‘Sesame Street’ Writer Says Comments Misinterpreted Regarding Bert and Ernie

Posted September 19, 2018 1:37 p.m. EDT
Updated September 19, 2018 1:42 p.m. EDT

Are they or aren’t they?

For decades, we’ve wondered: Are Bert and Ernie gay? The iconic “Sesame Street” duo live together, share a bedroom and don’t seem shy about taking a bath in front of each other, so...

The recurring question shot back into our consciousness this week after a former “Sesame Street” writer who is gay said in an interview that he wrote Bert and Ernie as a “loving couple,” taking inspiration from his own relationship with his longtime partner.

“I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were” gay, the writer, Mark Saltzman, said in an interview with Queerty, a gay news and entertainment site. “I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”

His comments thundered across the internet, spreading both outrage and glee. “They’re official!!!!!” said one post, showing an image of a smiling Bert and Ernie wearing sparkling wedding rings. But Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street,” quickly knocked down the idea, saying in a statement that Bert and Ernie are “best friends” and, being that they are puppets, have no sexual orientation.

Saltzman, who was a writer for “Sesame Street” in the 1980s and ‘90s, now says that his comments were misinterpreted.

He said that he and his partner, Arnold Glassman, who died in 2003, were much like Bert and Ernie, opposites who found a way to love each other. “As a writer, you just bring what you know into your work,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday night.

“Somehow, in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay,” he said. “There is a difference.”

Saltzman is among a group of writers who have written scripts and songs for all the “Sesame Street” characters.

He said he did not restrict Bert and Ernie to one sexual orientation, or any at all. While he believes that “Sesame Street” should include a gay couple in its programming, he said it should be done with human characters, not puppets.

As for Bert and Ernie, “they are two guys who love each other,” Saltzman said. “That’s who they are.”

Frank Oz, who helped create Bert and Ernie nearly a half century ago, said on Twitter on Tuesday that the characters were not gay.

His comments received pushback from those who shared the importance of having gay and lesbian representation on television. One person wrote on Twitter that “having the flexibility to see them” as gay “was good for me, and the more voices I see CONFIRMING that they DEFINITELY ARE NOT is what makes me sad.”

Later Tuesday, Sesame Workshop put out a second statement. “'Sesame Street’ has always stood for inclusion and acceptance. It’s a place where people of all cultures and backgrounds are welcome.”

Which brings us back to us.

The societal debate over Bert and Ernie’s sexuality has gone on for decades. The New York Times wrote about it in 1994, asking wryly, “How long have you been preoccupied with the sex lives of puppets?”

In 2011, an online petition circulated, asking “Sesame Street” to allow Bert and Ernie to get married. The program responded then as it did Tuesday, saying that the puppets were just that — puppets — and did not have a sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation or not, Bert and Ernie came to symbolize gay rights when, in 2013, they were featured on the cover of The New Yorker after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. It showed the two muppets cuddling in front of the TV, a moment of intimacy to celebrate a historic ruling.

We may never know for sure whether Bert and Ernie are gay. And maybe that’s OK.

The puppets, Saltzman said, are an example of love, meant to help preschoolers through the issues of their young lives. A child going on a first sleepover. A boy in foster care who is sharing a bedroom with another boy. And, yes, a preschooler learning what it means to have gay parents.

“It’s like poetry,” he said. “It’s what you need it to be.”