Song Writing

A Monster Ate My Red Two: Sesame Street's Greatest Song Spoofs

by Amanda Flinner

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When singers started spoofing their own songs on Sesame Street, the results were both educational and hilarious. Here are the best of them.

Long before Sesame Street first aired in 1969, the show's co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney recognized a peculiar trait among children: they could perfectly recite commercial jingles from memory. Not only could TV be used as a teaching tool, but music could help kids retain important lessons – from learning the alphabet to counting to 10.

Sesame Street's musical impact was almost immediate, with the bathtime favorite "Rubber Duckie," sung by Jim Henson's Ernie, peaking at #16 on the Hot 100 in 1970. Three years later, the Carpenters took "Sing" to #3, and the program welcomed its first major musical guest: Stevie Wonder. Despite kids and puppets bopping around in the background, he treated the appearance like any other gig, performing an extended version of "Superstition." And just like that, the brownstone at 123 Sesame Street became a hot musical venue, attracting the likes of Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles.

Then came the twist. Musical guests started singing parodies of their popular songs tailored to educate and entertain the kids. Cash's "Don't Take Your Guns To Town" became "Don't Take Your Ones To Town" and R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People" morphed into "Furry Happy Monsters." Here's a look at some of our favorite Sesame Street parodies.
"Just The Way You Are" – Billy Joel

Don't go changing just to please me
'Cause being friendly's not your style
Don't want to hear you saying "thank you"
I would hate to see you smile


Billy Joel loves you just the way you are – even if you happen to be a surly trash-can dwelling misanthrope. In 1988, the singer gave Oscar the Grouch a used piano and, with the help of deaf actress Marlee Matlin, delivered the heavy instrument to him personally. "Well, while you're pushin', why don't you both shove off?" said Oscar. But Joel insisted on singing his famous love song "Just The Way You Are," signed by Matlin, with lyrics written especially for the miserable Muppet. He encouraged him to "Just be grouchy, really grouchy, you've done it pretty well so far." Joel, who also referenced the program in his 1982 song "Pressure," was no stranger to Sesame Street: his then-3-year-old daughter Alexa was a big fan of the show.

James Taylor shared Joel's sentiment in a 1984 episode when he put a grouchy spin on "Your Smiling Face," singing, "Whenever I see your grouchy face, it makes me wanna smile because I like you."

"Don't Take Your Ones To Town" – Johnny Cash

Leave your ones at home, Bird
Don't take your ones to town


Johnny Cash made a classic Sesame Street appearance in 1979, singing "Nasty Dan" to Oscar the Grouch and "Five Feet High and Rising" with Biff, the resident construction worker. But it wasn't until he revisited the neighborhood in 1991 that one of his tunes got the real Street treatment with kid-friendly lyrics. "Don't Take Your Guns To Town," from the 1959 album The Fabulous Johnny Cash, is about a restless young cowboy who doesn't heed the title warning and pays the ultimate price. On the segment, Big Bird plays a cowbird named Birdie Big who thinks he's a big shot after learning to count to one. His showdown with Count von Count and the Countess reveals his limited counting abilities, but rather than brag about their superior skills, the pair offers to teach him to count higher. The Sesame Street crew was so happy to welcome the Man In Black back to the neighborhood, they all dressed in black in his honor.

"Wrong" - Waylon Jennings

Now here's the moral of this song:
If you think a few mistakes
mean you don't have what it takes
Wrong!


Johnny Cash wasn't the only Outlaw to appear on Sesame Street. In 1990, five years after playing a sage truck driver who picks up a hitchhiking Big Bird in the Sesame Street movie Follow That Bird, Waylon Jennings showed up on the famous block to sing a rendition of his hit single "Wrong" with his feathered friend. In the original song, Waylon learns the hard truth about a love that wasn't built to last, but in the kiddie version, Big Bird learns a positive lesson about perseverance in his struggle to build a block tower. Jennings, who started watching the show with his son Shooter, was proud of his association with the program. He recalled in his 2009 autobiography: "I love the way the show talks to children, and the pains that are taken to not mislead children, and to teach them at the same time."

"Two Princes" – Spin Doctors

If two princes ask you for a playdate
Let's have some fun now
Each one wants to be your only playmate
Says "I'm the one now"


Chris Barron was just one year old when Sesame Street debuted in 1969. One day, when he was recalling all the legendary musical guests he watched growing up, he called his manager and asked if he could get his band, Spin Doctors, on the show. The program already spoofed the band's hit "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" as "Little Miss Count Along" in 1995, with The Count gushing over finding a girl who loves numbers just as much as he does. The following year, the group performed a spin on their hit "Two Princes" to settle a crisis for Zoe, who couldn't decide who to choose as her playmate: Elmo or Telly? Barron, dressed as a prince, encouraged them to all play together: "Three friends who've learned cooperation, can lead to fun now."

