On April 23, 2002, the speaker testifying before Congress appeared nattily dressed in a suit and tie. A hush came over the attendees as he began to speak, often referring to himself in the third person. Though Congress is not often the site of (intentional) comedy, subcommittee members seemed amused.
The individual addressing Congress was Elmo, the popular red-furred star of Sesame Street. In speaking on behalf of supporting music education in schools, Elmo became the first non-human to ever testify on Capitol Hill. He was also the first Congressional witness who attempted to eat the microphone.
Legislate Me Elmo
If you want to draw attention to a cause, it helps to have a popular spokesperson. Or spokes-Muppet. For many young viewers, Elmo—a hyperactive and inquisitive animal of indeterminate species—is a huge reason to tune in to Sesame Street. His red fur is a visual standout, and his vocal inflections remind children of gentle authority figures. When Tickle Me Elmo hit shelves in 1996, the character caused one of the 20th century's last great toy crazes.
Naturally, Sesame Workshop, the production arm behind Sesame Street, is extremely careful with how Elmo and other characters are presented. That means you’re not likely to find Big Bird shilling for car insurance. But if the cause is just, it’s entirely possible the Workshop will permit a character to demonstrate support.
Elmo’s appearance before Congress was the result of a partnership the Workshop had struck with the National Association of Music Merchants, or NAMM, an industry trade group promoting music products and instruction. NAMM’s Joe Lamond, head of the group, was to speak before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education to request funding be allocated for music education—specifically, the purchase of musical instruments and furthering music research for schools.
Elmo would be his colleague, making a rare live appearance. In order to accommodate Elmo’s human assistant, who had to remain crouched under a table, the committee took a brief recess. When they returned, Elmo was in his full sartorial splendor and ready to make his case.
Congressman and Vietnam War veteran Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who had invited Elmo to accompany Lamond, introduced him by stating that music was important to him personally. “I listened to music before every mission when I went into combat in Vietnam, just to learn how to focus,” Cunningham said.
“Wow,” Elmo replied.
While Lamond spoke, Elmo often chimed in as a kind of comic sidekick. After Lamond pointed out that students involved in music education were more likely to be able to solve math and science problems and less likely to find themselves in gangs or drugs, Elmo nodded.
“Elmo is in the music program, and Elmo isn’t in a gang,” Elmo added.
After Lamond finished discussing the importance of music in schools, Elmo agreed that music education was inextricably connected to overall school performance. “Elmo scored a 1550 on his SATs,” he said. “All because of music, yeah! Oh, OK, Elmo made up that one.”
To reinforce the point, Elmo broke into a song about grocery shopping. When Congressional committee members found this funny, Elmo admonished them.
“Elmo’s not making a mockery of this place,” he said. “It’s very important.”
Elmo went on to state that, though he did not yet attend school, he looked forward to the day he could and hoped that musical education would be part of the curriculum.
While Lamond did most of the talking, Elmo had the last word. “Elmo knows that there is music in Elmo’s friends all over the country,” he said. “But some of them just don’t know it yet. They don’t know how to find their music. So that’s why Elmo needs Congress to help. Please, Congress, help Elmo’s friends find the music inside them.”
Lamond requested $2 million in funding for music research as well as instruments, though there’s no report of his lobbying with Elmo having the desired effect. But that may have been beside the point: Thanks to his furry companion, Lamond’s efforts received far more media attention than had he not shown up with a Muppet.
As for Elmo, he’s largely remained out of politics, but he clearly won the respect of the subcommittee. When Elmo’s testimony was transcribed, he was cited as “Elmo Monster” and “Mr. Monster.”