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February 13, 2013

By Susan Tofte

‘The Story of J’: Sesame Street’s First Animation

Susan Tofte is Sesame Workshop’s Archivist.

It is hard to imagine Sesame Street without the delightful animations that teach things like letters, numbers, emotions and problem solving. Animations have been a part of the show since the pilot episodes. But back in 1969, the idea of using a series of short animations to act like “commercials” for letters and numbers was a true innovation.

When Joan Ganz Cooney created her proposal for an educational television show, she envisioned borrowing the techniques used in making TV commercials to help teach counting and literacy. Joan and the producers knew that kids were attracted to commercials on TV. What they didn’t know was whether they could successfully create short commercial-like segments for the show that would actually teach to the curriculum.

The search for animators began in August of 1968. During the next 14 months, producers commissioned artists to produce storyboards for short cartoons that taught letters, numbers, counting and words. It was necessary for the artists to create work that met the educational goals of the show but the Workshop placed little restriction on style or length for the pieces. With curriculum in mind, producers poured over storyboards and scripts and selected animations they thought could teach 4-year-olds about letters and numbers.

“The Story of J” was the first animation commissioned by Sesame Street in early 1969. It was designed to familiarize children with a single letter. When the cartoon arrived at the Workshop, the producers were relieved. As producer Dave Connell recalled, “All of a sudden, it worked. We could see somebody understood how to do this.” The cartoon runs just over a minute and shows two round-faced youngsters contemplating the fish hook configuration of an object lowered from the sky. The animation is narrated with a rhymed story involving Joe, a Junebug, a Jar, a Justice, a Jury and a Jail. It even includes the familiar tagline “Here Comes the Judge!” from Laugh-In, a show that was a direct influence on Sesame Street.

Producers then inserted the animation into an hour-long program of randomly chosen children’s television material as if the animation was a spot commercial interruption in the program.  The film was brought to a day care center a few blocks from the Workshop’s offices to be shown to children and was subject to an audience reaction test. The test results suggested that the producers were on the right track. “The Story of J” is such an important part of the history of Sesame Street because it proved that when done right, short animations could get the attention of 4-year-olds and familiarize children with the sound and sight of letters and numbers.

By the end of the first season, the Workshop had commissioned work from 32 animators and film producers. In the first ten years, the Workshop commissioned more than 1,000 live action and animation films for Sesame Street and The Electric Company. The Whitney Museum of Art curated a selection of the films as part of their New American Film Series in 1979. The animation on Sesame Street was groundbreaking in the way it borrowed techniques from TV commercials to teach and for the support the Workshop gave to independent animators and filmmakers. For forty-three years these artists’ creativity and talent have contributed to the success of Sesame Street. Check out some of the show’s iconic animations on SesameStreet.com.

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