How to Get to 'Sesame Street'? These Days, It's by Video Conference

On a rainy afternoon recently, Ernie the Muppet was trying to get through to his roommate Bert.

How to Get to 'Sesame Street'? These Days, It's by Video Conference

Normally they would be together, side-by-orange-and-yellow-side. Not these days.

Peter Linz, the puppeteer who plays Ernie, the gleeful “Sesame Street” character, was in his small home office in Westchester County, New York, with the Muppet hoisted on his arm. He wore a headband with a mic around his forehead, and he peered into an ad hoc monitor set up on a music stand. Perched on a puppeteer’s dolly 3 feet off the ground, he called to his teenage son to be quiet before he hit record.

He did Ernie’s tee-hee giggle. Watching from a dozen screens around the country, a director, editor, producers, curriculum experts and other colleagues were all working at a distance — and furiously fast.

The newest “Sesame Street” special, “Elmo’s Playdate,” was taking shape. Debuting Tuesday, the special will feature Elmo having a virtual meetup with his Muppet pals and celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anne Hathaway.

“If Fallon and Colbert can do it, so can Elmo,” said Ben Lehmann, executive producer of “Sesame.”

As the COVID-19 crisis keeps billions around the world cocooned in their homes, children’s programming has been a salve — and a brief flare of sanity — for desperate caregivers. Screen time limits are fully out the window. When Disney Plus said it would release “Frozen 2” early, at the outset of the pandemic in the United States, the parental relief was almost palpable. Now, shows, channels and performers with a social message are starting to create content about the coronavirus, and the changes it has wrought for families.

Aside from news and late-night comedy, kids TV is just about the only live-action genre in production for broadcast right now. But self-taping with a puppet occupying (at least) one arm requires more than just dexterity.

“There are so many moving parts,” said Linz. “In the studio, you have a person who’s responsible for each one of those moving parts.”


At home, he did the camera, lights, sound and Muppet maintenance; he also had to find a spot that could convincingly double for Bert and Ernie’s apartment and position himself in such a way that Eric Jacobson, who plays Bert, could be edited into his frame later, from his own home shoot in Fairfield, Connecticut. They also realized that their smartphones were streaming video with a nearly one-second delay — enough to kill a Muppet joke riff.

“What we learned is, we have to jump on the end of each other’s lines,” Linz said. In a knock-knock joke, “I have to say ‘Who’s there?’ before the end of the second knock.”


What might have taken an afternoon at the Sesame studios in Queens took days to shoot remotely.

“It was a lot of work!” Lehmann, the producer, wrote in an email, as the special was being finished. “But everyone leaned into it. It’s the way Sesame Workshop has always responded to the most pressing needs of kids. We try to evolve as they do.”

The demand is apparent. Downloads of the PBS Kids video and game apps have increased 80% in the last three weeks — almost 1 million new downloads, said Lesli Rotenberg, chief programming executive and general manager of children’s media and education at PBS.

Streaming is up, too: In March, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” an animated spinoff of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for the hard-to-corral preschool set, had 56.4 million streams, a spokeswoman said, up 15% from the previous month. And about 70,000 people have signed up in the past month for a daily newsletter from PBS with tips for navigating the new normal.

“We’re thinking about it sort of in a Mister Rogers way, just in terms of preparing kids for what they’re going to see,” Rotenberg said. As Chris Loggins, supervising producer for “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” put it, they are following one of Fred Rogers’ guiding principles: “He would say, ‘What’s mentionable is manageable.’”

The enormity of the social and economic changes means educational TV is shifting into overdrive to explain them. In the U.S., “Elmo” will be simulcast in prime time Tuesday on PBSKids, HBO and all other WarnerMedia networks — a first for WarnerMedia. (The special will also air globally starting Wednesday, part of a larger COVID response effort; resources for families and providers can be found at

Nickelodeon, which last month launched #KidsTogether, an initiative to provide resources for home entertainment and learning, hosted a town hall to answer kids’ questions. An economics professor even weighed in about the safety of the supply chain. (Butts will be covered, she assured — no TP shortages.) Next up is a special on Noggin, a Nick offshoot, to help parents cope, too.

Many programs already had material that could be repurposed — about fighting germs, for example, or coping when routines are upended. “Daniel Tiger” resurfaced clips about both.


“The harder work is putting our heads together and figuring out what to create for this moment,” said Rotenberg. In mid-March, PBS convened “a SWAT team,” she said. One result was a series of public service announcements from “Odd Squad,” a live-action show about kid special agents who solve problems. Now they also demonstrate good sneeze hygiene.

“Daniel Tiger,” whose short songs about behavior soundtrack many toddler lives, has had parents publicly pleading for a dedicated coronavirus show.

The team is working on it. But as Loggins noted, a single episode can take 40 weeks to make, produced from multiple cities. Child development experts, some of whom worked with Mister Rogers, weigh in on a granular level.

“Those little tunes are crafted down to the punctuation,” Loggins said.


On other platforms, messaging has already evolved in the month since the U.S. began its shutdown. SpongeBob has been deployed to help explain basics like how to wash your hands. The Australian musical act the Wiggles created a bop about social distancing.

“This phrase is pretty abstract for children,” said Emma Watkins, better known as Emma the yellow Wiggle. “We thought, we have to put it in a song and use it in a way to empower children.”

Their popular spin — the video earned nearly a half-million views in two weeks — frames quarantining as a heroic move, with lyrics like, “We’re staying at home to keep nana safe.”

Children’s entertainers also heard a lot of anxiety around birthdays. “‘Will I still turn 4 if I don’t have a party on the weekend?’ — that seemed to be the main issue for children,” Watkins said. (Response songs are coming.)

For performers, there’s anxiety, too. The Wiggles normally tour eight or nine months a year. Now the foursome are grounded, “isolated together,” Watkins said. They shot their social distancing song in their own studio with just a camera operator, keeping a wide berth. They host daily live shows from their homes in Sydney.

“It is about being creative and seeing how we can help,” Watkins said.


Sesame Workshop also sprang into action. In mid-March, as their offices closed and the scope of what was to come became apparent, they packed up tripods for phones and other gear, sanitized the Muppets and shipped them to performers. Ernie arrived at Linz’s home still damp.

“I unwrapped him right away, and I let him sit for several days,” for safety, said Linz, who has played Ernie since 2017 and worked with “Sesame Street” since 1991.

On the rainy day shoot, a week and a half before the special was to air, Linz got advice from an editor about how to lock in focus — he was shooting on an iPhone but not on its native camera app. With Ernie aloft — “Jim Henson said, we’re acting from the elbow up” — he had his phone mirrored to his Apple TV and another small monitor set up to better view the puppet. He fluffed Ernie’s hair between takes. (The muppets came complete with an emergency repair kit and, of course, a rubber ducky for Ernie.)

They were shooting a goodbye moment; as Ernie gesticulated, Matt Vogel, the director, reminded Linz not to have Ernie touch his face. It was one of many signs of the bizarre circumstances. (Another was that Ernie was Bert-less: Typically, Linz said, if the characters are in a scene together, they shoot together.)

As weird and challenging as this Sesame episode was, it felt like the right thing to do, its creators said.

“It’s so incredibly meaningful to be involved in a project that you know is going to bring joy to potentially millions of people,” Linz said. “It definitely brought a sense of normalcy to my day — in fact, it affected me for the rest of the day, I was in a very good mood. It was comforting to do something normal in a very abnormal time.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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