David Kamp’s new book is the story of how a golden era in children’s television came to be and how its mission, characters, and music became the educational and cultural touchstones for a generation.
Kamp knows cultural touchstones. He is a longtime contributor to Vanity Fair, where he writes about entertainment, celebrity, and the whim of the Zeitgeist. Kamp’s first book, The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution (2006), described how food fads and the people who fuel them have shaped America’s relationship to food and our taste buds. Kamp’s video series, “The Snob’s Dictionary” (based on several of his books by the same name), further mined this vein, exploring the world of the culture snob, “for whom knowledge of subjects is more important than the actual enjoyment of them.”
Kamp has a knack for distilling trends down to their essential, defining elements, whether he’s describing the cool-to-mellow aesthetic of Laurel Canyon (“Pop’s ‘Natural Woman’ in her house on Wonderland Avenue with her cat Telemachus resting on an exotically upholstered pillow”) or the nostalgia-fueled thrall of the Berkshires (“The derelict motel, the roofless barn, the overgrown picnic area”). He invites us to follow along as his plus-one through the back door of the most exclusive parties, explains the relationships and jokes we have to be there to understand, while kissing the host on both cheeks and spilling all the best gossip on her as she walks away. He gets away with it (and always gets invited back) because Kamp’s cutting descriptions never fail to reveal all that’s beautiful, true, and enduring at the heart of even the most absurd cultural movement.
The Age of Enlightenment Jr.
In Sunny Days, however, we get something more from Kamp. He abandons (almost) all of his snark and sarcasm for genuine (albeit sepia-toned) wonder and admiration. He’s not just an observer of the children’s-television revolution, he’s a fan, and as such he guides us away from the back door and around front, to the humble brownstone stoop, where he lovingly and respectfully introduces us to the people who founded and shaped the neighborhood.
Sunny Days is a deeply researched chronicle of the political, economic, and legislative environment that gave rise to the Children’s Television Workshop and the idealistic band of innovators that ushered in what Kamp calls “the Age of Enlightenment Jr.” The first half of the book focuses on the genesis and impact of Sesame Street, and the second half explores its legacy, the children’s programming that attempted to follow along in Sesame Street’s giant, bird-shaped footsteps.
Kamp’s is the story of how a golden era in children’s television came to be.
The Children’s Television Workshop, and its historic influence on children’s educational programming, came into existence because two people, Joan Ganz Cooney, a public-television-documentary producer, and Lloyd Morrisett, an experimental psychologist and vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, sought to make use of the “vast wasteland” of television programming to address the educational disparity between poor and middle-class children. A dinner-party conversation sparked Cooney’s three-month, $15,000 study, “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education,” which, in turn, became the funding proposal to the Carnegie Corporation that launched Sesame Street.
The show was a radical departure from the kind of children’s-television programming that was available in the late 60s. There was no “message from our sponsor,” no commercials or endorsements. The language of the show recognized and addressed the emotional lives of its pre-school viewers and employed evidence-based learning strategies such as repetition, short segments, and child-oriented language and reasoning to teach numeracy and literacy. Sesame Street was more than mere entertainment designed to wash over a passive child viewer. Every detail was engineered to teach, building on the strengths of the already established Head Start program in an effort to do more for the show’s target audience: the black and brown kids of “the inner-city ghetto.”
As Joan Ganz Cooney noted, “Every night, the TV set brought you bad news…. And finally, it was as if the public was saying ‘So do something!’ to the TV set. And one day, they turned on the TV set, and the TV set did something.”
That “something” felt pretty weird at first, and it took even the most imaginative participants time to understand the carefully constructed educational and cultural methods behind its madness. From its inception, the show was colorful—not just with its yellow birds and green monsters, but with a cast of actors that made Sesame Street “the blackest show on national television.” To many, the plans for the early programming seemed downright insane, as Loretta Long, who played Susan on Sesame Street, recalls in Kamp’s book:
“I said to my mom, ‘It’s an educational show, and I’m going to be sitting on a stoop talking to an eight-foot yellow bird!’ As it was coming out of my mouth, I knew it was a mistake,” she said. “My mother got real quiet. She handed the phone to my father. He was very direct: ‘You going to do this when you come home from your real job, right, baby?’ ‘Well, Daddy, this is going to be my real job!’ I was glad that I didn’t talk about Oscar. They already were thinking that I was having a breakdown. If I’d said, ‘And this thing is going to jump out of a trash can and yell at you,’ my mother would have been on the first train, smoking, coming to get her child.”
David Kamp’s Sunny Days is a celebration of the visionaries behind the Children’s Television Workshop and the programming it spawned, but even more so, it’s a love letter to Cooney, Morrisett, and the motley cast of geniuses in abundance who wrote the educational script and soundtrack for Kamp’s generation, people who promised more for kids and delivered on that promise by inviting them to participate in their own learning, name their feelings, and count to the highest numbers they could imagine.
Jessica Lahey is the author of The Gift of Failure and a forthcoming book on preventing childhood substance abuse