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In Praise of Oscar the Grouch

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 19, 2018

Oscar.png

Sesame Street puppeteer Caroll Spinney is retiring after almost 50 years, and everybody is leading with the fact that he played and voiced everybody’s favorite, Big Bird. And then, if they get a chance, they might get around to mentioning that other iconic character he gave a voice and a soul, one of my favorites, Oscar the Grouch.

Karen Zraick writes about Oscar and his origins in the New York Times:

In his book “The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch),” Mr. Spinney wrote that he based Oscar’s voice on a surly cabdriver from the Bronx who took him to a meeting.

“He was the stereotypical cabby of the time — a guy in his 40s from the Bronx wearing a tweed cap with a little brim — and he kind of growled out of the corner of his mouth, ‘Where to, Mac?’” Mr. Spinney wrote.

He had found “the ideal model” for his new character, and he marveled as the driver “went on and on, colorfully expressing his opinion of Mayor Lindsay with a lot of four-letter words.”

Travis Andrews does the same in the Washington Post:

The purpose of Oscar, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s description of the character, is to teach “the importance of understanding, tolerance, and diversity.” According to Robert W. Morrow’s book “‘Sesame Street’ and the Reform of Children’s Television,” Oscar acted differently and lived in a different kind of home as a metaphor, “to dramatize tolerance for those who are different. … In segments about conflicts between Oscar and the others on the street, the show taught how children might cope with diversity in the context of school desegregation.”

Ok, sure. Ariane Beeston at Essential Kids more thoroughly spells out Oscar’s character, and its effect and appeal:

1. It’s okay to be different;
2. One man’s trash is another grouch’s treasure;
3. Embrace who you are and be yourself;
4. Just because you’re grouchy, doesn’t mean you can’t also be kind;
5. Emotions can be confusing.

Almost everyone gives credit to Spinney for giving Oscar his emotional complexity, with a simple mandate: Oscar is always grouchy and contrarian, but Oscar is never mean or cruel. In short, Oscar always has a heart. Let’s hope Spinney’s successor can continue to thread that needle. The kids of the present and the future deserve an Oscar who can be everything that he is.