Column: HBO’s new ‘Sesame Street’ documentary stays sweetly on the surface

Hippie puppeteers and cool-headed documentary filmmakers. Pun-loving songwriters and research-happy educational psychologists. Muppets. God bless the Muppets.

The people (and puppets) behind “Sesame Street” were a motley crew of artists, academics and furry critters who united to make one of the most beloved and important series in television history. Sadly, there are no in-depth interviews with Bert, Ernie or Elmo, but you will hear from many of the Very Important Humans who created the show in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” a new documentary debuting Monday on HBO.

Based on Michael Davis’ 2008 book, “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street,” director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary chronicles the show’s journey from longshot educational-TV dream project to cultural powerhouse through the lively, loving eyes of the people who made this TV miracle happen.

Given that “Sesame Street” is now an institution that has spawned toys, T-shirts, movies, live shows and a SeaWorld play area, it’s hard to believe that it was once a revolutionary gleam in a documentary filmmaker’s eye. But in the commercial-stuffed wasteland that was 1960s children’s television, that’s exactly what it was.

At the time, kids’ TV was “just terrible stuff,” the late writer-director Jon Stone remembers in an archival interview. “I hated it.” But when experimental psychologist and Carnegie Corp. vice president Lloyd Morrisett met TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney at a 1966 dinner party, the game-changing stars aligned.

Morrisett and his Carnegie colleagues were very interested in addressing the education gap that left inner-city kids behind the learning curve before they even started kindergarten. After watching his 3-year-old daughter lose herself in her Sunday-morning cartoons, Morrisett began to wonder if this hypnotic medium could be used for something other than advertising toys and cereal. When he discovered that Cooney was in the TV business, he asked her.

The lightbulb moment that followed changed everything.

Cooney’s idea was to use experts from the worlds of education, entertainment, advertising and psychology to create a show that combined learning and fun into one irresistible package. The forward-thinking Children’s Television Workshop was formed, and after a few years of research, hours of focus-group testing with real nursery-school audiences, and Stone’s seismic suggestion that Cooney hire puppeteer Jim Henson, “Sesame Street” debuted in November of 1969.

And like the show itself, the response was unprecedented.

As you might imagine, the “Sesame Street” gang is a smart, passionate bunch. Which is a good thing, because Agrelo’s 107-minute film never leaves the TV neighborhood. All of the interviews — new and old — are with the show’s original team members and/or their spouses and children. The show was a global phenomenon, but the documentary keeps it all in the family.

This means we get a lot of time with the late Henson and fellow puppeteer Frank Oz, the men who were the voices and bodies behind Bert (Oz) and Ernie (Henson), Kermit the Frog (Henson) and Cookie Monster (Oz). The backstage footage of the puppeteers at work will have you marveling at their multitasking genius and rubbing your neck in chiropractic sympathy.

There are also priceless sections devoted to the late Joe Raposo, the ebullient songwriter behind such classics as “Bein’ Green,” “C is for Cookie,” and “Sing”; songwriter Christopher Cerf, who shows how he turned the Beatles’ “Let it Be” into “Letter B”; and head writer Norman Stiles, the man who created the suave and helpful Count von Count.

But for all its generosity toward the “Street” gang, the documentary falters when it comes examining the shadows behind the show’s sunny days.

Agrelo brings up director-writer Stone’s struggles with depression, but she doesn’t explore what impact they might have had on the show or the cast. Then there is the departure of the late Matt Robinson, the show’s original Gordon. Robinson left the show after Roosevelt Franklin, the streetwise Muppet character he created and voiced, was sidelined due to complaints about Roosevelt’s slangy language and feisty attitude. Robinson’s wife and children talk about Robinson’s loss of faith in the show he loved, but no one from the “Sesame Street” leadership team ever weighs in.

Whether it is dashing past conflict or allowing the players to pat themselves on the back a few too many times, “Street Gang” does suffer from the absence of outside voices. But the voices we do hear — a celebratory chorus that includes archived musical performances from B.B. King, Odetta, Stevie Wonder and James Taylor, to name just a few — are full of so much unfettered joy, you would have to be sharing a trashcan with Oscar the Grouch to remain unmoved.

“It was a family,” Cerf says. “It is a family.” And at it’s best, “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” makes you feel like you have a seat at the happiest table in town.

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” debuts Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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