Mental Floss

Adults Only: Sesame Street’s Earliest Episodes Were Controversial By Today's Standards

Jake Rossen
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images / Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Tuesday, November 10 marks the 51st anniversary of the premiere of Sesame Street, the enduring children’s series that tackles topical issues filtered through the lens of its colorful puppet residents. Characters like Big Bird and Cookie Monster are the gold standard for innocuous childhood role models. But there was a time when the content of Sesame Street was questionable enough to get a contemporary “intended for grown-ups” tag.

Footage from original episodes of the show that was released on DVD in 2007 under the title Sesame Street: Old School Volume 1 and Volume 2 demonstrated content parents would find somewhat alarming today. Shots of kids riding bicycles without helmets were common; kids ran through construction sites and jumped on old mattress box springs, activities that would be verboten today. Even Cookie Monster was a de facto spokes-monster for smoking: He sported a pipe.

Speaking with CBS News in 2008, Sherrie Rollins Westin, then the executive vice president of Sesame Workshop (now its president of global impact and philanthropy), explained that the show also paid little attention to the concept of stranger danger. “In the very first episode, Gordon takes a little girl’s hand who he’s just met on the street, befriends her, and takes her into his home to give her ice cream,” she said. “That’s something we wouldn’t do on the show today.”

New episodes of Sesame Street, minus the child endangerment, will premiere Thursday, November 12 on HBO Max.