The joy of being Elmo.

What you're watching.
Sept. 20 2006 5:24 PM

Red Like Me

The blissful existence of Elmo.

Tickle Me Elmo 
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Tickle Me Elmo

Yesterday, 50 minutes into Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer mustered the strength to assist Mattel in a sales ploy. She called for a drumroll and introduced the buying public to this year's model of the Tickle Me Elmo doll. Then, a bit after 11 a.m. on The View, Rosie O'Donnell broke from a wonderfully libel-skirting discussion of Oprah Winfrey's sexual orientation to play with her own T.M.X. Elmo (the X doubles as a Roman reminder that this is the 10th such doll and a pledge that the toy is "extreme") and to promise free dolls to the members of the studio audience, who joined together to applaud Rosie's munificence: "Yay!"

But to get Elmo's most memorable TV experience of the day of his relaunch, you had to go to Toys "R" Us and watch a commercial. A 15-second clip looping on every screen in the Times Square outlet captured a series of giddy children—their cute mugs and nondescript T-shirts came in a variety of pleasant colors—standing against a white backdrop. The kids were falling over laughing along with an off-screen T.M.X. Elmo, the sole occupation of which is to fall over laughing.

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Elmo loves you, as the phrase goes. Elmo is a source of unconditional mirth, and he makes the other Sesame Street mainstays look like characters out of Norwegian social realism. Oscar is a grouch, as is Bert, while Ernie is "neurotic, easily moved to tears, particularly by the letter E," as Renata Adler observed in a 1972 New Yorker piece. The yellow bird suffers blue moods, and something's obviously eating at Cookie Monster. But Elmo, his spirit the same cherry red as his fur, has no such depths—no depths at all, in fact. Elmo is Grover with more street cred and less flop sweat, and even if he hadn't been marketed more cannily than Michael Jordan, his personality would have taken him far. To watch him on the Best of Elmo DVD, where he unpacks the concept of "scariness" with Julia Roberts, is to witness an easy flow of ebullience. In the new book My Life As a Furry Red Monster—an enjoyable slip of memoir fed through a self-help processor—Kevin Clash, the man behind the Muppet, writes that he invented Elmo's unstoppable laugh near the end of Sesame Street's 1985 season and that a producer initially told him to cool it. "We talked about it a bit more, and I made it clear I was aware that Elmo's laugh teetered precariously on the brink of over-the-top," Clash writes. "I also thought it was part of his charm. … Elmo's laughter functions as his (and my) limit tester." And now we are in the land of no limits.

When Adler went down to Sesame Street, it was to appreciate a revolution in society: "It is as though all the lessons of New Deal federal planning and the sixties experience of the 'local people,' the techniques of the totalitarian slogan and the American commercial, the devices of film and the cult of the famous, the research of educators and the talent of artists had combined in one small experiment to sell, by means of television, the rational, the humane, and the linear to little children." While Elmo is surely a creature of these Enlightenment values—a fine tutor in the arts of spelling and empathy—he's also a son of the sitcom in ways that Big Bird, for all his media-savvy, could not begin to comprehend.

In his book, Clash looks back on his days as a 6-year-old who taught himself puppetry by mimicking the tube: "I would watch Petticoat Junction, The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies and similar fare while wearing one of my puppets on my hand. I'd watch the screen and, at the same time, watch my puppet in the mirror that hung by our TV." Reading this, it struck me that Elmo is the embodiment of a laugh track. The character—a symbol of innocent joy peddled with the utmost cynicism—is a pure product of consumer culture, an exemplary TV star, a monster.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.