How Sesame Street Made Me a Better Cinephile

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2015

Pathé Contemporary Films

This year, with a new documentary he directed, Christopher Nolan got a lot of props for helping to spread awareness of the Brothers Quay, animation legends who aren’t as well-known as they should be. But anyone who grew up on public television in the early 1990s might have already been familiar with the Quays’ work and just not known it. They made a short for Sesame Street back then titled Rain Dance, about a farming family and their livestock dancing during a much-needed downpour.

That short came a bit later than my days of watching the educational children’s program (fortunately I was introduced to the Quays soon after, during college), but there were plenty of great animators and other filmmakers who contributed to Sesame Street in my time. Some of the more famous names among them are Maurice Sendak, Friz Freleng, Mo Willems, William Wegman and Andy Warhol. And other shorts in the early ’90s include a few from John Lasseter and Pixar and a handful based on the art of Keith Haring.

I’ve been thinking about the show’s influence on my appreciation of film this week because I was just at the Dok Leipzig documentary festival, which celebrates the mixing of animation and nonfiction (they call such hybrids “animadocs”), and I caught a retrospective of old Hungarian shorts falling into that category, most of them produced by Gyorgy Matolcsy at Pannonia Film Studios, and they reminded me of stuff I’d seen on Sesame Street as a kid, only more avant-garde and sometimes more political.

Today is also PBS’s birthday, so it’s a perfect occasion to acknowledge the impact of their most famous program. And to wonder why there’s not more of an interest in experimental cinema and short films from most Americans who would have been raised on such works through Sesame Street. Is it akin to how adults in the US don’t necessarily have an appreciation for math? Are these shorts associated too much with education? Is there nothing for grown-ups to like about the films of John Korty?

Well, David Fincher started out working for Korty, who also directed the Oscar-winning documentary feature Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? And many other filmmakers who produced shorts for Sesame Street either had won or went on to win Academy Awards, or at least were nominated. Two of the greatest regular contributors to the show were Frank Mouris and Caroline Mouris, who made the famous Oscar-winning animated short Frank Film.

Another couple who worked together were John Hubley and Faith Hubley, who made a ton of letter-focused cartoons for Sesame Street from its first episode on. He had worked for Disney and then created Mr. Magoo before pairing up with his wife on three Oscar-winning shorts (Moonbird, The Hole and A Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature) and, made alongside (though not for) their PBS works, another four that were nominated. He was also the original director of Watership Down until he died during production.

There was also Paul Fierlinger, creator of the Teeny Little Super Guy shorts for Sesame Street and also an Oscar nominee for his animated short It’s So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House. He was especially known for making animadocs, too, including the Peabody Award-winning A Room Nearby, which he made with wife Sandra Fierlinger partly about fellow Czech filmmaker Milos Forman.

Other noteworthy names that you should know as veterans of Sesame Street with outside prestige include Bud Luckey, who did the show’s famous short The Ladybugs’ Picnic and much more before going to work for Pixar, where among his many achievements he received an Oscar nomination for the short Boundin’. And John R. Dilworth, creator of the Haring shorts and others, received an Oscar nomination for The Chicken from Outer Space.

There’s Eli Noyes, director of the Oscar nominee Clay and the Sesame Street shorts in the popular Number Painter series, who now also does animation for feature documentaries. His girlfriend and collaborator at the time, Claudia Weill, went on to co-direct the Oscar-nominated documentary The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir and direct live-action narrative features such as Girlfriends.

And John Canemaker worked on many pieces for the show before going on to win an Oscar for his autobiographical animated documentary short The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation. Of course, there’s also Muppets creator Jim Henson, who was instrumental in the development of Sesame Street and made a number of shorts for the show. He, too, had first been nominated for an Oscar, for his live-action experimental short, which he starred in, Time Piece.

The above make up only a small fraction of the talent that went into and came out of Sesame Street, and here I only focused on the animators – and then only ones who’ve proven through Academy recognition that they’re worthy of mention. But I think these are some of the reasons I grew up to love shorts, animation and experimental fiction and nonfiction.

There are surely other reasons to believe that Sesame Street helped many of us in our education and appreciation of cinema, such as the parodies of classic films and some of the guest stars (and in the case of documentary director Shola Lynch, helmer of Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, the child stars). So, you should never dismiss it, and if you want to expand your cinephilia, you may even want to revisit or check out some of the old episodes.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.