Much like Spongebob, it was a show that both young children and their older, stoned brothers could watch. (My favourite: When The Grammar Slammer, with the assistance of Bammer, punished Igor for poor grammar. Catching this bit is remarkably easy. Like virtually all the skits on the show, it happened every…single…episode. Then a gorilla would get hit in the head with a golf ball)

  14. I’ve almost finished this book, and it’s really quite marvelous. One fascinating aspect is the dissection of how the creation of the show involved both data (they had a setup for testing how compelling various ideas actually were to young children) and raw instinctual talent (the show was largely cast on the gut instincts of Jon Stone). It really covers well the combination of luck, drive, talent, and skill it takes to make something really new.

    Plus, I’d never realized that Easy Reader (on The Electric Company) was played by a young Morgan Freeman. Out-a-sight!

  15. the key to sesame street’s success was one word: muppets! the educational ideas though new at the time, are fairly obvious in retrospect. jim henson’s genious is was what made the show a classic. today, the street is a pale shadow of it’s former self. elmo is an embarrassment. with the exception of word world (which is brilliant), pbs’s children’s programming is pathetic. nostalgia aside, if you want to see what’s happening in preschoolers tv, tune into noggin on cable.

    full disclosure: i worked briefly as a technician on sesame street in the mid ’80’s and i have a 3 year old.

  16. Those were the days. Waking up, running into the living room to turn on the TV so we could catch the opening song. SUNNY DAY,SWEEPING THE CLOUDS AWAY!…
    Oh man!
    I remember all my favorite PBS shows. The Electric Company, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Reading Rainbow, and the art show with the funny looking bald guy with glasses (think it was Let’s Draw). He’s the whole reason I chose my profession. And what about all the actors and actresses who filtered their way through public television? Morgan Freeman, LeVar Burton, Rita Moreno, and Bill Cosby to name a few.
    The stuff they put out today can’t compare.

Comments are closed.