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New `Sesame Street' theme is exercise, healthful eating

April 05, 2005|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,HARTFORD COURANT

Bad news for Cookie Monster - the focus of the 36th Sesame Street season, which starts this week, is healthful eating habits.

Although there are no plans to turn the lovable, cookie-chomping blue Muppet into Cauliflower Monster, the oversized, letter-of-the-day cookie he chomped down in yesterday's season premiere would likely be one of his last.

Joining the battle against childhood obesity, the season-long theme of "Healthy Habits for Life" is clear from the jump-roping that started the episode to the longer-than-usual segment called "The Healthy Foods Name Game," in which Elmo and Zoe scoured the neighborhood for colorful vegetables to complete a puzzle.

Talking apples and eggplants and chatty heads of lettuce and ears of corn jabbered away in different sketches. They were so prevalent that you might think they'll be seen as often as some of the other Sesame Street puppet favorites.

Guest stars this season will talk about healthful activities, and the first celebrity is New York Yankees manager Joe Torre. In the future, singer Alicia Keys will demonstrate different ways to move, and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin will address Telly about using food for energy. An American Bandstand parody is titled "American Fruit Stand." Even the elements of the "Elmo's World" segment include tips on smart eating patterns.

For now, neither Big Bird nor Snuffleupagus appears to have radically slimmed down, though Cookie Monster looks trimmer when singing alongside Wyclef Jean.

The insistent health messages on Sesame Street never become preachy - at least no more than the show's continued emphasis on numbers and letters, the bread and butter of the show since it began in 1969.

It all goes down well because the producers, the Children's Television Workshop, maintain colorful and fast-moving shows that include the kind of sharp parodies that delight parents even as they go over the heads of their small-fry target audience. Some of the best this year are takeoffs on TV's most popular prime-time shows, from "Six Feet Under," during which the number of feet beneath a kitchen table are enumerated by The Count, to a couple of "Desperate Houseplants" who bemoan their particular needs: sun and water.

The Count also presents another new segment, "24," in which the intrigue includes counting up to that digitally displayed number. In "Grouch Eye for the Nice Guy," Oscar and his trash-loving buddies present a makeover for the ageless Bob McGrath.

That the host of "Chasing the Cheese" is meant to look like ESPN's Chris Berman may escape some, but there's no mistaking the bogus tuft of orange hair topping the character called Donald Grump.

The Sesame Street focus on childhood health, which will continue for several years, was announced with some fanfare last spring on Capitol Hill. It is supported by a coalition of partners and an advisory board of health, nutrition, fitness and education experts.

One of the corporate sponsors of the campaign, ironically, is McDonald's, whose menu is not the pinnacle of healthfulness. But it's no more ironic than a bid for activity that occurs on that most passive of media: TV.

For now, at least, Cookie Monster need not hoard sweets.

Among new songs such as "Colorful Carrots" and "TJ: Fruit Snack Samba," there is another new ditty sung by Hoots the Owl that will explain the difference between "anytime" foods and "sometimes" foods.

Instead of eliminating cookies from the diet, Hoots sings: "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food."

Sesame Street began its 36th season yesterday on PBS. The show airs at 9 a.m. weekdays on MPT, Channel 22.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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