The Grouch

Sesame Street’s Oscar is all thinkable archetypes of the outsider, scrunched into the shape of a safe cartoon. 

Oscar’s fur is characteristically too long, but not long enough to be a characteristic. As in, you wouldn’t say he has long hair but you might say he needs a haircut. His hand for instance has too much fur. It unfurls from the tips of his fingers in long wisps of grime. He would find it difficult to use a key, or a credit card, or tie his shoelaces.

A broken CD rack.

Oscar hates himself. He is an anxious and paranoid mess. In the song “I’m Sad Because I’m Happy” Oscar describes his predicament as a terrible knot of contradictory desires and drives which throw him into a confusing mess of depression spurred by happiness which triggers anger when he realises its sappy to be sad because he’s mad. Paralyzed by this neurosis, but never neurotic enough to not function, to not eat, to lose his job, to have a breakdown.

Oscar’s eyes are two white plastic hemispheres with fixed black pupils in their centers. His eyes are clean, in contrast to the rest of his body which is dirty, mossy, and matted. His eyes are an indelible answer to his grossness. As plastic, they will exist as trash for much longer than his fur, or his black felt mouth, or the skeletons of his audience. His eyes will have to be eroded by weather, slowly vulcanized by the sun or churned into some new geological category by the swirling island of Nespresso pods in the Pacific Ocean.

Bob, one of the human Sesame Street presenters, tells us it’s a beautiful day and starts strolling down the street making small talk about the weather with the people he passes. It’s clear that Bob is happy because the weather is nice. He arrives at Oscar’s trash can, and greets him with a smile. Oscar’s response is disgust: “Everything’s so peaceful and happy it makes me sick!” Bob asks Oscar what the problem is. Oscar says, “Nobody’s arguing! I can’t wait till everyone starts arguing…” Bob folds his arms and tells Oscar that people aren’t going to start arguing just to make him happy. Oscar disagrees, adamant that they will start arguing. Bob says the weather is too nice, that the vibe on the street is so good that there is no reason at all to have an argument. Oscar continues to disagree, until Bob starts to get irritated and raises his voice. Very quickly other people on the street begin to interject and try to resolve the argument between Bob and Oscar. Bob then starts to argue with the other cast members about whether or not he was having an argument. The sketch ends with Oscar sniggering to the camera as everyone who was happy and content at the beginning of the scene is engaged in a heated and pointless row over nothing.

Oscar is indignantly speaking truth to power and indignantly reactionary. His resolute commitment to contradiction is lazy and inconsistent. Every affirmation of negation is contained and given form by his fuzzy texture. He’s absorbent, damp with garbage juice, used condoms and burst diapers. He can soak up anything that gets thrown into his trash can. But as long as his facial features are visible he will never be saturated. His big eyes, his furry brown unibrow and his wide black smile with its heart-shaped tongue figure any green surface they land on as his body, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Oscar becomes mug, hat, t-shirt, watch, beer Koozie. His face will rise to the top like scum. His face will drink up the world until his form emerges via its containment like that powder which makes vomit solid, scoopable.

A brown dried-out banana skin.

Oscar is a congealed problem, a skin on warm sour milk. The milk is the issue of how representation entails de-politicization. Only the non-representable can remain a problem for the the regime of the sensible. Oscar is all thinkable archetypes of the outsider scrunched into the shape of a safe cartoon. That he is “problematic” is part of his charm, and worse, part of his function.

Oscar’s mouth is made of two semi-circular pieces of felt joined at the middle to make a mouth shape, with a red heart-shaped piece of felt on the bottom for tongue. There’s no hole at the back of this throat because he’s just a puppet, but even so his mouth seems cavernous and dark because black felt absorbs light. The mouth is the most alive part of an animal. If the hand in the center of his head forms a fist, he snarls.

A TV from a few years ago that isn’t a flat screen, which has the big part that sticks out the back. The black plastic on the top has a little circle melted into it, like someone left a tea light on it.

