LGBT issues

Inside Bert and Ernie’s all-too-brief moment of gay liberation

The Daily Beast

September 18, 2018

A gay ‘Sesame Street’ writer revealed he distilled parts of his own relationship into Bert and Ernie. ‘Sesame Street’ and Frank Oz objected. But momentarily the pair was liberated.

They didn’t know how they got there. But at 1:07 pm on September 18, 2018, as if by magic, Bert and Ernie found themselves in New York City staring up at the red neon sign of the Stonewall Inn.

Bert was whining that it was too humid, and that he needed to get inside someplace for the air conditioning. “Ernie, I think it’s gonna rain,” he added. “And we don’t have an umbrella.”

Ernie didn’t hear the criticism. His eyes were saucers: he’d just seen a hot silver-haired guy head inside. He reminded Ernie of Sam The Eagle (secret crush, he couldn’t tell Bert or there would be sulking FOR DAYS).

Bert’s phone pinged. He and Ernie read the article in silence.

The LGBT site Queerty had published an excellent­—really, read it—interview with Mark Saltzman, a writer on Sesame Street, one of a team who wrote Bert and Ernie.

This is what Saltzman told author David Reddish, about how his own relationship with his partner Arnold “Arnie” Glassman informed what he wrote.

Bert and Ernie read it in silence:

“I remember one time that a column from The San Francisco Chronicle, a pre-schooler in the city turned to mom and asked “are Bert & Ernie lovers?” And that, coming from a preschooler was fun. And that got passed around, and everyone had their chuckle and went back to it.

“And I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were. 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 Bert and Ernie relationship was analogous to Saltzman’s own, the author of the article asked.

“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.’”

Still in the glow of the Stonewall Inn’s red sign, Bert and Ernie thought it was a beautiful interview (indeed it is a must-read for any Sesame Street and Muppet Show fans, with oodles of intimate insight and gossip).

The internet, however, spun into an inevitable meltdown, which made Bert start moaning to himself with a high-pitched whine, and Ernie scrunch up his face, worried for his friend. They both headed into the Stonewall to collect their thoughts.

Where were they, the two suddenly asked themselves; then they saw the story on the walls, the riots of 1969, all that history, and they understood. A little more Googling on Bert’s phone. They were “gay” as well, the internet was saying. They looked at each other, smiled. Bert was calmer. Ernie was happy, and then he looked up and saw the pool table. The day had suddenly gotten so much better.

The two picked up some pool cues to play. Bert really did think he was Paul Newman in The Hustler, which Ernie thought was hot. They kissed. They spoke to the barman. They went for a walk around Greenwich Village, and saw LGBT people of all kinds, kissing, chatting, being silly, reading, talking. It felt natural and good. They had escaped, and come home.

The debate about whether Bert and Ernie are gay is many years old. At one level it sounds like a funny debate, because this is, after all, about puppets made of felt in a show aimed at children. But there is something in that consistently knee-jerk reaction to the conversation—the eye-rolling sense it’s too absurd to even have—that is as dismissive of gay sexuality as the reasoning that underpins why two puppets couldn’t be openly gay on a children’s TV show in the first place.

Indeed, around one hour and twenty minutes after the interview published, the Sesame Workshop issued a tweet, presumably in the stern, admonishing tone of Sam The Eagle, making clear that Bert and Ernie were best friends, designed to educate kids that people can be different and still get on. “They remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”

This gruff dismissiveness, this immediate knee-jerk, don’t-be-so-ridiculous, response was further crystallized by Muppets creator and director Frank Oz himself.

Frank Oz helped keep me enchanted from early childhood to far beyond (and still does), and on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon said: “It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert & Ernie are gay. It’s fine that he feels they are. They’re not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There’s much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.”

“They’re not, of course.”

The “of course” is everything here. Oz said he created Bert; he knows who Bert is. Got it. When it comes to Bert and Ernie’s sexuality, the rest of us are drunk on rainbow Pride juice. And sure enough: on Twitter anyone who wondered about the hetero-tetchiness of the Workshop and Oz were told they were essentially politically-correct gay killjoys, out to have a predictable identity politics row when this was dear old Bert and Ernie.

