Years ago, NPR had a series called In Character, in which the august network examined various fictional American creations who have shaped the great fabric blah blah blah they interviewed Cookie Monster go watch it. And it’s worth hunting down the episode in full, because it encapsulates a lot of the great points of one of the most enduring of all Muppet creations: to paraphrase, Cookie Monster is single-minded and obsessive but also inherently kind and even a bit ashamed of his outbursts. It’s what separates him from Animal, who really couldn’t give a shit about the carnage he creates, even when he says “Soh-reeeeeeee”.
A lot of Sesame Street’s legacy centers around its educational content and focus on helping children understand complex concepts like death, dviorce, racism, and, more recently, homelessness and autism. Yet, it’s also always been focused on entertainment, and many of its vignettes are essentially comedy sketches for kids (and not always kids, as the recent resurgence of topical parodies has proven). It’s fascinating to go back to the sometimes literally woolly days of the show’s early years and see the focus on character-based interactions, the classic stuff of comedy. Broad personalities can lend themselves to lots of jokes, as we’ll see in one of many classic bits involving the big blue beast of the bakery himself.
Part of Cookie Monster’s appeal is in his simplicity: he has very few distinguishing features aside from his trademark blue fur and googly eyes. He speaks in caveman English and he likes cookies, and pretty much any interaction with him is a futile exercise in trying to keep him to sit still long enough to not devour everything in sight (while he prefers cookies, he’s not picky). Cookie Monster is flexible enough that he’s done pretty much everything over the years from auditioning for SNL to moonlighting under his stage name “Tom Waits” to breaking the Internet with PIKOTARO.
But today’s bit is an old-school look at Cookie, in a classic bit of back and forth that doesn’t really teach you anything aside from possibly the insidious nature of food addiction. We start with Cookie Monster, looking adorable in a chef’s apron and hat, getting ready to bake apple walnut raisin cookies having assembled the “in-gree-dee-ents”. Onhand to act as the straight man is, surprisingly, Ernie. Ernie is an interesting choice since he’s usually the Cookie Monster-esque slob in his own double act with Bert, but Bert would have a total meltdown dealing with Cookie (and plus, even Frank Oz would have trouble performing those two characters at the same time, at least back in the day).
So instead Ernie gently offers to help C.M. with his project, and things quickly start to go downhill. Sophisticated sugar addicts like myself can play the long game, refraining from gorging on little morsels until the final dessert is done. Cookie Monster, of course, knows no such restraint: one sniff of the apples and he devours them immediately (moments after Ernie asks “you gonna peel those or something?”). Because this is OG husky-voiced Frank Oz Cookie Monster, “eating” the apples means shoving them into his mouth and covering them while they disappear offscreen, thanks to a little help from the camera.
Cookie Monster is normally not too ashamed of his ravenousness, but he apologizes immediately and insists that just walnut raisin cookies will be fine (“They not bad either!”). We all know where this is going, and yet there’s still something hilariously brazen abut seeing him upend an entire bowl of walnuts into his mouth and NOM NOM NOM them until they roll to the floor, very obviously uncrushed. You begin to feel a little bad for the guy. The raisins don’t stand a chance: he doesn’t even finish his sentence before they’re gone as well.
The punchline comes after Ernie points out that they can’t make the cookies anymore, and Cookie replies that he “save meself a whole bunch of work” before slicking down the side of his face in a motion that’s really weird for a creature without a visible tongue to do.
Once again, Ernie’s version of being a foil feels less judgy than some of the other options, like the frustrated librarian in this equally classic bit. When Ernie asks Cookie Monster what they’re going to do now that the ingredients are gone, it comes from a place of concern for the two of them, not disgust at his furry blue friend. The whole thing would be a painfully close to depicting food addiction were it not for the vaudevillian ending (speaking for myself, there have indeed abandoned more complicated recipes in favor of simply eating the individual parts instead). Considering the amount of work it surely takes to operate the Muppets, it’s also impressive how loose and improvisational these early bits feel, as if all the residents of Sesame Street were taking Second City classes in their free time.
Sesame Street and The Muppet Show drew a lot of their charm from using traditional routines, even though the latter relied a lot more on then cutting-edge animation and fast-paced editing. While the very basic structure of this bit doesn’t really require any knowledge of the two characters, it’s all about their personalities and tells us so much about both of them, all while telling a simple, funny joke. At the end, Cookie Monster might have ruined his original plan but it’s all the same to him. He’s too easily pleased to be disappointed for long., and there’s some truth to what he says at the end. Why torture yourself to actually make something when you can get the same result faster by going the obvious route?
There are plenty of things wrong with that philosophy in the real world, but not for Cookie. He will always survive to his next meal, and even though he’s never satisfied, he ends this sketch content about what he did. So here’s to Cookie Monster: he may be an unstoppable force of chaos, but he also has pretty good body image. And it’s hard to get mad at anyone with big puppet eyes. Unless they’re being an outright dick to you, I suppose…