Who among us didn’t learn something from Caroll Spinney’s Big Bird over the years? Spinney, who for decades brought the Gentle Giant to life (and also Oscar the Grouch), died on Sunday, but the lessons he shared live on with the millions of people who grew up watching “Sesame Street.”
Beyond alphabet recitals and numerical countdowns, everybody’s favorite feathered friend had valuable things to say to both children and grown-ups about the value of cooperation and the best ways to navigate complex emotions. Life can be tough, he told us, but it’s going to be all right. Here are a few of the tricky topics Big Bird broke down for viewers young and old.
Flightless Big Bird felt insecure about himself after reading about “another bird” — the pioneering aviator Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who was the first to fly to the South Pole and back. What could Big Bird possibly do that might compare? “All I ever do is just sit here and play jacks and eat birdseed. And I’m never the first anywhere.” Diana Ross helped boost Big Bird’s confidence during her Season 13 guest spot when she sang “Believe in Yourself,” advising him to swap “I can” for “I can’t.”
Big Bird always encouraged kids to eat the fruits and vegetables they’re often eager to avoid. In Season 29, he shopped at the Union Square farmers market and visited an upstate farm called Blooming Hill, where he marveled at all the fresh produce. Big Bird also teamed up with a pair of First Ladies to promote healthy eating — Hillary Clinton in Season 25 and Michelle Obama in Season 40. “Broccoli! Yum, yum, yum, yum,” Big Bird said, making dinner time a tad easier for parents around the country. As part of the “Eat Brighter” campaign, Big Bird teamed with Obama and Billy Eichner on an odd (but Emmy-nominated) segment of “Billy on the Street,” where they played a grocery store game called “Ariana Grande or Eating a Carrot?” (As in, which is better? Answer: the carrot, of course.)
For the very young, healthy eating can mean breastfeeding, which Big Bird did a lot to help normalize. When the cast member Buffy Saint-Marie welcomed her son Dakota to the show, it gave her a chance to teach Big Bird how to deal with his jealousy that the baby was receiving more attention than he did, and to explain different kinds of love. (“Different People, Different Ways.”) She also demonstrated that nursing her infant was perfectly natural. “See, he’s drinking milk from my breast,” she told the curious bird. “Lots of mothers feed their babies this way. Not all mothers, but lots of mothers do.” Out in the real world, everyday moms were still being humiliated and shamed for nursing in public, so it meant a lot for Big Bird to see and accept it back in 1977. “You know, that’s nice,” he said. (In 2012, thousands of parents petitioned for “Sesame Street” to feature more breastfeeding.)
In 2000, Big Bird had a small chat with the actor Christopher Reeve that had big implications. By asking a few polite questions, Big Bird demonstrated that directly addressing a friend’s new reality and independent living skills — how does the wheelchair work? — allowed them to move on and to explore other activities (such as going to the library). Children are naturally curious, and the conversation was a good guideline for how to ask sensitive questions without being rude.
Big Bird had a tough time getting grown-ups to believe him. They dismissed his super-reclusive pal Mr. Snuffleupagus as an imaginary friend — or maybe even an elaborate lie. And after 14 seasons, Big Bird’s insistence otherwise was beginning to call his general credibility into question. One grown-up did believe his stories — Mister Rogers, during a crossover episode in Season 12. But was it too late? Even Mr. Snuffleupagus was a skeptic, doubting Big Bird several times. (“Et tu, Snuffy?” Big Bird moaned). It all made Big Bird question his ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Finally, though, inspired by a string of high-profile (but ultimately problematic) child sex abuse cases, “Sesame Street” allowed Big Bird to rally support for his claims in Season 16 and prove them in Season 17 — showing kids that grown-ups would believe them when they actually did tell the truth.
Big Bird always enjoyed friendly competition, but was never sure if he should be happy when he won if someone else had to lose. After a footrace with Mr. Snuffleupagus, for example, he said, “He’s going to be sad he didn’t win, and he might even be angry because I beat him.” (Fortunately, Mister Rogers was still on hand, and helped Big Bird realize that he could be a gracious winner and still let his friend know that he cared about his feelings.) Many years later, Big Bird competed against Jason Schwartzman on “Lip Sync Battle,” and when he won the round, asked the host LL Cool J to make it a tie. “I know you said that you can’t have two winners, there could only be one, but couldn’t just this once, couldn’t we change the rules?”
Dealing with Disaster
Big Bird had his share of minor accidents — that’s the point of “Everybody Makes Mistakes.” But in Season 32, over the course of five episodes, Big Bird had to deal with the wreckage of his nest by a hurricane. (“My home, my nest, my everything!”) The grown-ups pitch in to restore his modest digs — a process only made possible through friendship and cooperation. When the job is done, Big Bird is deeply grateful for all their help and tells them so (“I Want to Thank You for Being My Friends”). The lesson: Disasters will sometimes happen, but possessions are replaceable — people are not.
Big Bird is no stranger to nightmares, and he suffered a big one during a sleepover with Gabi in Season 27. But he also got a fright when Gabi hid under the blanket and was making “Wubba wubba” noises — a sound usually uttered by “Sesame Street” monsters. When he realized that it was only Gabi, Big Bird asked her to do it again, “because sometimes it’s fun to be scared.”
When the actor Will Lee, who played the grocer Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, “Sesame Street” was unsure how to deal with his loss. Should the story line have his character retire to Florida? Instead, his absence became a lesson for Big Bird — and the children watching — about understanding death and dealing with grief. After consulting with child psychologists, the show decided on a direct approach, and the result was the first “Sesame Street” episode to treat a difficult topic in a profound but age-appropriate way. Big Bird had to process an array of conflicting feelings — shock, confusion, frustration, regret, anger. Big Bird’s portrait of Mr. Hooper still hangs on the wall, even though an art dealer offered to buy it in a later episode. Out in the real world, Big Bird expressed his grief over the death of the Muppet master Jim Henson by singing at his memorial service, a moving way to send off his very best friend.