Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce
|"Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce"|
|'Sesame Street' episode|
|Episode no.||Season 23
|Written by||Norman Stiles|
|Original air date||none|
Episode 2895, unofficially titled "Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce", is a filmed yet un-aired episode of the popular U.S children's show Sesame Street. The episode was created for broadcast in 1992, but shelved by most broadcasters and producers once test audiences to the program were not able to understand the concept of divorce.
Launched in 1969, the PBS children's series Sesame Street was created with modern, lower-class, urban audiences in mind. While the audience quickly expanded beyond the initial demographic, the program stayed committed to occasionally tackling serious issues such as death, adoption, marriage, and pregnancy. These episodes are often inspired by national statistics or events within the circle of the show's own cast and crew.
In Season 23 (1991–1992), the subject of divorce was the big project of the season. As a result, producers filmed an episode "Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce", in which Aloysius Snuffleupagus (also known as Snuffy) and little sister Alice must deal with the separation of their parents. The plot seemed to trouble children who watched it in test screenings.
The decision to tackle the issue of divorce was a weighty one for the Children's Television Workshop, and the idea had a long gestation period. As early as 1989, writer/director Jon Stone announced that he was attempting to examine the issue: "We make a conscious decision on what to look at. My two projects for this year are drugs and divorce. Divorce is a difficult one. Perhaps we could do it with puppets. I am also writing a script on drugs and peer pressure."
Not everyone in the production shared Stone's interest. Executive producer Dulcy Singer vetoed the idea in 1990, before it reached development. While she felt complex social matters should be discussed on the series, she felt the issue was irrelevant to lower socio-economic groups; the initial target audience of Sesame Street was inner city and financially disadvantaged families. Feeling that "divorce is a middle-class thing," she suggested instead that an episode focus on a single-parent family, with the child born out of wedlock with an absent father.
The topic of divorce was discussed again the following year, after the US Census Bureau released statistics suggesting 40 percent of all children in the United States, not just the middle classes, would soon live in divorced households.
Choosing an approach
Crafting an episode from the topic required adjustment from both the performers and production crew alike. The first obstacle was determining how to address the issue in a narrative, and whether to use the Muppet characters or the human cast. Producer-director Lisa Simon publicly reported on the difficulties: "We hope to get to it by the end of the season. It always takes us a while to figure out how to do an issue appropriately, from a child's point of view ... With puppets, it's slightly less frightening ... The kids have somebody to identify with. They see the puppet characters have feelings and work through a difficult issue many of them will have to face." Veteran cast member Jerry Nelson noted that "Now we delve into things like divorce that are likely to affect small children very heavily. We didn't touch those things before."
They once tried to deal with the subject of divorce. They knew they couldn't do it with either of our married couples—Gordon and Susan or Maria and Luis—so they tried it with Snuffleupagus, writing a show about his parents getting divorced. They wrote a whole show and taped it, and it was just devastating for test groups of kids. So they just threw the whole thing in the garbage and never tried it again. It was just too difficult a concept for a 3-year-old.
Staff writer Norman Stiles was assigned to the script, which the Children's Television Workshop scheduled to air April 10, 1992 as episode number 2895. Stiles previously wrote episode 1839, in which the adults on Sesame Street explain Mr. Hooper's death to Big Bird.
As with Mr. Hooper's death, the script received great scrutiny by the show's advisory board and developmental psychologists. The board suggested providing greater emphasis to the fact that arguments do not automatically mean divorce. The episode was taped after a script revision, and the completed episode screened before a test audience of 60 children in four daycare centers. Dulcy Singer still had her doubts: "We were really nervous about the show, and we didn't think it was a shoo-in. When you're dealing with something like death, the approach can be universal. But with divorce, it's so personal. People react differently."
The final episode addressed the advisors' concerns via a conversation in which Gordon reassures Elmo, Big Bird, and Telly that "Just because parents have an argument, or get upset with each other, doesn't mean they're getting a divorce... Or that they don't love each other anymore." He also reassured Snuffy and his sister Alice that it's not their fault, "No, not even if you spill something."
The reassurances had little effect on the test viewers, however, especially taken in conjunction with the rest of the episode. While Mommy Snuffleupagus had appeared irregularly, Snuffy's father has only appeared in the book See You Later, Mashed Potater!. When he does appear in the episode, arriving for a weekend visit, Alice attempts to bring him inside, but he reminds her that "I don't live here anymore." Children were unclear on where Snuffy's parents lived, especially the father, and believed that Daddy "ran away and Snuffy and Alice would never see their father again."