Oscar first appeared on the set of Sesame Street in episode one of season one in 1969 as a furry orange head with a brown unibrow sticking out of his garbage can. Over the course of the next few episodes, his fur fades to peach, and then yellow, as though he has been bleached. As his fur fades, his head gains more definition and he grows a single arm. By the end of the first season, the producers realise that orange is difficult to read on black and white TVs, so his fur is changed to green for the second season. Oscar has given numerous conflicting accounts of why his color changed, including poor hygiene, a visit to Swampy Mushy Muddy, and the effect of the rage he felt on hearing the news that his agent, Bernie, had signed a contract to have him on the entire run of Sesame Street.

Oscar is a furball coughed up after the digestion of the hippy, the freak, the punk, the raver, the new-age traveler, the eco-warrior, the lifestyle anarchist. He remembers the students improvising shields from metal garbage can lids in Paris in 1968, and cringes.

Caroll Spinney invents Oscar in 1968. He bases the voice on a cab driver who says “WHERE TO MAC?” in a thick New York accent. Nowadays Caroll Spinney has a white bowl haircut and a white goatee. He wears jackets with no collars and custom-made Sesame Street neckties and brooches. Now, aged 81, he still occasionally operates Oscar. But his fur is damp with rubbish juice, that stinking orange-brown liquid that leaks out the bottom of cheap garbage bags in a trail through the hall. It smells acrid and sweet. In landfills it’s called leachate. These juices seep through to Oscar’s interior where Caroll Spinney can feel them stain his shirtsleeves up to the shoulders. He always remembers to keep his nails short before putting his hand up Oscar. He retches every time, but reminds himself he is made of the same stuff as Oscar basically.

Oscar knows he has a job, and it’s to teach kids about the phenomenon of argument, rudeness and antagonism, and how to tolerate these phenomena as prerequisites for the formation of a functional social world. But this traps his personality in a proper place, quarantined in a trash can, and made palatable by charm and a fuzzy cartoon conviviality. The nominal cause of his indignation is “nature”—he is a Grouch, and his grouchiness can never exceed the prescriptive ethical framework of the Sesame Street enterprise. In Oscar, it becomes safe to play with the already sanitized image of refuse, exclusion and anger made palatable as grumpiness. Oscar is part of an ecology in which he can never be political, and this fuels his rage, which he can never know enough to weaponize.

His birthday is the first of June.

The impetus behind Sesame Street’s creation was emancipatory—to use the technology of TV as an educational tool for underprivileged pre-school children. Extensive formative and summative research was carried out by early childhood educators in co-operation with the shows writers, producers and directors. Tools were invented to measure kids’ attention to the show, and ideas were workshopped with groups of children, informing the shape and content of each episode. The original Sesame Street set reflected the inner city world where a lot of these kids lived; a typical Upper East Side neighborhood with trash blowing around the sidewalk, graffiti on the walls and clothes hung out to dry on fire escapes. A supportive community existed among the litter and smog, in an environment where people helped each other, enjoyed learning, and were told repeatedly that it’s OK to make mistakes. Urban decay and ethnic diversity were presented as contiguous with community, education and love.

The cast tiptoe around his mood, humouring his outbursts with smiles. Politely and delicately they maintain the interstice he lives in, colonizing his flight from normativity as knowable and taxonomically accounted for. They await his eventual decision to step into civilization, to recognize its values as more natural than his own. The nail that sticks out gets recognized by the wood and the nail slots into it.

A burst inflatable armchair.

Oscar is impossible to handle without getting nostalgia all down your front. His appeal is too strong, makes him impervious, invulnerable, impossible to abuse. His fur is only good for the absorption of liquidized complaints and half-baked notions that there might be something interesting about overidentifying with him, identifying in a way that mixes laziness with enthusiasm. But the intensity of laziness is stronger than anticipated. A ton of laziness is the same weight as a ton of enthusiasm, but laziness smells worse. Its flavor taints everything it touches, it’s more overpowering, it muddies parts that might be more convincing without it. Like when you spill milk in a car, the car never smells not like milk again.