'Sesame Street' And Muppet Diplomacy

While the world may revile many aspects of the United States, there is one uniquely American export that seems to win hearts all over the globe: "Sesame Street."

"This is the best of America," Gary Knell, president of Sesame Workshop, told Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner.

"Sesame Street" first aired 36 years ago and today is regarded as one of the most positive and influential children's shows in the world. Back in 1969, its creators never suspected that the show would turn into a global enterprise with a budget of $100 million. A new documentary called "The World According To Sesame Street," produced by a company called Independent Lens, explores the show's international impact.

In Indonesia recently, President Bush was hardly welcomed with open arms, but the people warmly greeted Elmo, even as he waved an American flag. Indonesia will soon join the more than 120 countries where "Sesame Street" has been seen. That's nearly 2/3 of all the recognized countries in the world. The Muppets seem to be the opposite of the Ugly American.

On "Ulitsa Sezam," the Russians have Zeliboba, a huge, bluish tree spirit. In India, on "Galligalli Simsim," there is Boombah the lion. And in France on "Cinq Rue de Sesame," a made-up creature named Nac.

A giant green parrot named Abelardo (who claims to be Big Bird's cousin) lives on Latin America's "Plaza Sesamo."

Muppet diplomacy succeeds not by hitting anybody over the head and insisting that it's our way or no way; it's whatever way each country wants. Ginger Brown's job is to help make that happen.

"We provide a model," she said. "It's not a format. The national differences do come out in every country. And each country has its own art form that it feels that children will respond to, and they do."

"We are able to tweak and turn every single detail until we are actually doing a show that is understandable by kids in Latin America," executive producer of Mexico's "Plaza Sesamo," Javier Williams, said.

That means finding relevant subject matter, adapting classic Muppet characters, or creating new ones.

"The Muppets are marvelous because you actually can have the Muppets cross all the boundaries that can be crossed, whereas a human character wouldn't, you know," Williams said.

Lola, played by Rozio Lara, is one of the characters on "Plaza Sesamo."

"She's a little girl, she's about 4 years-old," Lara said. "She's a monster. She's very playful. She's very energetic. She's friends with everyone."
  • Caitlin Johnson

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