Great story in The Onion A.V. Club this week about Sesame Street. Since it’s been around so long, it’s easy to forget what a brilliant, ground-breaking show it was at its inception. And as with all children’s entertainment, you run the risk of dismissing it as puerile and overlooking the considerable artistry that went into virtually every aspect of its production.
I actually watched the very first season of Sesame Street when I was a kid. Hell, I remember being confused when Oscar the Grouch showed up in the second season colored green instead of orange. (At least they didn’t replace him with Ted McGinley.)
It got me thinking about my favorite Muppet from back in the day. That would be Lefty, the street-corner scam artist.
No, I’m not making that up. I even found video evidence, which we’ll get to presently. I looked up some stuff about Lefty on the Internet. Apparently he hasn’t been on for a long time, which doesn’t surprise me. This was in the pre-Elmo days. The early ’70s. Children’s entertainment or not, Lefty was from the milieu of John Shaft and Frank Serpico. Edgy. A man of the streets.
By the way, all of the references to Lefty I found on the Internet refer to him as a “salesman.” I’m not buying it. Just look at the guy. Do you really believe his livelihood is anything so pedestrian and legal as “salesman?” He’s a con artist. Wake up and smell the mingled cigarette smoke, cheap booze and desperation. I can see him in a back alley, pocketing a few bills and giving Philip Marlowe the word on the street. Specifically, the Philip Marlowe played by Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 version of “The Long Goodbye.” Lefty has 1970s neo-noir written all over him.
In retrospect, I wonder if my early fondness for Lefty led to my later predilection for hard-boiled/noir fiction. Or was it simply an indication that the predilection already existed in my five-year-old subconscious? Oh well. Chicken or the egg, I guess. Lefty was cool. The fedora. The trenchcoat. The John Constantine-esque air of easy familiarity with dangerous realms that you and I sense only as an indistinct shadow on the periphery of our sheltered existence.
Anyway, watch this clip of Lefty in action. Remember that artistry I was talking about back there in the first paragraph? One thing that strikes me when I watch this now is how expertly this sketch is staged. Yes, the actors are puppets on a kids’ show. But it’s still freakin hilarious.
Since this sketch doesn’t include any lessons on letters or numbers, I don’t know if it was meant to be educational or not. But I like to think it was. I like to think that somebody at the Children’s Television Workshop figured: “Hey. Since we’re teaching these kids how to read and do math, we might as well teach them a few practical life lessons, too. Such as the existence of guys like Lefty. He may be cool, but watch your wallet around him.”
Important note: I was careful in the title of this post to specify that Lefty is Sesame Street’s coolest Muppet. Cool as Lefty is, some of the ones from The Muppet Show might give him a run for his money. I’ve always been partial to Animal and Beaker myself. R.I.P. Jim Henson. Someday I hope to buy you a beer in Valhalla.