Sesame Street Writer Mark Saltzman “Reveals” Bert & Ernie Were Based on His Own Relationship
In an interview with Queerty, Mark Saltzman, who worked for 15-years on The Muppets and wrote scripts and songs for Sesame Street, talked about how Bert and Ernie were inspired by his own relationship with film editor Arnold Glassman.
Saltzman talks about how, before he joined Sesame Street in ’84, he was already with his “life partner, the love of my life,” but wasn’t fully out at the time. Yet, by the time he did join the iconic show, he was completely out. “By ’86 we had an apartment together. My father knew. There was no hiding it.” Saltzman then went on to say that he did want to take more progressive gay routes in his writing on the show, but the powers that be often kept them from tackling stuff like AIDS.
“I can remember pitching to the education department, the gatekeepers of the curriculum, gay content, just to get it off my conscience. And I can remember being stonewalled in a way that it made me think it was a lost cause. My activism isn’t a hit the streets variety, and what Sesame Street was doing racially, you certainly don’t want to denounce it. I would have liked to have been the first writer to do the “two mommy” episode.”
That naturally led to the question about Bert and Ernie and whether those two characters could have been seen as gay. Now, speaking as a youth, the narrative of Bert and Ernie being a gay couple is nothing new. Bert and Ernie, as well as Tinkie Winkie from the Teletubbies, were characters I knew everyone called “gay,” but as a child, I didn’t really understand the concept. I just knew that gay was different.
With satire like Avenue Q, which definitely leans into the idea of the Bert and Ernie as “roommates” narrative as a coding for gay, the idea that these two characters, on a largely sexless show, could be read as a couple is nothing new.
Yet, looking at it as a mirror of Saltzman’s own relationship with his partner makes it more than just subtext. It’s a sweet way that a writer wrote about the man he loved on a show that was all about making friendship, love, and kindness universal issues.
“I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were [gay],” Saltzman said. “I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them. The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie & I as ‘Bert & Ernie.'”
Yeah, I was Ernie. I look more Bert-ish. And Arnie as a film editor—if you thought of Bert with a job in the world, wouldn’t that be perfect? Bert with his paper clips and organization? And I was the jokester. So it was the Bert & Ernie relationship, and I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street. So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple. I wrote sketches…Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert & Ernie dynamic.
The interviewer, David Reddish, then asks, “So you’re saying that Bert & Ernie became analogs for your relationship in a lot of ways?”
Yeah. Because how else? That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not? I will say that I would never have said to the head writer, “oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.” But those two, Snuffalupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a gay audience. And Snuffy, this depressed person nobody can see, that’s sort of Kafka! It’s sort of gay closeted too.
From this interview, I didn’t just see a “fan theory” confirmed. I saw this really awesome avatar for a relationship that lasted twenty years. Sadly, Arnold Glassman passed away in 2003, but through Bert & Ernie, that love, that bond, that relationship will live forever, and that’s amazing. They are made of love, Garnet style, and that’s the most important part.
(via Queerty, image: HBO)
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