Rare is the child-current or former-who cannot look back and recall a favorite “Sesame Street” character. The television mainstay has been around so long that parents who watched it as kids are now able to watch it with their own children. Over that time, characters have come and gone, characterizations have evolved and the cast has changed, but the lovable Cookie Monster has been a constant-in presence and personality-since the beginning, and is still the highlight of the show.
There isn’t much to the guy-just a grunt and a desire for cookies-and that’s why he’s so unforgettable. You can grasp Cookie Monster’s key point in maybe one or two sketches, particularly if his character’s goal stands in direct contrast to what a more level-headed type, perhaps the straight-arrow Kermit, is trying to get done. It is perhaps easiest to note Cookie Monster’s popularity and the importance of staying faithful to his core traits by charting public reaction when attempts are made to shake things up. Facing pressure to encourage healthy diets, the show’s producers have forced Cookie Monster to remind children that “cookies are a sometimes food”; rumors even flew of getting rid of his cookie obsession altogether, prompting a hilarious sketch where Matt Lauer showed up on the Street to ask Cookie Monster if he was really giving up cookies. (Showing remarkable prudence, Cookie Monster asserted: “You media types blow things way out of proportion,” then proceeded to eat a bowl of fruit, a cookie and Lauer’s microphone.) In increasingly politically correct times where special interest groups hold power and the media is increasingly called on the carpet to make up for poor parenting, it is refreshing to know that people can and will howl whenever Cookie Monster is targeted for 21st-century updating. The people have spoken, and C is for Cookie.
Perhaps the reason Cookie Monster just plain ‘works’ for everyone is his simplicity. As Muppets go, he’s just two eyes and a near-formless blob of blue fur, and the less specific someone looks, the more iconic an image can be projected onto them. Furthermore, everyone can understand and appreciate his motivation; a creature driven by insatiable hunger has enough of a propelling force to carry any sketch. And if it wasn’t easy enough to identify with Cookie Monster in the easy simplicity of his look or thought process, his voice is also one of the easiest on Sesame Street to imitate. Not everyone has the childlike innocence of a Big Bird or the neurotic irritability of a Bert, but deep down inside, we all want cookie.
And yet there’s more going on there; puppeteer David Rudman commented in a 2004 radio interview that he found a certain hidden intelligence in Cookie Monster’s seemingly simple personality, noting his penchant for vocabulary words-e.g. “It a bit esoteric”-would manage to slip out as naturally as his single-minded requests for cookies. Commenting on Cookie Monster’s in-show alter ego as cultural expert and Monsterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cookie: “He throws out these words like, you know, ‘Me digress.’ It’s his whole Alistair Cookie side… It’s a whole ‘nother side of Cookie, where he’s just kinda, you know, laidback and intellectual, but he still has that ‘Me Alistair Cookie,’ and it’s just such a funny contrast.”
It’s been a long walk down Sesame Street, and much has changed since the Swinging Sixties, even among the Muppet cast, normally a species safe from the hands of time. Elmo was changed from side character to overused star of his own overlong segment, to much backlash from fans from before. Snuffleupagus’ back story was changed from imaginary friend to real creature in response to shifting times. But Cookie Monster remains classic. The design of the character actually predates “Sesame Street”, to Henson’s work in advertising and other television programs, and when married to Frank Oz’s unforgettable performance and a desire every hungry kid can relate to, an iconic character was created who will continue to be a “Sesame Street” star even as fads and trends come and go. We cannot guess what the coming decades will bring to childrens’ media mindsets, or to the television industry, or even to pedagogy. But we know that the audience will continue to know, and even feel, what it means to want cookie.