This review is brought to you by the letter J and the numbers 1, 6, and 9. Most of the important movers and shakers involved in the early days of Sesame Street had first names that started with J. In addition, the first episode aired in 1969.
If you've every enjoyed an episode of Sesame Street and wondered how the show got to where it is, this book will fill you in on the behind-the-scenes decisions and conflicts that led to what you enjoyed. As such, this book is more of a thumbnail view of the key players in Sesame Street along with brief descriptions of critical decisions than it is "The Complete History of Sesame Street" as the subtitle claims.
The story is a little different from the impression I had. In the early days, Sesame Street was so high profile that virtually every aspect of its origins and development was front page news in our community. Over time, Sesame Street grew to resemble more of an iceberg where the bulk of what was going on was submerged beneath the output of the many hundreds of episodes.
In Street Gang, former TV Guide editor and columnist (and Nieman fellow) Michael Davis wisely concentrates on the events between the fateful conversation between Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett and the untimely death of beloved genius Jim Henson. You'll get more of the events after Henson's death, but everything is much telescoped. If you don't know what Elmo's World is, this book won't advance your knowledge very much.
Michael Davis shows the warts . . . on the people . . . and there were plenty. But he does so in a respectful and balanced way.
If you are like I was, you don't realize that the creative people who brought Sesame Street to life often had serious illnesses, untimely deaths, and troubled personal lives. Although the book doesn't say it, my impression is that creating this show was difficult and took a high price from the talented originators.
I loved the little stories that were fully developed in the book such as how the letters and numbers came to be presented as advertisements, the show that explained Mr. Hooper's death, how the show was cast at different times, and the processes involved in making changes. I wish that the book could have been 600 pages longer and included more of those stories. But as they say in show business, "Leave them wanting more." Perhaps Mr. Davis will write a related book that focuses more on the show.
Students of management should study this book for how to turn academic theory about achieving social purposes into practical reality. The truth is that Sesame Street worked, while many academically based well-intentioned experiments did not.
There's also a model here for how television, the Internet, and whatever the next media channel is could become far more valuable to society. I hope that point won't be lost in our loving nostalgia for this remarkable show, incredible organization, and great accomplishment.