The cover of the Nov. 23, 1970 issue of TIME features a whimsical-looking Big Bird, his head crowned by a halo of bright lights and his mouth agape, perhaps mid-song. The story lauds the then one-year-old program as “not only the best children’s show in TV history,” but “one of the best parents’ shows as well.” And the show was revolutionary on both fronts. Not only was it was the first show to incorporate theories of early childhood development into its programming, but it was also one of the first to offer something for the grown-ups, not least of all its celebrity appearances.
Sesame Street’s use of celebrity cameos and pop culture references to appeal to adults was strategic. Creator Joan Ganz Cooney hoped parents would adopt the educational values the show promoted. And parents, after all, wielded the power when it came to the remote control. They’d be more likely, of course, to tune into a show that didn’t drive them from the room, seeking cover (see: Barney and Friends, two decades later).
Since debuting 45 years ago today, Sesame Street has featured hundreds of actors, musicians, politicians and athletes helping children with their ABCs and their 123s, their vocabulary and their understanding of human emotions. Here are a few of the funniest, strangest and most heartwarming moments shared between the puppets and their celebrity friends.
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James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones was the second guest star on Sesame Street, appearing on the second ever episode. His job was simple — deliver the alphabet slowly and clearly — and he completed the task with the professionalism of a Broadway star. Which, of course, he was: He took home the Tony that same year for his performance in A Great White Hope. His rendition of the alphabet is among the best enunciated and most emotive the show has ever seen, but that’s to be expected from one of the most famous voices of the 20th century.
In one of the show’s more obvious appeals to mature viewers, Billy Crystal appeared in 1984 as his recurring Saturday Night Live character Ricky. One half of a duo with Christopher Guest, Crystal’s Ricky dons a monogrammed bowling shirt and responds to every other event with a goofy laugh and an incredulous exclamation of “Unbelievable!” This catchphrase made him a suitable guest to teach kids about the letter “U,” which he approached with his signature bewilderment: “Am I dreamin’ or what?”
Lily Tomlin played a recurring character, 5-and-a-half-year-old Edith Ann, on Sesame Street. In the late 1970s when she appeared on the show, Tomlin’s movie career was picking up steam. She’d been nominated for an Oscar for her role in Nashville and would star as secretary Violet Newhall in the 1980 box office smash 9 to 5. As Edith Ann, though, Tomlin squirmed around in an oversized chair, sharing stories of her life at home with her bullying big sister, her fighting parents and her dog Buster. In this clip, she tells the fateful tale of an experimental sandwich so vile that even her dog wouldn’t touch it. She closed all her monologues with a smile, a raspberry and her signature tagline: “And that’s the truth.”
Robin Williams visited Sesame Street on multiple occasions, but this sketch has perhaps the most winning combination of humor and heart. Williams’ slapstick monologue about all the imaginative ways you can put a stick to use plays almost like one of his stand-up routines, only the raunchiness is turned down to zero and the language is a smidge less colorful. In less than two minutes he plays a pool shark, an English officer and a handful of other characters worthy of a Saturday Night Live sketch. But most notable is the lesson he teaches Elmo: that of all the countless ways he can use the stick, the most important thing he can do is to give it to his friend.
During his 1976 appearance, the comedian takes a slightly more casual approach than James Earl Jones, ad libbing on the different letters’ personalities (“M was cool,” but “T was mean”). It’s nonsensical and perhaps more confusing to a young child than educational. But it’s important for kids to learn that strange can be good, too.
In this appearance, her first of several on the show, Marisa Tomei embraces her Brooklyn roots with a story about a waitress in Bensonhurst. Reading and acting out a version of “The Frog Prince” tailored to monkey friends Davey and Joey, Tomei plays a gum-smacking, hair-up-to-there server in a fast food restaurant. Tomei did, in fact, work for a short time at a Brooklyn restaurant, and her heavy accent here calls to mind her character in My Cousin Vinny, for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Patrick Stewart described his guest stint on Sesame Street as one of the “most distinguished bits of work that I’ve done in the U.S.” (the other was appearing on The Simpsons). He plays a sophisticated thespian in this 2001 reimagining of Hamlet’s soliloquy as an ode to the letter “B” (“ ‘B’ or not a ‘B?’”). In the sketch, a dramatically lit Stewart ponders in Shakespearean English “whether ‘tis the second letter of the alphabet, or some other merry letter.” It’s a fitting role for an actor many know best as Star Trek’s Captain Picard. Stewart, in fact, began his career with a run in the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company.
Feist’s “1234” served a couple of purposes after its initial release as a single. First, it turned out to be a perfect ditty for selling iPod Nanos. And after that, Sesame Street repurposed it to teach kids how to count. At least, to four. Feist’s comfort on set with counting chickens and penguins is likely due to her teen years apprenticing at Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Theater, whose puppetry she later used in her music video for “Honey Honey.”
The “Tightrope” singer’s visit to Sesame Street in 2013 brought some soul to the set. Donning her usual uniform — a tailored tuxedo with hair piled neatly atop her head — Monáe sang “The Power of Yet,” encouraging the puppets to keep working toward their goals. She told Billboard that performing on the show was living a dream; having grown up in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Monáe likely spent her childhood watching the show.
Johnny Cash’s 1975 children’s album, aptly named The Johnny Cash Children’s Album, may not be one of the country icon’s most famous, but it did help land him an appearance on the fifth season of Sesame Street. In the first of several guest spots, Cash serenades Oscar the Grouch with a song about “Nasty Dan,” whose company Oscar decides he’d very much enjoy. Oscar also takes a liking to Cash, calling him “my kinda guy,” and mistaking him, briefly, for Johnny Trash.
First comes the Academy Award, next comes the Sesame Street appearance. This past September, the 12 Years a Slave actress joined Elmo to talk about skin: how it protects us, helps us feel things and “comes in lots of beautiful shades and colors.” The pair agree that they love the skin they’re in, a lovely (and presumably coincidental) repurposing of Olay’s slogan to teach children about tolerance and self-respect. Next up, Nyong’o will appear in another decades-old institution: Star Wars.