Namath Big Bird

Legendary New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath may not have racked up the stats that New England’s Tom Brady has, but he has one claim to fame that Brady doesn’t — he was a guest on “Sesame Street” in September 1972.

“Can you tell me how to get,

How to get, to Sesame Street?”

If you don’t know, you can ask pretty much any children of your acquaintance. They know where it is. As far as they’re concerned, it’s always been there.

But for those of us who are older on this 50th anniversary of the launching of “Sesame Street” on PBS, it’s worth recalling just what television programming aimed at kids looked like before then.

With notable exceptions, such as “Captain Kangaroo” and Providence’s own Salty Brine, children’s television in the 1960s truly was a vast wasteland. (“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” had only debuted the year before, also on PBS.)

Saturday mornings were particularly dire. It was a mix of bad animation with repetitive plots, a la “Space Ghost,” hyper-violent Three Stooges shorts and recycled Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1930s and ’40s.

One has to believe that Bugs and Daffy joking about the New Deal and World War II went well over the heads of most of the intended preteen audience of the time.

(There’s one memorable postwar ‘toon set in Sherwood Forest where, in the course of outwitting the Sheriff of Nottingham, Bugs Bunny does an extended riff — and you can look this up — on VA housing loans. Which, in a way, could be considered educational TV, we suppose.)

Commercial TV networks’ efforts to put on slightly more contemporary programing resulted in such nightmare-inducing fare as “H.R. Pufnstuf,” or “The Banana Splits.”

“Sesame Street” was different from the start.

It didn’t talk down to kids, or try to spoon feed them instruction. It could be silly and funny as well as thoughtful and charming.

It used the techniques and rhythms of everyday television to teach and inform as well as entertain.

Of course, there have been controversies along the way. Was Cookie Monster’s diet a bad example for children?

Was pop star Katie Perry’s dress too daring for her appearance on a kid’s show? And what is up with Bert and Ernie, anyway?

But, for the most part, the show has fulfilled its mission over the past half century.

As staff writer George W. Rhodes notes in today’s front page story, a university study has found “positive effects for both boys and girls, with large point estimates for boys. The data also indicate positive effects for all three race/ethnic groups considered with larger point estimates for blacks and Hispanics than for white non-Hispanics.”

Experts also point out, however, that no TV show can take the place of personal interaction or time spent with a caring adult.

But if you want to spend time with a child, you could do worse than spending it “where the air is sweet,” on Sesame Street.

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