"Furry Happy Monsters" - R.E.M.

Furry happy monsters laughing
Monsters having fun
Happy, happy
See them jump and run


R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe always thought the band's hit "Shiny Happy People" sounded like a silly kids' tune, so he wasn't surprised when Sesame Street spun it into the parody "Furry Happy Monsters" in 1999. The monster-centric singalong teaches kids it's okay to have feelings, as the critters bounce between laughing and sobbing – but Stipe says we don't have to stay sad: "You don't have to cry, we can be happy!"

The band performed the tune with a Muppet that looked like Kate Pierson, the B-52's singer who guest-starred on the single. (Stephanie D'Abruzzo, a Muppeteer and R.E.M. superfan, voiced Pierson's doppelganger). If Stipe looks a little haggard throughout the set, it's because he was plagued by cannibalistic nightmares the night before the gig. "And from that I went into Muppet world," he told The Sun. "If you look at the footage, you'll see I'm unshaven and look a little solemn. It took half a day of Muppets to pull me out.”

"Pride" – Goo Goo Dolls

When you've done the best you could
You feel really really good
You're feeling that pride


According to Goo Goo Dolls frontman Johnny Rzeznik, the band's 1998 hit "Slide" is about a teen couple who is faced with an unexpected pregnancy and considers running away to get married or having an abortion. Sesame Street has always been a socially conscious program, but that's a pretty serious issue for Elmo to tackle. Instead, the band sang the parody "Pride" with the popular red Muppet on the Season 31 premiere in 2000, listing all the things Elmo accomplished in a day, including reaching a high shelf all by himself and baking an apple pie.

"Hold My Hand" - Hootie & The Blowfish

We'll cross the street together
Just take me by the hand


Hootie & the Blowfish's 2000 appearance on Sesame Street featured a street-crossing safety lesson set to the tune of their ubiquitous 1995 hit "Hold My Hand." Frontman Darius Rucker, who once helped Elmo out of the same predicament, lets the young viewers know they should always wait for a grownup's helping hand before crossing the street.

"Don't Know Y" – Norah Jones

I thought we'd meet and have some fun
I don't know why Y didn't come


The Sesame Street alphabet is a fickle bunch. The amorous letter U wouldn't let Smokey Robinson out of her grasp when the Motown legend sang the Miracles' hit "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" – modified to reflect U's boundary issues – in 1988. The letter Y, however, is the standoffish type. In 2004, Norah Jones poured her heart out to Elmo with a rendition of her hit "Don't Know Why," reminiscing over spelling y-words with her absent friend and wondering why the yellow letter stood her up.

Jones was thrilled to visit the famed set, telling Hulu five years later, "It's exactly the street you remember from when you were a kid." She also says more fans approach her to comment on her Sesame Street performance than any other aspect of her music.

"Counting To 4" - Feist

1-2-3-4
Monsters walking cross the floor.
I love counting,
Counting to the number 4


Australian singer-songwriter Sally Seltmann didn't have monsters in mind when she wrote "1234," Feist's breakthrough hit in the US. She told Songfacts the Top 10 hit was inspired by the breakup of her friend's marriage – not exactly material for a feelgood children's singalong. But the numerical title and sing-song nature of the lyrics made the tune ripe for a lesson on counting. In the segment, Feist recreates her music video on the famous avenue, populated by monsters, penguins and chickens who help her illustrate how to count to four.

"It's strangely like going home," Feist told The AV Club of her 2008 Sesame Street appearance, "even though you've never been there, because all of us grew up on that street in some way."

"(A Monster Went and) Ate My Red Two" - Elvis Costello

Oh I want to count to ten now
But it's something I can't do
'Cause I don't have all the numbers
No a monster went and ate my red two


Back in 1977, Elvis Costello was willing to trade his red shoes for a shot at immortality in "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," but in 2011, he just wanted to keep his red two. Costello, along with a bespectacled Elmo, was trying to demonstrate how to count to 10, but the insatiable Cookie Monster kept devouring the number 2.

Sesame Street's vocal music director, Paul Rudolph, didn't know how the singer would react to the parody, especially for a song he'd been singing for over 30 years. "I was thinking, is he going to be bored with this, is he going to like it, because we're changing the lyrics, we're parodying his song?" he recalled to NPR. Luckily, Costello took it in stride and became one of Rudolph's favorite musical guests. "When he was on the set, he was just a dream to work with," he said.

December 6, 2018
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