NEW YORK (Just Laugh) – While most people were spending time with their families, relaxing, grilling out, and watching fireworks, there was a whirlwind of activity at the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) during the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Cell phones buzzed constantly, fax machines churned out paper by the ream, and fruit baskets arrived by the truckload.
You see, it’s contract renewal time on Sesame Street, flagship of the CTW. After watching the stars of hit shows like “Friends” and “ER” rake in more than a million dollars per episode, greed has come home to roost on Sesame Street.
“It’s not fair,” said one Sesame Street star, who asked to remain anonymous. “Some of us have been here since Day 1, and we’re still making the same crappy salary. I don’t know about anyone else, but Bert — uh, I mean my roommate — and I can barely afford our apartment, thanks to all those damn Yuppies and their regentrification.”
The same burning question is on everyone’s mind in the neighborhood: how could one of the most popular children’s shows continue to pay its actors the lowest salaries on television?
“I don’t know what crap the network is trying to pull,” thundered Snuffleupagus, Big Bird’s on-screen best friend. “I know they can afford it, because they’ve added so many “corporate underwriter” spots to the show credits, we barely have enough time to do the show. So where’s the money going?”
But not everyone shares these feelings. A few of the veteran actors still remain true to their art. They’ve reached millions of kids, and get satisfaction from knowing that nearly every kid in America can read because of their work. Muppets Cookie Monster and Big Bird, as well as human actors Maria and Gordon are more than satisfied with their $75,000 annual salary.
“Sure, it not much in New York, but me not need much, except lots of COOKIES!” said Cookie Monster in a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” before trying to devour Tim Russert’s toupee.
Big Bird echoed the same sentiments on a recent “Jim Lehrer Newshour” appearance. “We’re not in it for the money. We do it for the kids. If it was about the money, I’d be in the NBA, playing for the Atlanta Hawks.”
But relative newcomers to the show, including superstar Elmo, Barkley the giant dog, and Rosita believe they deserve the big salaries their network TV counterparts are raking in.
“We’re not asking a lot,” said Rosita. “We know this is public television. We’d be happy with just 50 grand an episode. I mean, look at what that hack Barney is doing. Not only does he make 175K per show, but he gets 20 points off the back end from all the merchandising, plus 10% of all syndication fees. The guy is one of the most annoying people since Rush Limbaugh, but he’s got it made.”
“Ruff” agreed Barkley.
Elmo slapped his fuzzy paw on the table. “Tell me about it. I do my own 15 minute segment every day, PLUS all the other stuff on the main show, and I don’t even get half a point from my own ‘Tickle Me Elmo’ dolls. But the Big Purple Jerk gets residuals from sleeping bags, vitamins, and #&%[email protected]! footie pajamas!”
Elmo paused for a drink of Evian. “I don’t think we’re being unreasonable. ‘Between the Lions’ is even making more than we are, and they’ve only been around for a couple years! We just want to get paid what we’re worth. Plus our cut of the merchandising revenue.”
Rumors of a contract dispute by many Muppets have generated an avalanche of discussion and controversy on opinion pages and news programs over the past month. The speculation among Public Television insiders is there may even be a strike before filming for the upcoming fall season begins.
“That could be devastating. Can you say devastating?” said Fred Rogers, star of ‘Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.’ “The same thing happened to the ‘Electric Company’ back in the ’70s. The stars demanded more pay, but the network executives canceled the show instead. Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, and Rita Moreno were the only ones lucky enough to land on their feet after it was all over.”
“Aw, that’ll never happen,” dismisses Oscar the Grouch, one of Sesame Street’s founders. “There are too many of us who will stay on. Oh sure, there’ll be some rough times if guys like Elmo go. I’ll admit he’s one of our more popular characters, but hey, we got along fine without him for 20 years. Besides, Elmo’s ego is growing out of control. Just last week he kicked an intern for bringing him jelly instead of jam for his toast.”
“The network brass would be stupid to let me go,” Elmo said, puffing out his fuzzy chest. “My face has been plastered on more t-shirts, lunch boxes, and sing-along videos than Grover, Big Bird, and Ernie and Bert combined. I’m their golden boy, and they know it.”
But other cast members are afraid of what a strike could do to them. “It’s awful,” says Grover. “I don’t think I can find work anywhere else. I’ve been typecast. People see me, and all they can think of is that cute little blue monster in the “Stupid Waiter” sketches. I’ve done nine years of summer Shakespeare theatre with Patrick Stewart, for God’s sake! But do you think I’ll ever get anything bigger than a walk-on part in the next Die Hard movie? My last movie role was playing a #$*&% Grover doll in a department store window. How’s that for typecasting?!”
So what does the future hold for the cast and crew of this public television mainstay? Can things return to the way they were, back in the show’s halcyon days? Or are we witnessing the beginning of the end of innocence? Will Sesame Street be brought to you by the letters Q and B, or by tax shelters, stock options, and mutual funds?
Only time will tell.