Sept 8, 2004
A Celebration of Him
"Come one, come all," says the back cover of the DVD, "and celebrate with one of the greatest Muppets from Sesame Street!" And it's about time, I say. The DVD is A Celebration of Me, Grover -- and I completely agree that Grover is one of the Street's greatest Muppets. In fact, I'd go so far as to put him in the top three. Besides the DVD, there's also a new Grover CD, giving Grover some long overdue props.
You can tell that Sesame Workshop thinks it's long overdue too, just by counting the number of puppeteers in the credits: there's twenty people listed. Compare that to other recent direct-to-DVD releases: A Magical Halloween Adventure used sixteen puppeteers, and What's the Name of That Song -- the big anniversary special! -- only used fourteen. Having seen them all, there's no question that Sesame decided that the Grover DVD was the most important of the three. It's the most elaborate, with the most puppets, the best editing and effects, and a big complicated set.
That's even more remarkable because this is essentially a clip show, which they've traditionally done on the cheap. Back in the late 80's, a direct-to-video collection like The Best of Ernie and Bert involved Big Bird, Gina and Ernestine sitting and looking through a photo album. Three performers, one set, and the camera hardly moves. Back in the day, they would knock out a clip show framing sequence while everybody else was on lunch break. But they're not kidding around when it comes to Grover; they're making a big deal out of this one.
So there's two questions that come to mind: First, what's so great about Grover that justifies a massive multi-media celebration like this? And if Grover is really that great, then what took them so long to recognize it?
The show is a Flyer's Club Roost, honoring frequent flyer Super Grover. The main Sesame characters are there, plus some characters who are special to Grover -- Fat Blue, Grover's Mom, the Amazing Mumford and Fred the Wonder Horse.
Grover isn't on stage at the beginning of the show; as the host, Big Bird explains that Super Grover will be flying in later. "First, we all say nice things about Grover -- because this is a roost, not a roast." A chicken in the audience panics, and squawks. "Oh, sorry," Big Bird says. "Never say roast near a chicken." They sing an original song about all the jobs Grover's had, over a montage of clips from the entire history of the show. Unlike What's the Name of That Song, they don't shy away from the really old clips, even though the film quality doesn't match.
At the end of the song, we see Fat Blue, the hapless customer who Grover always torments at the diner. "Why did I come here?" he laments. "Hmmm. I did hear the food was good." And then Grover appears: "Ahem. Sir?" Fat Blue is astonished: "You! Why are you the waiter here? This banquet is for you!" "I've got to make a living," Grover says. "The steak or the fish?"
Don't worry, I'm not planning on quoting every funny line for the whole special. I'm just going into detail on the beginning because it demonstrates how much care was put into this special. The "Flyers' Club Roost" and the chicken gag are clever and silly. Having Mumford and Fred the Wonder Horse in the audience shows that they were thoughtful about Grover's history. They wrote original songs, and funny jokes, and they even incorporated a subplot with Grover as a waiter.
Plus, the idea that Grover is serving at his own banquet shows that they really care about Grover's character. It would have been impossible to do this show with Grover sitting on the podium, listening to everybody talk about how great he is. He would have been shy and embarrassed the whole time; it would have been painful to watch him sit there and squirm for 40 minutes. Grover is humble, and he'd rather help other people than think about himself.
In fact, he's so focused on helping others that he keeps trying, even when it's hard or exhausting. The archetypal Grover sketch is the first full clip that they show: Grover announces that he's going to teach a whole bunch of things, and then runs himself ragged demonstrating Over, Under, Around and Through, and then Near and Far. "You see?" he says, panting after running through two demonstrations. "That's what I'm teaching. Now, you understand all that, isn't that nice. You don't understand all that? I gotta show you again. Okay, watch." And he keeps on going, again and again until he falls over from exhaustion.
But he never quits. Grover's going to teach us these concepts until he's physically unable to continue. You can imagine Kermit saying "Sheesh, never mind," or Bert saying "I'm going to show you this just one more time." Grover never gets frustrated with the people he's helping. He will try and try. If it's the flaws that make a comic character funny, then Grover's flaw is overhelping. He'll keep going, even if the person he's trying to help doesn't want him to. It's incredibly endearing, as tragic flaws go.
Another of Grover's great qualities is also on display in this special: his appeal to adult wit. At its best, Sesame Street always includes jokes that the parents will enjoy, but Frank Oz seemed to take special delight in it, and Grover was his wittiest character.
