Poor Big Bird can’t catch a break. In October, presidential candidate Mitt Romney threatened to effectively fire the Muppet by defunding PBS. Later that month, Mr. Snuffleupagus’s BFF had to contend with costume retailers selling unlicensed “Sexy Big Bird” outfits. And on Friday, the yellow guy will face his biggest challenge yet: A devastating hurricane that rips through Sesame Street, destroying Big Bird’s nest and leaving his entire neighborhood in chaos.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t the first time Big Bird has faced a superstorm. The disaster-themed Sesame Street episode that will play later this week is actually a condensed, edited version of a five-part Sesame series that first aired in 2001. “[It] played out over five days and told the story of everybody on the street getting ready for a hurricane, and then ultimately recovering from a hurricane,” Sesame Street supervising producer Nadine Zylstra explained to EW over the phone today. Originally, the hurricane series wasn’t inspired by any specific event — “It was designed to stand alone as a piece,” says Zylstra.
In 2005, Sesame Street re-aired the series in its entirety weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. And last week, the show’s producers decided to trot it out once more in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, albeit with a few twists. “When the show had originally been written, it wasn’t intended to go after a devastating disaster. It was intended to maybe be used as a tool for people to prepare for a storm,” Zylstra says.
For this latest airing, the show’s team excised the portion about hurricane preparation and edited the hour so that it focuses on Big Bird’s loss — his nest is ruined, and after it’s been repaired, he returns home only to find that the nest still isn’t safe for habitation. (A city nest inspector tells Big Bird that its mud isn’t dry yet.) The show’s new opening and transitions have also been incorporated. The result is a powerful hour that will resonate with anyone suffering a loss caused by Sandy — or another natural disaster.
Putting this special together on short notice — and in a largely power-less New York City — wasn’t easy. The show’s tapes were stranded in a storage facility in Long Island City, Queens; its lead editor was trapped in Hoboken, one of New Jersey’s hardest-hit cities; its assistant editor was hit by a car while riding a bike from her home in Brooklyn to Sesame Street‘s offices in Manhattan. Still, the team managed to pull together and create something to be proud of. “Nobody even blinked an eye,” Zylstra recalls. “If you said, ‘Sorry, we need you to come over from Hoboken, and we know you’ve got no power at home, and we know you have to climb over sandbags to get out of your house…”
Oh, and that assistant editor? After getting treatment for her fractured wrist, “she was here the next day, saying, ‘Okay, I’m ready. I can digitize with my other hand.'”
Check your local listings to find out when you can watch Sesame‘s hurricane special on TV. The original five-part series is also available on a subsection of Sesame Street‘s website, sesamestreet.org/hurricane. No Muppets were harmed in the making of this episode.