Sesame Street is one of the most famous TV programs ever dedicated to young viewers. Thanks to its colorful cast of characters and creative outlook, the long-running show has helped children all over the world learn basic lessons about math, reading, and kindness. But as Sesame Street viewers get older, parts of the show take on a different context. Bert and Ernie, for example, are two male characters who live together. There’s nothing unusual about that to a kid, but as those kids learn more about the world they might start to wonder: Are Bert and Ernie supposed to be lovers?
One former Sesame Street writer has given a resounding “yes” to that question. In a new interview with Queerty, longtime writer Mark Saltzman — who won seven Emmys for his work on the show — says he always interpreted Bert and Ernie as a gay couple when writing them, even if it wasn’t explicit. In Saltzman’s view, Bert and Ernie weren’t just ANY gay couple, either; in fact, they were good analogues for his own relationship to film editor Arnold “Arnie” Glassman, who died in 2003.
“I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were [lovers]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them,” Saltzman said. “The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie and I as ‘Bert and Ernie.’”
Saltzman explained, “Yeah, I was Ernie. I look more Bert-ish. And Arnie as a film editor — if you thought of Bert with a job in the world, wouldn’t that be perfect? Bert with his paper clips and organization? And I was the jokester. So it was the Bert and Ernie relationship, and I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street. So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple. I wrote sketches…Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert and Ernie dynamic.”
Saltzman also identified Snuffleupagus, a Sesame Street Muppet who for many years was visible only to Big Bird, as an analogue for the closeted gay experience.
But though these may be Saltzman’s own views of his work, they do not reflect the official stance of the show. Two days after the interview was published, the Sesame Workshop put out a statement.
“As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends,” the organization said in a statement. “They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
Read Saltzman’s full Queerty interview here.