Chapter 1: Bert and Ernie
Announcer: It’s Friday, time for StoryCorps, recording stories that have shaped the lives of everyday Americans. Today we’re going to hear from Bert and Ernie, muppet-Americans living in New York. They were young children when New York’s muppet integration program began, and both remember busing from their neighborhood in Brooklyn to a primarily human school on the Upper West Side.
Bert: We were the only two muppets in our grade in the busing program. It was a huge opportunity, going to a school with regular children!
Ernie: Well, I don’t know, Bert. I- I didn’t always like it. We had to wake up early in the morning.
Bert: It was worth it though. Muppet schools weren’t always so good then. They’d only have half the alphabet for the students to learn, and maybe four or five numbers. And you’d always have to share the letters. So I was “Ber” on Mondays and Tuesdays, and “T” the rest of the week. And then we got to the human school, and boy oh boy- they had all twenty-six letters, for everyone! And more numbers than you can even think about.
Ernie: Uh-huh, Bert. That’s true. That’s when I learned about the number 8,243,721.
Bert: That’s when I first found out about the letter “W”! You need the letter “W” to say “walrus”, you know. So you can imagine what we were missing out on.
Ernie: That’s right, we used to have to call them “alruses”.
Offstage: *squelching noises* Arp arp arp!
Bert: We used to call him “Alt”. Remember when I got you that “W”?
Offstage: *happy arping noises*
Ernie: It wasn’t- wasn’t always fun, though, Bert. Remember when you tried to start a “W” club?
Bert: Oh, we don’t need to talk about that, Ernie.
Ernie: Bert- Bert and I were the only ones who came to the meeting. Some of the popular children said really mean things about him. And then they started calling him “Alpha-Bert”, and they’d draw letters all over his sweaters and his locker and his books.
Bert: I didn’t mind being called “Alpha-Bert”. The alphabet is great! They probably- anyway, they probably didn’t mean anything by it.
Ernie: You minded it when they drew a giant “L” for “Loser” on your favorite sweater, Bert. Anyway, I guess- I guess human children don’t like letters and numbers as much as we do.
Announcer: Friends Bert and Ernie, in New York City. Their conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress.
Chapter 2: Cookie Monster
Announcer: Time now for StoryCorps. Alistair Cookie- whose real name is Cookie Monster- has been the host of PBS’s Monsterpiece Theater for nearly forty years. Here, he remembers what it was like for a muppet in television in the 1970’s.
Cookie: Me got into television at time when muppets still mostly wacky sidekicks. But me never wanted to spend whole career eating car bumpers for laughs. I mean, me like eating car bumpers. Me could go for car bumper right now. But that not whole story of Cookie Monster.
Me came up working muppet theaters in Bronx. Me was popular character Wheel-Stealer in ongoing comedy series! Would steal wheels and then eat them. Bicycle wheels, car wheels, pinwheels, it not matter. Lots of laughs. But me wanted to break into television. Breaking television not good enough. Even though television delicious.
Me got first break working on commercials- General Foods thought Wheel-Stealer would be good to sell wheel-shape snack foods. *in a soft voice* Me can tell you this now, but General Foods Wheels were not delicious. Me like bicycle wheels better. But commercials pay bills. Anyway, me was always good at eating onscreen, but me knew there was greater things in store.
After commercials, me got bit parts on some TV shows. Me was on All in the Family and Good Times. Me got first serious role as young wounded serviceman on M*A*S*H. Made Alan Alda cry, was good stuff. But was always some pushback. People say “We don’t want muppet for this part! If we have muppet, show only about muppet issues.” Or “Muppet can’t play tragedy.” Or “Character was human in book, can’t have muppet play in movie.” Or “Human fans won’t identify with character if muppet plays.”
Me had idea for Monsterpiece Theater in 1975. Would be good way to bring classics to everyday Americans! But NBC didn’t want show if muppet was going to host. Finally took show to PBS. Joan Cooney and Lloyd Morriset work there then, and gave Cookie Monster chance to shine. Was big break.
Now muppets play all kinds of parts. That Walter kid even win Oscar! But was hard to be taken seriously for long time in show business.
Announcer: Cookie Monster, at StoryCorps in New York City. The interview will be archived at the Library of Congress, and you can hear more on the podcast, on iTunes, and at npr.org.
Chapter 3: Oscar the Grouch
Announcer: It’s Friday, the day we bring you StoryCorps. People interview their loved ones for the StoryCorps project, and now with the StoryCorps smartphone app, interviews can be recorded anywhere. Today, a muppet named Telly Monster interviews his friend Oscar the Grouch about his experiences in the Felt Riots of 1966.
Telly: Hello. My name is Telly Monster and today I’m going to interview my very good friend, Oscar the Grouch. HEY OSCAR! *sound of banging metal* HEY OSCAR! COME OUT SO I CAN INTERVIEW YOU FOR THE RADIO! OSCAR!!!
Oscar: What? What? Whaddaya want?
Telly: I want to interview you for StoryCorps.
Oscar: Why would I want to do that? It sounds like a waste of time, and I hate it when people waste my time. *sound of clanging*
Telly: *sound of banging metal* Come on, Oscar! I want to ask you about Greenpoint.
Oscar: *sound of clanging* Whaddaya want to know about that for?
Telly: Because- because we should all know about our history!
Oscar: A bunch of muppets got really mad and set some stuff on fire. There, you happy? I’m not happy.
Telly: Aw, come on, Oscar! How come you were in Greenpoint then?
Oscar: Who wasn’t in Greenpoint? I don’t know who lives there now, but it was a felt ghetto back then. Probably because muppets like the color green. When I came from Grouchland, that was the only place that would rent to me. That was before I found my beautiful trash can, and the police used to run Grouches out of dumpsters if they caught us.
Telly: What do you remember about the riots?
Oscar: There’s not much to remember. I looked out my window and saw a lot of angry people throwing things. And I thought, angry people throwing trash! That looks fun! So I ran out into the street. Apparently the city shut down the number factory for health violations or something, and put half the neighborhood out of work. And you gotta understand, it was hard to find a job as a muppet in those days. Half the want ads would just come out and say “humans only” or “no felt allowed”, so the factory- the Count owned it back then- the factory was the only option for lots of muppets.
Telly: Oh, no! What did people do without the factory?
Oscar: I’m a Grouch. I live on trash. What do I care? Anyway, you wanna hear about the riots or not?
Telly: Sorry! Tell me about the riots.
Oscar: So we were going down the street, shouting slogans. Or just shouting. And then the police showed up in riot gear and started shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. Except they forgot they were dealing with muppets, and there was fur and stuffing flying everywhere! I jumped into a dumpster for cover and when I looked up, there were muppets lying on the ground everywhere, just crying and twitching. The fires started later, but I just hunkered down in my dumpster until it was over.
Telly: That’s HORRIBLE.
Oscar: Well, you were the one who asked. *clanging noise*
Announcer: Telly Monster and his friend Oscar the Grouch, on the StoryCorps app. The Felt Riots and the outrage many felt at the suffering of the muppets of Greenpoint motivated the muppet integration movements of the 1970's, and has helped to shape human-muppet relations ever since.Their conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress, and you can hear more at npr.org.