I feel very strongly that one of the things that distinguishes Sesame Street is that, unlike (some) other kids' shows, it doesn't pretend that everything is all good all the time. When things get bad, they are willing to acknowledge it, and then they jump right in and try to make things better.
The most commonly cited example of positive response to the WTC attacks is Episode 3981, later released as a DVD called "Elmo Visits the Firehouse." Sometime after the attacks, (I'm not sure when exactly, but this episode premiered in February 2002, so within a five-month timeframe), the Sesame producers reached out to the FDNY and asked what they could do to help. The response was that little kids often get frightened by the sight of firefighters in their protective gear and hide from them, complicating rescue efforts. So the Sesame writers created an episode in which child-surrogate Elmo is traumatized by a grease fire in Hooper's Store and gradually learns to overcome his fears. (You can read about it here and here.)
Now...think for a moment about all the hundreds of thousands of kids who watch Sesame Street on a daily basis and ask yourselves: How many lives do you suppose have been saved in the last 11+ years on account of that one episode? And that was ONE episode of one show that has been on the air for nearly 45 years, in the course of which they have produced THOUSANDS of episodes!!! Mention that the next time someone tries to tell you that public broadcasting isn't valuable.
But there are other episodes, less often cited but just as significant, dealing with issues of profiling and prejudice, doing so in a way that is age appropriate, upbeat and funny, yet pointedly satirical. For example, in a elegant bit of symbolism from episode 4035, the Big Bad Wolf comes along and blows down Elmo and Rosita's block sculpture of the letter U (think about the shape that a letter U makes when rendered in three dimensions). Later, the wolf's brother Leonard--who is neither big nor bad--arrives on the scene, and Elmo and Rosita freak out and tell him that he can't build his mosque in their neighborhood. Oh, I'm sorry--they tell him to go away and leave their blocks alone. My mistake.1
But perhaps most impressive is the workshop's support initiative for military families. A lot of politicians give lip service to the notion of supporting the troops, but Sesame Street gets out there and actually does it. Moreover, they manage to do it in a completely apolitical way. They don't proselytize or pander; they just go where there's a need and they do what they can to help out.
While they try to focus on practical and achievable goals, they do have loftier ambitions as well. For example, twenty-four years ago, Sesame Street creator Joan Ganz Cooney told Jim Henson of her dream that one day peace would break out in the Middle East over shared recollection of a Bert & Ernie sketch at the negotiating table.2
So that's one reason why I've been posting Bert & Ernie sketches for nearly ten months now. Not just for the fun of it, and not just to celebrate the comedy stylings of two entertainment geniuses (and their protegés), but also to do my small part to give everyone in the world the tools they need to sow the seeds of peace, to light a few candles rather than cursing the darkness.
1To clarify, this episode was conceived of and aired well before all that kerfuffle started about that proposed Manhattan mosque. I guess it's really not so impressive that they were able to anticipate how the public fear and anger about the attacks would dissolve and solidify itself into hatred and prejudice, but I can't help but be impressed at the way that they came up with the perfect response to that issue approximately six years before it even became an issue. Also, considering that Sesame Street is based in New York, and the people involved in it were more affected by the attacks and the aftermath than those of us in podunk, it is fairly impressive that they were able to rise above their own fear and sadness and anger, or at least to use those feelings in a constructive way. But I suppose it helped to have had a commitment to acceptance and understanding for over 30 years at that point.
2Henson had a similar dream, having created Fraggle Rock six years earlier with the express purpose of bringing peace to the world. There are some cynical people who would say that it didn't work, but I don't think he specified a timeframe, so I prefer to think that it hasn't worked YET.