Go to Sesame Street, make a sharp turn in any direction, keep on going for 35 years or so, and you’ll get to Avenue Q – the 2004 Tony Award-winning musical currently on Broadway. Avenue Q is an irreverent parody of Sesame Street that pokes fun at everything from the television show’s foundational belief in the value of education to the prosocial messages it communicates, by adopting its familiar characters and style and twisting them into a vehicle for commentary on life’s real lessons. Like its predecessor, Avenue Q portrays a sunny place where a community of diverse characters peacefully resides, sharply highlighting the play’s funny and more adult-friendly content.
The mockery is delivered in classic Sesame form. The simple story line revolves around a friendly neighborhood of puppets and live actors, interspersed with short animated segments focused on teaching specific concepts. Because the instructional skits in Avenue Q are about the harsh realities of the world rather than the letter or number of the day, their effect is a hilarious take-off that keeps audiences laughing by providing a derisive spoof of Sesame Street‘s content delivered with faithful imitation to its form.
Although Sesame Street’s dedication to school readiness always went beyond cognitive lessons to include social goals like cooperation and fair play that could be useful in classrooms, this curriculum soon expanded to include less skill-oriented objectives, like emotions, self-esteem, and Latino-American culture, but especially diversity – first in the context of children with special needs and later with members of different ethnic groups. With this new focus, Sesame Street became the magical place promised by its theme song where “there are friendly neighbors” and “every door will open wide to happy people like you” – the most vibrant source of Avenue Q’s send-up.
As the play begins, Q’s reality immediately sets in with an animated Sesame-style segment informing us “it’s a lovely day, a perfect morning for a kid to play,” but the inhabitants of Avenue Q have “lots of bills to pay.” In fact, the characters live there because they’re broke – and they’re not getting any richer. While Sesame Street presents a sunny story about the successes of the American dream, Avenue Q is about its failings. In case we weren’t sure, this emphasis is symbolically represented in the neighborhood’s superintendent Gary Coleman – a national figure whose life story consists of a series of bitter failures following his heyday as the highest paid TV child actor, subsequently stripped of his fortune by adoptive parents. Coleman epitomizes the inverse of everything Sesame, not only because he illustrates the bleakness of childhood and dangers of dependency, but also because, rather than progress and improve, his life trajectory spiraled into deterioration and decline.
The parody of Sesame Street cuts right to the bone with the arrival of the protagonist, named Princeton, wearing a graduation cap and gown and asking, “What do you do with a BA in English?” Not a whole lot, in this case. Princeton soon finds himself fired before his first day of work and in financial disarray after spending the last of his parents’ money on beer. He develops a relationship with Kate Monster, but later is haunted by a nightmare featuring his new love interest as a gigantesque bride-zilla. He calls things off, telling her that he doesn’t want a girlfriend until he’s found his “purpose,” which the audience is told via animated sketch is good because it “gives you meaning.” After a brief stint of depression, and a one-night stand with Kate Monster’s foil, Lucy the Slut, Princeton discovers altruism in a back-handed way – it’s what makes you feel good. He decides to raise money to build a school for monsters (a denigrated group with inferior social status), which happens to be Kate’s “purpose.” The play comes full circle when a fresh-faced college graduate arrives on Avenue Q, newly decorated with its Monstersorri School sign, and asks what he can do with a BA in English.
Avenue Q doesn’t stop with a mockery of education. As the play progresses, other sacredly held Sesame Street principles and curricular goals are knocked too. From its beginning, Sesame was very careful to avoid stereotypical portrayals, which were actively screened for in the script writing process (Palmer and Fisch, 2001). The character Christmas Eve embodies just the opposite with her salient kimono and a ridiculously broad Asian accent, which provokes constant laughter. Rather than being an educational resource, the Internet is actually “for porn,” a function universally espoused by even the seemingly prudish. Each of Q’s inhabitants pronounces the opposite of pride, self-worth, and esteem with their individual confessions that it “sucks to be me.” And, instead of promoting colorblindness, Avenue Q says we’re all racist, and that we should stop pretending we aren’t. In the words of Princeton, “everyone makes judgments based on race. Not big judgments like who to hire…just little judgments like thinking that Mexican busboys should learn to speak goddamn English!”
