Over 50 years, Sesame Street takes on serious adult issues

Sesame Street debuted 50 years ago, and it’s still going strong, reaching more than 100 million children worldwide. 

Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie and the other muppets have been teaching kids letters and numbers, but also real adult problems. That includes death, homelessness, HIV, and racism.

NPR’s TV critic Eric Deggans says, “To have a kids’ show that was focused on an urban setting, with a multiracial cast, in an environment where they were talking about real things…it was just a more real environment for children who lived in a very real environment.”

He adds that the show’s 1969 debut came at a significant time. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The Vietnam War reached its height. Cities struggled over civil rights issues, and urban riots erupted. 

“Along comes this show that is centered on racial harmony, and that is teaching kids that it’s a wonderful thing for people of all different kinds of colors -- not just black and white, but purple, and yellow, and orange, and blue -- to play together,” Deggans says. “It seems like that was a message that was sorely needed at the time, and is sorely needed now. And I think that’s one reason why the show’s endured.”