But there is nothing “of course” about Bert and Ernie. We don’t know if they are lovers, just good friends, or both. The “of course” assumes the heterosexuality of two puppet characters, when their entire interpretive field is gloriously open.

It’s why young and old could imagine whatever the hell they liked about Bert and Ernie. Imagining them as a same-sex couple might have been quite nice if you were the kind of gay kid, growing up, starved of any visual representations of gay people, gay couples, around you.

This young Sesame Street and Muppets fan, growing up in the deepest countryside, didn’t think of Bert and Ernie as gay. He was too young to know what that even meant. But their difference was immediately pleasing.

It was quite simply nice to see two men share a room in a house and a life together. It rang different to my young mind in a sweet way. Bert and Ernie were opposites attract, order versus disorder, fretful versus easy-going, reason versus spontaneity, and they never went to bed on an argument. When the light was turned off, amity and friendship reigned. Bert and Ernie seemed to have the gentlest friendship, a revolutionary male connection to my young mind.

Frank Oz’s own lack of understanding in his Tweet sounds intensely liberal and well-meaning (and he gamely conversed with detractors on Twitter). “But why that question? Does it really matter?” Well, yes it does when all around you at home, school, and on TV and film is assumed straight; where heterosexuality is the im mediate default.

When you’re the isolated gay kid in your own desert, why not look to the oasis of Bert and Ernie, not fitting in to the established order in their own way, and ask some questions of them and maybe yourself. Such questions can be liberating and nourishing.

“Why the need to define people as only gay?” asks Oz in that tweet. “There’s much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.” Yes, we all contain multitudes. But neither Saltzman, not the viewers who see Bert and Ernie as gay, see them as just gay. Bert, Ernie, and gay people are many things, of which being gay is one, very important part.

In the tempest of comment the best part of this afternoon’s brouhaha, the most meaningful part of it, came in the Queerty interview.

There, a TV writer unable to overtly write about gay relationships on screen, found a way to encode some kind of truth about them in an adorable pair of TV puppets. Some gays picked up on it, some found something there, some didn’t.

The loveliest thing is that this act of bravery and dissension found such an affectionate outlet in Bert and Ernie. As with the best kind of writing, it transmitted a surface message and then a whole bunch of other ones received differently by people watching.

Instead of coming out to support and endorse Saltzman’s writing, this bravery, and the candor that Saltzman spoke with—he was revealing part of his life today, part of a love story—Sesame Workshop and Frank Oz came along with their flaming torches of heterosexual righteousness and put an end to the truth and magic.

They dismissed Saltzman, the power of his words, and his intention behind writing them. They dismissed his relationship with Glassman.

So, yes it was an absurd media storm in some ways. And in some other ways Bert and Ernie: Gay or Not, part 244, was utterly serious. Thanks to Saltzman’s words you first saw a brief glimpse of gay history lovingly unearthed and told, and you saw how that little piece of gay history was embedded at the center of a piece of beloved pop-culture.

And then, depressingly, you saw the bubble of outrage and denial at this minute co-opting of turf, and a miserly determination to make that little piece of turf as straight as possible again as soon as possible, in a debate curiously shorn of the more serious issues it raised.

Why is there such a lack of positive LGBT representation for young people; and what is so wrong with the idea of gay characters being presented to young people generally? The shame here is on TV producers and companies lacking courage, not on the people reading whatever they like into Bert and Ernie.

Just so you know, in that just-under-an-hour and twenty minutes of liberation, Bert and Ernie had an absolute blast in New York City.

They played three games of pool, and Bert really did do his full-on Paul Newman/Hustler impression, which made Ernie flushed. The silver fox told them about this place with go-go boys, and so they rushed there by cab and stuffed twenties into a handsome dancer’s tighty-whities.

They went to the LGBT Center on 13th Street, marveled at all the community groups, had coffee in the courtyard, received their fans, and then loaded up with books from BGSQD. They relished the echo-y cool of the Keith Haring pissoir.

Bert and Ernie were making merry in Hell’s Kitchen when they saw the forbidding Closet Bus roll down 9th Avenue. Then, pffftt, everything went black again.

Yes, it was a very silly afternoon.

‘Night Bert. ‘Night Ernie.