Nestled in the heart of New York City is the fictional community of Sesame Street: a cultural melting pot where human and felt-skinned citizens come together to sing the praises of rudimentary math and reading skills. Unfortunately, in the chaos of the more warmblooded residents trying to keep pace with their Muppet neighbors’ excessive enthusiasm over learning to count and spell, the television program’s true yet unsung heroes go sorely unnoticed. Born of ink, paint or other artistic mediums, Sesame Street’s animated denizens are the workhorses of the series, their segments filling in the voids between those of their corporeal counterparts for the past 44 years. There were many animated characters to be had, but very few were recurring fixtures or charismatic enough to ride the nostalgia wave of one appearance. It’s time to give some credit where credit is due with eight of the best.
8) Sign Man
Sign Man resides in a dystopian world not to far removed from our own, one in which horrendous typos are of the norm and remain unchanged. Suffice it to say that he lives in a Grammar Nazi’s very description of Hell. Outwardly rebelling against his society’s flippant disregard for proper spelling, Sign Man relied on his inhuman ability to bend the fabric of reality and alter the letters of the word itself, standing back to admire his godlike handiwork. We haven’t seen much of the guy in Sesame Street’s more recent years, but that isn’t to say Sign Man’s editorial skills wouldn’t be of use in modern times, especially given the practical slaughter of the English language thanks in part to the Internet. With him in charge, the worldwide web would be a more peaceful, well-spoken place.
7) The Bellhop
He may have had very poor short-term memory, been mathematically challenged and unable to perform more than one task at the same time, but the Bellhop was able to keep the five-star hotel he called his place of work humming, typically at the cost of self-injury or pissing off the guests as a result of his sheer clumsiness. It was a thankless occupation to say the least, yet the Bellhop maintained his being the living embodiment of the adage “carpe diem.” To be fair, though, he may be keeping up with the chipper pretense for the sake of his job, as the cartoon’s overall design suggests that the Bellhop’s trials and tribulations take place during 1930s America – a time when the economy swan-dived straight into the shitter. So of course anybody would be grateful to have some shred of employment, even if it involves hauling people’s luggage around like a pack mule and getting beaten by fat children with disciplinary problems.
6) The King of Eight
The King of Eight appeared in only one animated segment on Sesame Street – there’s only so many things Jim Henson could have done with the number eight – yet he has proven to be one of the most iconic animated characters in the series’ run. Nevertheless, the segment’s fairy-tale whimsy clouds its subtextual commentary on medieval tyranny. According to the King of Eight, everything must be eight in accordance with his deranged fetish for the number in question. With a tenuous defense composed of eight knights and, we can only assume, entire villages of peasants fed up living under the thumb of a madman, the Kingdom of Eight is ripe for conquest or bloody social upheaval, whichever of the two happens to come first. Even worse is imagining what he has planned for his wife and unwanted daughter number nine (the venomous disdain is unnervingly palpable in the king’s voice). They’ll likely be locked away within the Tower of Eight as punishment for failing to recognize that eight is great, if the king does say so himself (hey, there’s a reason this very list is the length it is).
5) The Bridgekeeper
In spite of more conventional and less hazardous structures designed to span across gaping chasms, the Bridgekeeper hasn’t let modern design stop him from judging whether one is worthy of gaining access to his shaky rope bridge; really, it screams lawsuit waiting to happen. While most in his line of work would ask for monetary payment or quiz them on their expertise of swallow aerodynamics, the Bridgekeeper asks – nay, commands – that prospective travelers identify shapes of his choosing. It’s by no means a difficult task as anyone, including drunken slobs delivering groceries (what grocery store chain even considers setting up shop in what can only be described as Mordor?) proves more than capable of meeting the Bridgekeeper’s expectations. Throwing in another relevant Lord of the Rings joke for good measure, Gandalf should have distracted the Balrog by asking him to identify a complex shape like, say, a rhombus. That’s a ten minute window of opportunity to run right there.
4) Batman and Robin
The Electric Company may pride itself as counting a mute Spider-Man among its various guest stars, but Sesame Street gets the bragging rights for having both Batman and Robin appear in two segments a few years before Spidey’s edutainment debut. Plus, the Dynamic Duo were capable of speech, so that really does have to count for something. Since Sesame Street was a series geared toward preschoolers, there was no way in hell the network censors at PBS were going to allow Batman and Robin to break the jaws and shatter the bones of perps, so this forced the people behind the segments to get creative, even though the end result was still pretty violent. In one such segment, Batman schools Robin on different prepositions… by knocking a criminal out cold with a well-aimed batarang to the head. In another, the Joker gets creamed by a car, goes flying into an open manhole and plummets – feet first – onto the hard concrete below. Logically, he shouldn’t even be walking – let alone alive – but, no, there he is standing upright and hauled off to Arkham with a new appreciation for traffic safety. In the next installment, Dr. Hugo Strange gives the kiddies at home a crash course in the varying degrees of human psychosis.
3) Billy Jo Jive
Like Batman and Robin, Billy Jo Jive – and his partner Smart Susie Sunset – were a borrowed intellectual property from a children’s book series of the same name by John Shearer. The first animated segment featuring the characters premiered roughly around the late ’70s, during the waning days of the film industry’s blaxploitation era. Sesame Street, ever the pop culture savvy program that stays in step with the zeitgeist, wanted to stake their own claim in this dying trend by infusing the Billy Jo Jive sequences with the genre’s trademark flair that made each cartoon feel like a watered down version of Shaft – sans swearing, poontang and pumping lead into mobsters, naturally (though the swearing was considered until being dropped at the very last minute).
The adventures of Billy Jo Jive and Smart Susie Sunset ran well into the ’80s before being pulled entirely from Sesame Street after becoming obscure in the eyes of later generations. Makes sense, as anything past 2007 is lost on small children today, and perish the thought they learn anything about the culture of previous decades not in the school curriculum, am I right?
2) Teeny Little Super Guy
There are only two plausible reasons why the utensils and dinnerware in your kitchen would be moving around of their own volition. One, it’s a poltergeist and you seriously need to leave the house now before the walls start bleeding. Or two, it’s just the Teeny Little Super Guy traversing the great, wide world known by us non-food implement folk as the countertop. It’s likely that his gravelly-voiced, garbled nuggets of knowledge went over our heads back then – as a little impish man in a cup that isn’t tethered by the laws of the third dimension is beyond distracting – but watching them now, albeit with a sophisticated adult mind, Teeny Little Super Guy laid down some pretty straightforward life lessons that are every bit as relevant now as they were back in the ’80s (unless no one rides eggbeaters anymore, because then Sesame Street might have a slight audience resonation issue on its hands). Watching Teeny Little Super Guy and his friends glide around kitchen surfaces kind of makes us wish our collection of commemorative Star Wars glasses could become sentient and do the same…
1) The Typewriter
Compared to everyone else on this list, the Typewriter was an absolute hustler, having appeared in 26 segments that highlighted each letter of the alphabet throughout the 1970s. Even after his farewell performance teaching the audience at home about the letter of the day and its application in real world situations, each of the Typewriter’s segments peppered future episodes of Sesame Street going into 2004 — many years after the very piece of technology he was based on became obsolete in favor of computers and other digital platforms. And out of every possible animated character, he was the only one to have a recurring catchphrase, if “Noo-nee-noo-nee-noo” is considered valid. Not that it really matters, as he’s the undisputed king of Sesame Street cartoon characters. You’re not bowing. Damn it, why aren’t you bowing?!