Long before “Inside Out” gave us Bing Bong, there was another imaginary character who stole the hearts and minds of a generation. He was a big, brown, furry beast named Mr. Snuffleupagus — and 30 years ago, he finally became real. But why?
Although it may be hard for the children who’ve grown up with “Sesame Street” since to believe, there was once a time when only Big Bird could see the creature affectionately nicknamed “Snuffy.” From the time of his 1971 introduction, the recurring structure of their friendship had the duo sharing a scene together — and then, just as a third character would appear, Snuffy would slink away. Big Bird would be left to insist that he had just been hanging out with a big, brown monster — and the adults would laugh in disbelief.
It seemed cute, it seemed innocent — but after 14 years of the gag, “Sesame Street” producers became concerned.
The site Mental Floss has a great oral history explaining the circumstances behind what would become a big headline in November 1985: Snuffleupagus stepping out of the shadows. The decision came during a difficult time for children and parents, as the innocence of the ’60s and ’70s began transitioning to a newer parental mindset governed by growing fears of child abuse.
“We started getting some letters from people who worked with children who had experienced some kind of abuse,” remembers Norman Stiles, a “Street” writer from 1971 – 1995. “And what we were told was that they often don’t think they’ll be believed because the stories are so fantastic in their minds.”
“All this was really stemming from a specific set of incidences in the news, claims of sexual abuse going on in some daycare centers, and kids being questioned about what was going on,” adds Carol-Lynn Parente, Executive producer of the show from 2005 to the present. “The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years — that seemed innocent enough — now something that’s become harmful?”
Before the 1984-1985 season, the producers planned out a gradual reveal of the character that would emphasize to children the differences between real and imaginary — and the promise that adults would see validity in their claims. Explains Martin P. Robinson, the post-1981 voice of Snuffy: “They devised this two-year scheme, where in the first year they would have some of the cast members learn from Bird that Bird could indeed tell the difference between what was real and what was imaginary .. And the other half of the adults said, “What, are you crazy? He’s imaginary! There’s no such thing as a Snuffleupagus.”
On November 18, 1985 Big Bird finally got Snuffy to stay still long enough to prove that his friend wasn’t imaginary after all. “They did it in one show,” remembers Robinson. “I always thought it would have been nice if they could have revealed him to one person at a time. So that one person would have actually seen him, and then go back screaming to the rest saying, ‘I saw him!'”
“We want to be helpful and useful for kids as well as parents. I think that’s why we’re here, 46 years later, always paying attention,” explains Parente of the show’s mission since its 1969 debut. “What is it kids and parents need from us? In 1985, what they needed us to do was to stop that storyline and present a model of adults listening to children.”