By Buck Wolf
Many stars have had to fight persistent rumors about their sexuality. And in that way, Ernie and Bert are no different than John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
I've recounted the stories about the infamous "Ernie and Bert are gay" rumor probably more times than Count Von Count can count. But with "Sesame Street" celebrating its 40th anniversary on Tuesday, I'm going to take it as an opportunity to rehash that same silly rumor one more time.
Of course, the sexuality of other cartoon characters has come into question over the years. Anti-gay groups have accused SpongeBob SquarePants and Tinky Winky of the "Teletubbies" of harboring a homosexual agenda, even while most people with half a brain were saying, "They're just children's characters."
Bert and Ernie's lifestyle choices, however, didn't help matters. They share a room, and a bedroom, if not a bed. They bicker like husband and wife. They frequently break out in song. One has a curious obsession with his rubber ducky.From the very first "Sesame Street" episode, Ernie can be seen taking a bath with Bert in the room -- and that makes a lot of guys uncomfortable.
'They Don't Exist Below the Waist'
The controversy hit a fever pitch in 1994, when the Rev. Joseph Chambers called for the characters to be banned. "They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics. In one show Bert teaches Ernie how to sew. In another they tend plants together," the Southern evangelist said on his radio show. "If this isn't meant to represent a homosexual union, I can't imagine what it's supposed to represent."
At one point, the Children's Television Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind "Sesame Street," even issued a denial. "Bert and Ernie, who've been on Sesame Street for 25 years, do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans," the organization said in a statement. "Like all the Muppets created for 'Sesame Street,' they were designed to help educate preschoolers. Bert and Ernie are characters who help demonstrate to children that despite their differences, they can be good friends."Years later, Gary Knell, president of Children's Television Workshop successor Sesame Workshop, would say, "They are not gay. They are not straight. ... They don't exist below the waist."
Now, let's look at some other Muppet rumors and scandals.
1. "D" Is For Dope: The phrase "Green Day" is San Francisco slang for a day spent sitting around smoking a certain mood-altering substance.One fine day -- perhaps while indulging on something -- members of a certain band known as "Sweet Children" were watching "Sesame Street" and heard Ernie exclaim, "It's a green day!" according to FlashNews.The rest, as they say, is history. Ernie, in fact, makes a cameo appearance on the back cover of the band's breakthrough album, "Dookie."
2. Broccoli Monster: In a country where nearly 25 million children are overweight or obese, Cookie Monster has been under a lot of heat to tone down his biscuit-binging ways. Five years ago, rumormongers started spreading stories that Cookie Monster would soon be known as "Broccoli Monster," or even "Fruit Monster." It took an interview with Matt Lauer to put this notion to rest. In a tongue-in-cheek sit-down, the munch-happy Muppet reasserted his claim that cookies are a "sometimes food" after he ate a balanced meal. In a looser exchange a few weeks later with Stephen Colbert, Cookie Monster owned up to his past. "Me like the Robert Downey Jr. of cookies," he said, before launching into one of his crumb-flying frenzies, which usually end in: "Aaaahhhh-num-num-num-num cookies!"
3. Muppet Sings the Blues: When you're a rhyming, scat-singing purple monster, sunny days aren't always enough to sweep the clouds away.
Children's Television Workshop/Getty Images
In the mid 1970s, Roosevelt Franklin, one of the original "Sesame Street" Muppets, got the ax amid complaints that he reinforced negative cultural stereotypes. Roosevelt's hair could make one think of Buckwheat from "The Little Rascals" -- an image many African-Americans loathe. Still, he was popular enough to star on his own record, "The Year of Roosevelt Franklin."
4. A Grouch in Any Language: When new countries embrace "Sesame Street," Muppets go through rapid cultural assimilation. In Pakistan, Oscar the Grouch is named "Akhtar" and lives in a rusty oil barrel. In Israel, he's named Moishe Oofnik, or "Moyshe the Complainer," and lives in an old car. In America, Oscar still lives in a trash can with his pet worm, Slimey, and maintains a relationship with his on-again, off-again gal pal, Grundgetta. They fight a lot, but what do you expect from a pair of grouches?
Rafiqur Rahman, Reuters
5. Bert & Bin Laden: In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden's supporters marched through the streets of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, waving posters of the terror kingpin. What was most surprising was the person pictured next to bin Laden -- a sneering Bert, who seemed to have lost his little felt head and joined al-Qaida.
In truth, Bert was still a loyal American puppet. As it turns out, a bin Laden supporter had downloaded a manipulated photo that had been posted on the Internet as a joke.
The photos came from the Bert Is Evil Web site, which tied the unibrowed Muppet to just about every great crime of the 20th century. Bert was shown marching with Hitler, smoking dope with Charles Manson and gunning down John F. Kennedy in Dallas. If al-Qaida operatives only knew what people were whispering about our cone-headed friend, they would have known the joke is on them.