The Awful Truth

Tickling elmo until he bleeds cash from both googly eyes.

Published December 23, 1996 9:23AM (EST)

this was a bad year for Sesame Street. Oscar's trash can stands flaming on the corner, Bert and Ernie are old queens bitterly locked in a mutually abusive pattern and Cookie Monster, now well into his 30s, is morbidly obese and still has no grasp of pronouns despite constant attempts to educate him. Nobody even talks about Grover anymore; I assume he was "let go" for his constant embarrassing displays of histrionic insecurity. Big Bird makes more money doing ice shows these days, and seems to be phoning in his displays of childlike wonder with the same unwholesome, disingenuous quality that clung to Urkel once it became apparent that he was a deeply retarded adult. Ever since the death of the Good Emperor Kermit, the neighborhood has been getting increasingly franchise-y and run down  a ghetto for the handicapped, a place where children never venture past the letter T anymore. The rest of the alphabet has gotten too dangerous, and even sponsorship by the Mobil Corporation and the number six isn't going to restore the area to its former glory.

The Tickle Me Elmo phenomenon represents the ultimate raping of the ideals of Sesame Street. Sesame Street was originally a wonderful Utopian commune full of kindly offbeat multi-racial folk and weird animals that didn't speak down to children in patronizing and superintentionally cute adult baby voices, but just earnestly wanted to teach kids how to count to 20 in Spanish and cooperate with others. Jim Henson was a man who hated all forms of commercialism and especially the loathsome Moloch of Saturday morning TV toy commercials, pitching such blockbuster dolls as "Croup-Cough Baby Tender Love" and "Republican Trophy Bride Barbie" and the GI Joes that grew real scabs when you pistol-whipped them and had battery-operated seizures when you sprayed them with miniature cans of Nerve Gas.
Henson's tortured shade must be roaming in gray chains, moaning the call of
the Wronged Dead through Children's Television Workshop as the ugly news
breaks day after day: Elmo in Hostile Feud with Regis Philbin. Scalpers
Getting Up to $1,250 for a $30 Doll.

As Christmas approaches, the news will surely get uglier. "Child Traded for
Elmo Doll in Black Market Kidnapping." "Bomb Threats from Children to Santa in
Anticipation of Elmo Shortage." "I want my Elmo," cried one child on the lap
of the Neiman-Marcus Santa Claus uptown. "If I don't get one, I will hurt

"I put my Elmo down on a counter," said one shopper. "Within seconds a woman
had her thumb to my eyelid, saying she'd enucleate me if I didn't give him
up. There was a scuffling, and I realized to my horror that the box was on the floor and six purple-faced mothers were wrestling each other, grasping at the box like it was the Ring of Nibelungen. It was horrible. They bit each other's fingers
off. I thought we'd have to pry their jaws apart with a wooden stick."

Tickle Me Elmo is to Sesame Street's former ethos what Fruitopia is to hippie culture: a sad and rank commercial exploitation of something that was once organic and innocent. Fruitopia bought a "hippie bus" and used to drive around my neighborhood, expressing the deeper cosmic leanings of the Minute Maid corporation with beverages bearing names like "Apricot-Kiwi Ayurvedic Trance-Consciousness Cocktail" and "Peace, Expanding Purity, and Tantric Lime Blessing."

I always assumed that the orange juice industry was slightly to the right of the military-industrial complex, given their penchant for vulcanized Nazi spokespeople like Anita Bryant and various hillbilly astronauts who hate faggots and love unborn children, and so assumed Minute Maid's suddenly tie-dyed and stoned image was a venal marketing attempt to cash in on the Likeable Fat Dopes From the '60s image of Ben & Jerry. But who knows?
Maybe some Minute Maid honcho actually believes that a stubby bottle of pink corn syrup will usher in Divine Oneness and Global Brotherhood. Maybe the whole thing is not a huge lie. Still, it smells to me like Nixon yelling "Sock it to me!" to a group of oversexed college kids in ponchos.

It's Christmas time in NYC, and everybody is dressing their babies in vinyl pants and shucking out thousands of dollars for every kind of fad. Dead pine trees slump along the fences on every street corner like a depressed urban teen forest.

But even if it is the same bad old boring capitalist clichi, Christmas somehow revives itself, year after year, into something genuinely moving, despite avalanches of attempts to kill its spirit. Even Elmo can't destroy how great it is to listen to Bach on public radio all day when it's 20 degrees outside.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

MORE FROM Cintra Wilson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------