Sesame Street: D is for Divorce

Things are changing on Sesame Street and the writers behind the major children's series are tackling yet another tough subject... divorce.

In an new web series, the Muppet show, which is in its 44th season, will publicly talk about divorced families.

"Sesame Street has never shied away from taking on tough topics. If it's a challenge young children face in their lives, it's a challenge Sesame Street would like to help them weather," a blog posted on the Sesame Street website said.

"Over the years we have tackled everything from the death of a loved one to helping children through challenging economic times. And now Sesame Workshop is providing tools and resources to help children and parents stay resilient during divorce and separation."

Millions of young children experience divorce, and they struggle to understand what exactly is happening. Parents also struggle to explain these changes, if they are able to open up to their children about the subject at all.

"That's why Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce provides resources featuring our beloved Sesame Street Muppets that give divorced parents strategies on how to communicate with and support their children," the blog stated.

The segment itself won't air on TV — it's among Sesame Street's "targeted" programming aimed at specific populations — but it will tackle divorce directly, in a way producers hope is accessible, understandable and, well, not quite so scary.

Sesame Street writer Christine Ferraro wrote the script for the video materials starring Abby Cadabby, Elmo and Rosita, and spoke about the difficulties of writing stories about such a sensitive topic.

"We never want to go too into detail with any of these," Ferraro said, "because every kid's situation is different. Every divorce is different and every family's situation is different. We want to keep it a little bit ambiguous so it's applicable to all children, but it's also Abby's story. Abby is talking about the fact that her parents are divorced. She's already at a place where she has accepted it, and that made a big difference emotionally."

"This [house] is where I live with my mommy," Abby proclaims confidently, holding up her crayon drawing in the web episode, "and this one is where I live with my daddy."

The reason? Well, you know the reason.

"Divorce means that Abby's mommy and daddy aren't married anymore," longtime Sesame Street adult Gordon explains.

"The general messages that come across," she added, "are you are not alone, we are here for you. You can talk to people about this. It's good to talk. There are many different emotions you may go through. That's OK."

Although Abby Cabaddy's parents are divorced in the story, Ferraro spoke to how important it was that Elmo, Rosita and Gordon, played by Roscoe Orman, appear in the story as well.

"We wanted there to be an adult, and that's why Gordon is in it," she said. "We wanted to show an example of a kid talking to an adult about this. Roscoe just did an incredible, wonderful job. We wanted to show there are many people in your life who can support you."

"The general messages that come across," she added, "are you are not alone, we are here for you. You can talk to people about this. It's good to talk. There are many different emotions you may go through. That's OK."

But this isn't the first time that Sesame Street, and Gordon, have attempted to tackle the subject.

In early 1992, a census report predicted that 40 percent of children would soon live in divorced homes.

Writers came up with a script and cast Snuffy, a.k.a. Mr. Snuffleupagus, for the part of child divorcee.

"With a team of its best writers, researchers, and producers, a segment was scripted and shot, a Tumblr storyboard posted on PBS' website stated. "It went through a half-dozen revisions, with input from the foremost researchers in the field. And on a typical sunny afternoon on Sesame Street, the furry, red, elephantine muppet known as Snuffy prepared to drop the bomb on his loyal preschool viewers."

"My dad is moving out of our cave," he confides to Big Bird one afternoon, distraught after knocking over a house built of blocks. "I'm not sure where," he continues, crying. "Some cave across town."

Big Bird, naturally, is horrified. "But why?" he asks his friend. 

Snuffy blinks his long, dark eyelashes, and pauses. We know what's coming. Well, he explains, "because of something called a divorce."

That is where Gordon explains why divorces happen.

"Viewers learn that sometimes divorce can be 'for the best,' the Tumblr storyboard said. 

"We are assured that Snuffy and his sister Alice will always be loved. And yet when Sesame Street tested the segment on preschoolers, just weeks before it was scheduled to air, it was nothing short of a disaster. The children didn't know where Snuffy was going to live. They didn't think his parents loved him. Some worried their own parents might get a divorce. They cried."

"It was really the first time we'd produced something, put all this money into it, tested it, and it just didn't work," says Susan Scheiner, a longtime Sesame researcher, who worked on the segment. "We thought we had it. We thought this was really revolutionary, and then it was just bad."

Sesame Street killed the show, and for the two decades since, producers have avoided the D-word on air — until now.

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