The first presidential debate of 2012 was held on Wednesday night. Did you watch it? If you didn’t, you may have been puzzled to see that all day Thursday, everyone on the internet was talking about Big Bird as much as they were talking about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Here’s what happened, in the unlikely event that you haven’t heard by now: There was a lot of discussion about the economy during the debate, and at one point the Republican candidate Mitt Romney made it known that if he becomes president, he’ll cut subsidies to PBS, because apparently he thinks it’s a huge drain on the federal piggy bank. Here’s a clip:
Hey! He said Big Bird! The candidates covered a lot of topics during the debate — taxes, health care, unemployment, the new season of The X Factor — but the one thing everyone has latched onto is that two-second Big Bird reference. It was even included in one of those bizarre animated news reenactments from Taiwan’s Next Media Animation (WARNING: CONTAINS CHAINSAW-RELATED VIOLENCE):
According to this article from the Boston Herald, several major talk shows, some silly (Jimmy Fallon) and some serious (Piers Morgan — or is he one of the silly ones?), were falling over themselves Thursday trying to score an appearance from Big Bird himself, but Sesame Workshop made it clear that Mr. Bird would be declining all offers. Thursday morning, Big Bird took to Sesame’s Twitter account:
Twelve thousand sixty-seven retweets! The last time a tweet by a Sesame Street character received such a massive, instantaneous response, it resulted in Cookie Monster’s “Call Me Maybe” music video spoof. If Sesame Workshop wants to soar on the wings of this publicity, any new video of Big Bird reacting to Romney’s remark would be guaranteed to take flight. They did release a “statement regarding political campaigns,” which satisfies everyone’s desire for them to respond, and does so quite charmingly:
Sesame Street has been a proud partner of PBS for 43 years, and is dependent on PBS to distribute our commercial-free educational programming to all children in the United States. At a time when improvements in school readiness are recognized as being much needed for a significant number of America’s preschoolers, PBS’s ability to connect Big Bird and Friends to these children is essential. We highly value that connection. Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization. We do not comment on political campaigns, but we’re happy we can all agree that everyone likes Big Bird.
It’s true! All Americans, regardless of political beliefs, like Big Bird. He’s like the opposite of terrorists! If the debate’s moderator, PBS’s news anchor Jim Lehrer, had followed up on Romney’s comment by asking for both candidates’ opinions of the song “ABC-DEF-GHI,” I have no doubt that they would have both said it was extremely entertaining and catchy while also being a very useful and educational introduction to the alphabet. Except they would have each taken about ten minutes to say that.
Outside the confines of 123 Sesame St., a lot of people are mad at Romney for seemingly threatening to end Big Bird’s show by eliminating federal funding for public television. My own first thought was that it was, like, super-rude of Romney to smile in Jim Lehrer’s face and say, “Hey bro, you’re pretty cool but I really want to get rid of your job!” But most people immediately responded to the Big Bird part, and I’m sure it makes a big difference that he mentioned a beloved character from the show by name. If he had just said, “I’m going to cut subsidies to PBS, even though I like some of those shows they got there,” or even “I’m going to cut subsidies to PBS, even though Sesame Street is all right,” I don’t think it would have been as big a deal. But he brought Big Bird into it, and that did not sit well with the nation’s legions of Birdketeers. Here are a few examples:
· Within minutes after Romney made the remark, “Big Bird” became a trending topic on Twitter (appropriately enough), with the majority of tweeters taking a pro-Bird stance.
· About ten minutes after the remark — which was uttered in a live debate! — the clip was already on YouTube.
· A few “parody” Twitter accounts popped up before the debate was over, like @FiredBigBird and @BigBirdRomney. As documented in this Salon article, these were shut down for a while, but later resurfaced, in a glorious display of free speech in action.
· There’s now a website called Million Muppet March, which has compiled various Facebook banner-type images, including this oddly disorienting one:
· There’s a Facebook page called “100000 Against Romney firing Big Bird.” As of this writing, it has 4,937 Likes, so they have a ways to go. On that page, users are posting images like this:
As a recognizable and well-liked character, Big Bird is a useful mascot for the cause of protecting public television, probably even more so than today’s more prominent Sesame mascot, Elmo. Of course, I hope all the people supporting these things on the internet realize that voting is more effective than posting pictures on Facebook.
While it’s cool to see people get all defensive of Big Bird, the issue isn’t a new one. It seems like every few years, Republican politicians threaten to cut funding for PBS as a way to prevent tax dollars from falling between the couch cushions. As the Strollerderby blog on Babble.com pointed out, this is not even the first time Romney himself has mentioned Big Bird by name (Last time he basically said Sesame Street should have commercial breaks).
As many have pointed out since Wednesday night, Sesame Street itself doesn’t even rely that much on federal funds, taking most of its production budget from corporate sponsorships, licensing, and — if Whoopi Goldberg is to be believed — sales of Elmo DVDs. Zooming out even further, it’s pretty clear that taking away PBS really wouldn’t help turn the economy around. PBS issued its own detailed statement, which includes this fact: “The federal investment in public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. Elimination of funding would have virtually no impact on the nation’s debt.” So there’s that. Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune quoted President Obama’s response from a speech on Thursday:
“When (Romney) was asked what he’d actually do to cut the deficit and reduce spending, he said he’d eliminate funding for public television. That was his answer,” Obama, who faces Romney in the November 6 election, told a rally in Denver.
“I mean, thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird! It’s about time,” Obama added sarcastically. “We didn’t know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit.”
So, to sum up the topic at hand: That thing Romney said is dumb.
It’s worth noting that Big Bird himself ran for president once. As Muppet Wiki informs us, it was in episode 797 back in 1975, but as you probably know, he lost the following year’s general election to Jimmy Carter, who had the distinct advantage of not being six years old. But maybe it’s time for the bird to return to politics. If the pro-Big Bird movement maintains its current momentum, he has a pretty good shot at racking up write-in votes across the country. Does the Constitution say anything about whether Snuffleupaguses are allowed to serve as vice president?
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com