07/25/03
Happy Birthday to Bert
    by John Cech

Brief sound clip

That's Bert from Sesame Street, played by Frank Oz, singing his signature song, "Doing the Pigeon," just in time for his birthday tomorrow. Bert, of course, is the straight man to the late Jim Henson's, Ernie -- the clown. Bert is the Figgy-fizz bottle-cap- collecting, verticle-striped, one-eyebrowed, w -loving, weather-report-watching, neat and serious half of that incomparable puppet vaudeville team that has been delighting us and our children since Sesame Street first came on the air in November of 1969. In one episode, Ernie runs out of clay for his sculpture of Bert and has to use Bert's own nose to complete this work of art. In another, Ernie turns Bert's cowboy hat into a fishbowl. And in perhaps their most classic sketch, Ernie has a banana in his ear, and Bert has to figure out why it's there -- of course, to filter out unnecessary questions -- like Bert's! Chi-tum.

Bert never gets it, and that's okay. In the dynamics of any play group, any family, any neighborhood, there's always a Bert -- who'd rather eat oatmeal than a cookie, who'd prefer grey to red, who'd rather collect pink erasers than dig in the sand box.

Frank Oz, Bert's voice and guiding spirit, said, "I was never really happy with Bert's character until about a year in when I realized . . . that he was a very boring character, and I'd use that weakness as a strength for him." In doing so Oz gave Bert's tedious qualities a kind of enduring, respectable, hilariously predictable, gravitas. We can't all be (or always be) the clown. And the world, after all, needs both -- the one who counts the paper clips and the one who throws the papers in the air. The joy of this collaboration is that Bert and Ernie are both along for the ride together, two complementary though often competing sides of human nature, a perfectly balanced imbalance that sometimes even lets Bert cut loose, like the time he discovered what he could do with a tin can, a pan, a whistle and a spoon:

Brief sound clip.

Copyright 2003 John Cech

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