The realistic depiction of the Snuffleupagus children struggling emotionally with the issue also proved troubling. In one scene, as Alice overhears her parents arguing in the next cave, she pounds and kicks her teddy bear out of frustration. Singer weighed in on the reactions, which despite the care taken, revealed both emotional responses and misunderstandings of the very points which the script attempted to clarify:
The kids came away with negative messages ... The kids said she stabbed the teddy bear with a knife. The kids misunderstood arguments. They said arguments did mean divorce. Some thought Snuffy's parents were moving away even though we said just the opposite. A number said the parents would no longer be in love with them.
With the testing results in, research director Valeria Lovelace recommended scrapping the episode and going "back to the drawing board," and the idea was abandoned, at least for the season. Episode 2895, as aired in many areas, instead focused on Oscar the Grouch and a visit from his brother. The Children's Television Workshop internally talked of attempting to broach the divorce issue later on, perhaps in multiple parts. However, as producer Michael Loman recalled, "We ate the cost and never aired it. We feel there are a range of issues that we can deal with in the family that do not go to the extreme of divorce."
To some extent, parental separation or divorce have been covered in a "Sesame Street News Flash" segment about a bird whose parents live in different trees. The song, named "They Live in Different Places, But They Both Love Me", first aired in episode 2837.
This article is based on one from Muppet Wiki, another GFDL-based reference. Modifications have been made since.
- Sesame Street Research (1992). Study on show #2985, Snuffy's parents get a divorce. New York, New York: Children's Television Workshop. OCLC 43694286. Lay summary – G is for Growing (2000-12-01).
- Newman, Richard J. (1992-04-20). "Not So Sunny Days". U.S. News & World Report (U.S.News & World Report, L.P.).
- "'D' Won't Do for Divorce". Herald Sun (Herald and Weekly Times Ltd). 1992-03-17.
- Rosemarie Truglio, Shalom M. Fisch, ed. (2001) [2000-12-01]. "G" Is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street (HardcoverISBN 0-8058-3394-3. OCLC 43694286.). LEA's Communication Series (1st ed.). Florence, Kentucky: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. p. 288. : Page 76.
- Fisch, Shalom M. (2004). "Sesame Street and School Readiness". Children's Learning from Educational Television: Sesame Street and Beyond. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. (Routledge). pp. 16–17. ISBN 0-8058-3936-4. OCLC 51936820. Retrieved 2008-01-14.
- A Summary of the Major Findings in "The First Year of Sesame Street: An Evaluation".. Princeton, New Jersey: Educational Testing Service. 1970-10-00. p. 33. Retrieved 2008-04-08.
- Lemercier, K. I.; K. I. Lemercier, G. R. Teasdale (1973-03-00). ""Sesame street": Some effects of a television programme on the cognitive skills of young children from lower SES backgrounds". Australian Psychologist (London, England: Taylor & Francis) 8 (1): 47–51. doi:10.1080/00050067308255391. Retrieved 2008-04-08. (note that SES means "socioeconomic status".)
- Elana Halberstadt, "What's near Big Bird's nest?", Sesame Street Beat Newsletter, December 14, 1999.
- "Death of a Character is a Sesame Street Topic". Associated Press. 1983-09-31.
- Harris, Richard Jackson (2004). "Children and the Media". A cognitive psychology of mass communication (4th ed.). Mahwah, New Jersey: Routledge. pp. 129–132. ISBN 0-8058-4660-3.
- Leigh Belz, "Happy Birthday Sesame Street!", Sesame Street Beat Newsletter, November 7, 2000.
- Elana Halberstadt, "Love Story: The Maria and Luis Romance", Sesame Street Beat Newsletter, February 8, 2000.
- George Comstock and Erica Scharrer.; George Comstock, Erica Scharrer (2007-00-00). Media and the American Child. Burlington, Massachusetts: Academic Press. p. 142. ISBN 0-12-372542-9.
- "Sesame Street, brought to you by the number, 35!!!", Sesame Workshop press release, 2004.
- Muriel, Cohen (1989-10-29). "Street Smarts". The Boston Globe (Affiliated Publications).
- Alaton, Salam (1990-01-27). "Street Smarts". The Globe and Mail (Thomson Group).
- "Tackling Divorce". The Advertiser (News Corporation). 1991-11-08.
- Hartford, Courant (1991-11-07). "Big Bird, Friends Begin 23rd Season". The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec) (Southam Inc.).
- Dawidziak, Mark (2004-04-04). "35 Candles for Sesame Street". Cleveland Plain Dealer (Forest City Publishing Company).
- Walters, Laurel Shaper. "Sesame Street: 25- and Growing." Christian Science Monitor. November 22, 1993.
- Sesame Workshop, official site of show producers