Thursday, November 24, 2022

Culturally appropriate kids' television

I caught an interesting piece on the radio recently about how Russian television adapted Sesame Street, an American kids' educational program, back in the early 90s. An American producer, already living and working in Russia, worked with Russian state TV to help put Sesame Street on air. The path to muppets in Russia wasn't a straightforward one, unfortunately. The Russians in charge of the adaptation needed to be persuaded to use Henson's creations as his puppets (Muppets) did not fit the puppet aesthetic already long since established in Russia. When it was finally agreed that Henson's muppets were to be used, not all characters from the American show made the grade. 

For instance, Oscar the Grouch, a slightly unkempt misanthrope who lives in a trash can, was a strict 'no' for the Russians as it was thought that kids might get the wrong idea and want to jump into garbage bins like Oscar. Life in Russia in the immediate years following the fall of the Iron Curtain was most certainly chaotic, but would children have actually gone bin diving? Maybe...?

Standing around 8' tall with yellow plumage, Big Bird, on the other hand, was not axed but remade into an image that would more align with Russian folklore. The creature Big Bird became is mostly blue and covered in bits of moss and twigs. His name is Zeliboba and he is a spirit about 7-8 feet tall who can smell sounds. If you ask me, Z. sounds less like a children's muppet and more like some scraggly dude selling 'schrooms at a Dead show.

Here is the spirit, Zeliboba:


Zeliboba, like our Big Bird, is meant to be a child.



And here is my childhood TV-friend, Oscar the Grouch, with Ernestine aka Lily Tomlin:


One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy.


I first learned of Germany's Sesame Street adaptation, Sesamstraße, when living as a study-abroad-student in SW Germany in the mid-90s. A handful of the muppets from the US version of the show were incorporated into Sesamstrasse like the child-like Big Bird, a full-sized muppet. In the German show he's known as Bibo & he speaks in an adult voice. I remember thinking how funny that in a language valued for its compound nouns & literal descriptions Big Bird--who literally is a very big bird--would not be known as Grosser Vogel (literally: big bird). I now see that such a name would not translate well for the German-watching populace because Grosser Vogel would probably simply read as an accurate description and not a sort of fun and alliterative name as it is in English. 



Left: Big Bird's 'cousin' from Mexico's version of Sesame Street; right: Big Bird




23 comments:

  1. Interesting how each culture interprets Sesame Street. I love Oscar the grouch. Good thing I'm not a Russian.

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    1. Ha. Good thing I'm not either. Oscar the Grouch and Grover 4 eva. :D

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  2. Yes, the cultural appropriations, and/or malappropriations of beloved childhood characters can be disconcerting. Betty Boop and Honey Bee come to mind. And then there are the reincarnations of every cartoon card I cannot remember the name of in Japan.

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    1. I know Betty Boop, but don't know how her character has changed over the years.
      Happy Thanksgiving, by the way!

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  3. Culturally appropriate is a bit of a minefield isn't it? I am glad that the attempt was made though.

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    1. Yeah, I can't imagine the challenges...
      The Russian TV heads also couldn't fathom children learning from other children (as they and the child-like muppets do on Sesame Street, US version).

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  4. I remember when Jim Henson's Muppets first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. They were considered a pretty radical departure from our culture's traditional puppetry too.

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  5. I had not heard of other countries' versions of Sesame Street. How fun.

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  6. I never watched Sesame Street, I don't know if that's because it wasn't big in the UK at the time or because our mother didn't really allow us to watch TV incase we made footprints in her shag pile carpet.

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  7. I liked the two grumpy old humans the best. If you get the chance, watch the clip where they are in a theatre using the words of Pete and Dud (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore).

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    1. Statler and Waldorf were a hit in our household. I'll seek that clip out!

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  8. Golly, I remember heaps of stuff from Sesame Street but I don't think I clocked it that Big Bird was a child. Grover was my favourite from memory, but some of the minor characters were great. Even today when I meet a Lydia, the song "Lydia the tattooed lady" runs through my head! And I often say things like tonight's dinner was brought to you by the colour brown, hahah.

    It's curious that the Russians thought to rejig so much of SS but I guess they were recreating it rather than just importing the tapes and playing them unedited like we had it in Australia. American backdrops, idioms and accents going full-tilt crashed into our lives but seemed not to affect us in any way, probably because we had the same bombardment by British kids tv and everything got neutralised in the wash!

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    1. Hey, Pip! Interesting that SS ran unedited/unchanged down in your neck of the woods. Grover was my absolute favorite as well. The thought of Super Grover trying to fly through the air still makes me smile. Sometimes I do a Guy Smiley impersonation and nobody gets it. It's really just for me anyway.
      The name Lydia will forever be associated with that song for me, too. :)

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    2. What a pleasure for my eyes to see Signora Pipistrello was here.

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  9. Thanks, Bea. I enjoyed this history lesson a lot as I had no idea about it. I saw one documentary where they tried to take the show "Everybody Loves Raymond" and make it Russian. They brought the creator over and everything but I can't remember how it turned out.

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    1. Huh. I wish I had watched ELR just to be able to make a goofy joke about the proposed adaptation. I wonder if the project ever got off the ground?

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  10. Fascinating. I had no idea. Big Bird looks sorta like a homeless person/bird.
    Sandy's Space

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    1. Yes, it's interesting to think about how cultural exports change in order to adapt to the tastes of the host audience.

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  11. Oh, Oscar and Grobi, Ernie and Bert, Graf Zahl et. al. ...
    Thereby I merely came by via Sue (elephant child) to offer you, what is quite easy with a German keyboard, another umlaut.
    Hm, what about Herr von Bödefeld? ;-)
    The peace of the night.

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