In another clip, Grover is teaching Elmo how to deliver singing telegrams. The customer, obviously, is Fat Blue, who tells him to go away, and slams the door. Grover puts his shoulder right into the door and shoves it open: "Oh, no, no, sir! This is called customer resistance. Sir, I have a very important message for you, a telegram!" Fat Blue is pushing the door closed: "Well, shove it under the door, I'll read it later!" Grover is insistent: "It is a singing and dancing telegram, sir! You cannot shove singing and dancing under the door, they are artistic!" Fat Blue gives in with a sigh: "Okay. Give me the singing and dancing telegram -- fast!" "Okay, sir," says Grover, "there is some jumping around too."
I don't care how old you are, that's a funny sketch, and it keeps getting funnier from there. That's just how life is, with Grover around. After 35 years of Sesame Street, I don't think I've ever seen a Grover sketch that didn't make me laugh.
Then a song with Lena Horne, and then a montage of Super Grover crash landings. Unlike other clip compilations, this whole show is so fast-moving and packed with funny stuff that you don't spend the whole time thinking, I wish they'd chosen other clips. They do some similar montages in the Best of Kermit tape, but you're left with the uncomfortable feeling that if they'd cut out the boring framing sequence, they could have included whole sketches instead of all these little snatches. Watching the Grover clips, I feel like they're showing me a lot of great stuff, plus giving me a little taste of all the other great stuff there is.
There's seven complete sketches in this show, and every one of them is a gem: funny, cute and worthwhile. I'm planning to show this DVD to my non-Muppet-fan friends (and yes, I have some), to demonstrate why I love the Muppets so much. There's a short list of Muppet/Sesame projects that you can show to a non-fan without having to apologize for something, or fast-forward past a slow bit. This Grover DVD is on that list for sure.
The very best part of the DVD -- and I'm not spoiling this, because you have to see it to really appreciate it -- is a montage of kids interacting with Grover. They hug him, they kiss him, they scratch his tummy. One boy looks straight into Grover's eyes, and says, "You're the best monster I ever met." Show this scene to your Muppet-hater friends. It's impossible to be cynical about this montage; it can't be done. It's just pure, sincere, honest love. This is another great Grover quality: he's open with his feelings, and he has real respect and love for kids. He makes kids feel smart, and competent, and loved -- and that feeling transfers over to everyone watching. You can't watch Grover without feeling loved and comforted yourself.
At the end of the show, they bring Grover on stage, and everybody tells him how much they care about him. It's so effusive that it almost seems like an apology from Sesame Workshop for ignoring this character for a while; there's a sense that they're making up for lost time.
After all, Ernie and Bert had their video compilation way back in 1988. Elmo got one in '94, Cookie Monster and Big Bird in '95. Kermit got his own compilation tape in 1998, and he's not even considered a Sesame regular anymore. The same is true for the CD's -- Big Bird and Cookie Monster got theirs in '95, Ernie and Bert in '96, and Elmo, Oscar and the Count all got CD collections in 1997. I always wondered, as many Sesame fans did, why all those other characters got CD's and videos. Grover had many LP and cassette collections in the 70's and 80's, but he was apparently forgotten through the 90's. He never disappeared from the show, but it was striking that Sesame seemed to believe that he wasn't popular enough to sell a CD -- and the Count was.
The excuse that Frank Oz wasn't performing him regularly on the Street always rang false, because Oz wasn't performing Cookie Monster or Bert either, and they both got videos and CD's. It was just mystifying. Elmo got most of the blame, and many people -- both hardcore fans and the general public -- saw Elmo as the unwanted replacement. Many people in their 20's and 30's despise Elmo, and that's why. They may say that Elmo has an annoying voice, or he's too cheerful, or whatever. The real reason is: Elmo replaced Grover, and I loved Grover.
Luckily, Sesame Workshop rediscovered Grover just at the perfect time, now that they're really putting a lot of effort into making these direct-to-DVD shows. Grover's compilation may be late, but it's a full-blown kick-ass TV special, not just a lame clip show. I'm happy as a clam with this show, and I think everybody will be. It's good to have the guy back.
So why was he overlooked for so long? I think it's because he's so humble. At the peak of Elmo's popularity in 1996, other characters had to be pretty loud to be heard over the sound of Tickle Me Elmo's giggles. Cookie Monster never went anywhere; he's such a brash and striking character that you'd notice immediately if he was gone. The same goes for Ernie and Bert. But Grover was quiet and shy, and easy for them to forget. He wasn't iconic like Big Bird, or aggressive like Oscar. At the Sesame party of the mid-90's, when all the other characters were congratulating themselves on their success, Grover was in the background, quietly serving drinks and cleaning up after them, until he fell over from exhaustion.
But it's that humility that makes us love Grover. When he falls over, we want to pick him up and hug him, take care of him. That's why the Elmo hatred was so deeply felt for so many years. When Grover was overlooked, we felt for him. We wanted him back, and we're thrilled to have him now.
Turns out the meek will inherit the Earth, after all. Who knew?
Thanks to Scott Hanson