Sesame Street has been on the air for a long time – 46 years as of last week, in fact – but most of us who grew up watching it probably think of the era we personally remember as being what the show was always like, but that’s not necessarily the case. The show has grown and changed over time, and some of its major characters have too.
Case in point: 30 years ago this week, the character of Mr. Snuffleupagus underwent a major change that’s not only important for those who love the show but is also very telling about the messages the showrunners wanted to communicate to its young viewers: He became real. Check out Snuffy’s introduction to the show in the show’s third season, in an episode that first aired Nov. 18, 1971.
For years, Big Bird was the only character who ever saw Snuffy. He’d tell his human friends about him, and they’d assume Snuffy was just an imaginary friend despite Big Bird’s insistence otherwise.
In the premiere of the show’s 17th season, airing Nov. 18, 1985, that changed, and everyone finally learned that Mr. Snuffleupagus did exist and that Big Bird had been telling the truth the entire time. Phil Donahue, of all people, was there to report on the news. (Fast-forward to the 15:53 mark to see all the humans’ stunned reactions upon meeting Snuffy.)
So why did the Sesame Street higher-ups decide, at long last, to introduce Snuffy to all the show’s characters? Because they wanted its young viewers to know that when they tell the truth, adults will not dismiss what they’re saying as fabrication. Snuffy, after all, looks real to anyone watching the show. He really didn’t seem like Big Bird’s imaginary friend, and children watching might have been confused why no one ever believed Big Bird.
Some somber real-life events motivated the decision: a rash of instances of child abuse in the news that made the showrunners think that it was important to tell kids that grown-ups would listen if they had something to say. A 1985 L.A. Times article quotes Dulcy Singer, executive producer of the show: “In this day of child abuse, we felt it important for children to feel they could talk to adults and be believed. We didn’t want to do anything to discourage children from going to their parents.”
Mr. Snuffleupagus isn’t the only character who transformed over time, and we’re taking the 30th anniversary of his big reveal to look at how some other famous Sesame Street Muppets have changed in comparison to how they look and who they are today.
1. Big Bird
Appearing all the way back in the first ever episode of Sesame Street, which aired Nov. 10, 1969, Big Bird has since gained a few headfeathers but otherwise looks and sounds here a lot like he does today.
2. Bert and Ernie
Those mismatched roommates have also been a part of Sesame Street since the beginning, and since their first-ever appearance in the first-ever episode, they’ve been pretty much as we know them now: Ernie is happy, carefree and heavily invested in his bathtime, while Bert is grumpy and easily annoyed. They look just a little off compared to how they look today, but hey – we all have to start somewhere. In this clip, start at 3:43.
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3. Oscar the Grouch
Another character that debuted in the first episode, Oscar looks and acts and sounds like the guy we know today, but with one major exception: He’s orange, not green. Jim Henson would explain the eventual color switch saying that video cameras at the time couldn’t pick up orange as well as they should. Oscar, meanwhile, would later claim that he is actually still orange – he just looks green because he hasn’t taken a bath.
4. Cookie Monster
Yep, Cookie has been there since the beginning too, and in the above short from the show’s first season, he’s all about ravenously eating, just a little more quietly than we’re used to today. Here’s the cool part, though: Cookie Monster has actually been around long before Sesame Street. In fact, he appeared as “The Wheel Stealer” in 1966 in an unaired General Foods commercial.
He also appeared in a 1967 promotional film for IBM.
You can see Kermit’s early Sesame Street incarnation in the above Cookie Monster video, but the real find here is this clip of Kermit from Sam and Friends, a Jim Henson project that ran from 1955 to 1961 and preceded Sesame Street. At this point in his career, Kermit wasn’t even a frog. He was instead a lizard-like creature and only became a frog shortly before his Sesame Street debut.
Yikes! Grover has technically been a part of Sesame Street since the beginning, but this? It’s not quite Grover. The look is a little off and the voice is especially not quite there, and it’s somehow vaguely disturbing to see this Not the Grover passing for the real thing.
It’s odd to think of Elmo as a relative newcomer to Sesame Street, since he’s one of the most popular characters to ever emerge from the show, but he didn’t officially debut as the named, red, furry monster with the high-pitched voice until well into the ’80s. According to the official Sesame Street YouTube account, this is Elmo’s big debut.
However, Elmo appeared earlier than his official first appearance, just not with the voice with which we’ve all come to associate him and not under that name. For example, a very Elmo-like character appears in this 1980 Sesame Street clip, “We Are All Monsters.” He looks the same but sounds very different – and isn’t it strange to hear a grown-up sounding voice coming out of him?
8. The Count
Count Von Count didn’t actually join the Sesame Street cast until the show’s fourth season began in 1972. Save for getting that goatee under control a bit, he’s hardly changed at all since his debut in the above clip – but has he always used his vampire mind control powers on the other characters? Or has that been minimized a bit?
9. The Martians
Also known as the Yip-Yips, these floppy alien weirdos first debuted on Sesame Street in 1972. Above, in their first appearance, they discover a grandfather clock. They actually haven’t changed at all since their debut – which is to say that they were just as terrifying then as they are now. Or is this writer the only one who found them disturbing back in the day? And kind of still now, decades later, if for some strange reason he can’t quite put his finger on.
10. The Two-Headed Monster
They’d go on to star in their own segments, often in which their two heads would work together to form a word, but the Two-Headed Monster originated in a 1978 clip in which Olivia read the Count a story about them (it?). In the story, they can’t agree on what to do but eventually realize that by working together they can accomplish more than they could alone. Morals! Also, per Olivia’s telling of the story, they have names: Horn and Hardart. Who knew?