The play even takes on politically correct goals too adult for Sesame’s curriculum with Nicky’s pseudo-acceptance of his roommate Rod’s (still closeted) homosexuality, when he sings, “if you were gay that’d be okay … because you see if it were me I would feel free to say that I was gay (but I’m not gay).” The humor of Nicky’s ultimate demurral is magnified since Rod is infatuated with him.
The parody continues and reaches its peak when “Schadenfreude,” is introduced as a knock-off of the innocent language instruction on Sesame Street. Unlike the other grown-up words that are taught during the play, like “purpose” and “commitment,” the meaning of this German word is cruel. Its definition, we’re gleefully told, is “happiness at the misfortune of others” – a complete antithesis to the deeply prosocial core of everything Sesame Street. And so, ever faithful to the genre, the characters unanimously embrace the idea of taking pleasure when others fail. Like the espousal of Schadenfreude, everything from the endorsement of Internet pornography, to admissions of failure, to owning up to racism – all of it occurs cheerfully en masse.
The play espouses that instead of hypocritically denying our inherently perverse, or simply human, nature, we should rejoice in our failures because they are what unite us; it is the absence of self-pride and esteem that leads to social acceptance because we’re not that good. Rather than deny the existence of the ugliness within, or try in vain to transform it into something beautiful, the play advocates that we use it as a basis for forming friendships. Rather than pretend that we like everyone the same, irrespective of ethnic background, why not accept that “everyone’s a little bit racist,” and use that commonality, however ignoble, as a stepping stone towards greater social harmony.
Although the Avenue Q is sexually explicit and chock full of naughty words you’re not supposed to say (especially if you’re a cute, furry puppet), the gist is surprisingly comparable to its G-rated, fit-for-tots ancestor. Rather than subvert all of Sesame Street’s goals about tolerance and getting along, this adult version has some of that good stuff too – even if its means of getting there is vastly different. What keeps the play so funny, and Avenue Q has kept audiences laughing for over two years now, is that it’s safe. No one’s advocating hatred or genocide or anything fundamentally misanthropic. Though the play often subverts Sesame’s specific curricular goals, it also seems to endorse the larger ones, particularly when they’re about social harmony and getting along.
Princeton’s line about Mexican busboys learning English gets lots of laughs partly because it’s taboo, but also because it’s said in the interest of a larger goal that’s irreprehensible. In the words of the entire cast, “If we could all just admit that we are racist a little bit, and everybody stopped being so P.C., maybe we could live in – harmony!” According to Avenue Q, the insistence on political correctness actually prevents us from achieving this higher aim.
With temporariness as the final great unifier, Avenue Q ends on a feel good note as the cast good-naturedly unites once more around the notion that everything in life is only “for now” – a reassuring concept, especially when the present is less than ideal, and one that touches the core of what makes us most human: our mortality.
Again, a lesson beyond the reach and scope of Sesame Street. Or is it? In 1983, Mr. Hooper, a live actor who played the storekeeper on Sesame Street passed away. Rather avoid the issue by simply replacing him with someone else, the topic of his death was addressed on the show (Fisch, Truglio & Cole 1999). The approach was honest and straightforward, lacking in the unworldly political correctness that Avenue Q accuses Sesame Street of embracing. How’s that for life ready?
- Fisch, S.M., Truglio, R.T, & Cole, C.F. (1999). The impact of Sesame Street on preschool children: A review and synthesis of 30 years’ research. Media Psychology, 1, 165-190.
- Palmer, E.L., & Fisch, S. M. (2001). The beginnings of Sesame Street research. In S.M. Fisch & R.T. Truglio (Eds.), G is for growing: Thirty years of research on children and Sesame Street (pp. 3-23). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.