As we told him in the interview, we were a bit worried about how to approach our conversation with Chris Cerf because he has done so many things: author, composer-lyricist, record and television producer, editor, and still, we probably haven’t got it all. Son of the founders of Random House, Bennett Cerf and Phyllis Fraser, he is a many-times Emmy and Grammy award winner for his songwriting, notably his songs for Sesame Street. He is still very much involved with the PBS literacy education show, Between the Lions, and in addition to his other books (co-authored with Henry Beard) such as The Official Politically Correct Dictionary, he has also just published Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq: The Experts Speak. (co-authored with Victor Navasky).
Well, speaking of experts, we had a pressing opening question:
So, is it really true that Cookie Monster has been replaced by Veggie Monster? That would really be horrible.
No, everything gets blown out of proportion. They have a few pieces in which he indicates that it’s good to eat healthy things too, that you can’t eat too many cookies.
You wrote a book about political incorrectness or correctness—how do you feel about this rather prissy culture in which we live?
Well, obviously I thought it was worth making fun of or we wouldn’t have done it. But I don’t think it’s right to be insensitive either. I certainly am progressive enough to agree with some of the causes that political correctness is supposed to address. I think it’s a pretty ridiculous way, sometimes, of addressing it.
Do you think this culture assigns moral dimensions to things that don’t have a moral dimension, like cigarette smoking or eating too many cookies?
I think it serves Sesame Street because you have to be so careful. But on the other hand there are good lessons to teach kids about nutrition, which is a real issue.
I feel that people self-edit their conversation now so much, that frankly, conversation is more and more dull.
They say what we’re shooting for is ‘content-free speech’, to use a politically correct term. It got to the point where there’s a certain group of people who are just waiting for you to screw up. Hah, hah—you said that word. I can write an article dismissing you now.
I suppose one of things I’m trying to get at is this fear of offending people. I think there are worse things in this world that can happen to you than being offended.
Well, that is completely true. But then all of sudden, like what’s happening in the [Obama-Clinton] campaign now is such a distraction from real things we should be hearing about.
What did you think of the SNL skit about the way the press treats, or at least was treating, Obama? In some ways it had a direct impact on the way they portrayed him.
It really made the press behave differently. Comedy should do that.
I once heard Jon Stewart say that he really doesn’t think his show changes anything much.
Well, it depends. I think that’s [the SNL skit] a great example of time when it did. Obviously our political incorrect book didn’t change anything but I think people who read it would say ‘Oh enough now!’ The book we have out now is accurate quotes about Iraq, every single one of which [turned out to be] wrong, and I think it has an impact.
I love this book [his books are laid out on the table] … Blackie—The Horse Who Stood Still, about a horse that doesn’t do much.
Actually it was a true story. And rather a difficult problem for us to figure out how you write about a horse that didn’t do anything!
I think it has a wider message, it’s probably a good tale for over-programmed children.
We were a bit worried about interviewing you because you’re so multi-faceted.
That’s sort of what I like about my job!
If you were to say what brings it all together, a defining theme, if you like, what would it be?
I can’t. I would say, trying to do things that are educational or helpful but never taking myself too seriously even though my intent might be serious, and having a lot of fun doing it. And they all have to do with media, a lot of it has to do with literacy or political education.
If I was to pick one thing I think it would be playing with language, the possibilities of language.
Very much so. And teaching reading to kids is very much related to that.
Can you tell us how you got into writing music?
Well, I’ve always been interested in music and when I was a kid, (I’m old enough to have been around when rock and roll was really popular), I especially liked New Orleans style of piano like Fats Domino, and I was taking piano lessons, but not in that. I was much more interested in figuring out how to play doo wop music and blues than in classical.
When I learned how to do that well enough, I tried to write funny rock songs when I was in college. When I was on the Harvard Lampoon we actually made a record of some of them and the reason that’s relevant, I was hired to work on Sesame Street for quite different reasons right after it started but the music director had gone to Harvard with me and remembered I could write rock and roll, so when they need some for Sesame Street, he said, Do you want to try?
What was the inspiration for Put Down the Duckie?
Oh that was 20 years later! A lot of these questions have longer answers than you’re going to want! They asked Norman [Stiles – another writer] me to write a song that was in the problem solving part of the curriculum, and the lesson was supposed to be sometimes in order to do something, you have to stop doing something else. We were trying to think of something that Ernie would have to do, and since he’s always playing with his rubber duck, we thought well, what would he have to put his duck down in order to do, and then we realized that both the duck and the saxophone squeaked, so we thought that would be funny.
Are there any characters on Sesame Street that you particularly like to write songs for?
I love ‘em all! But Cookie’s fun. I love doing rock and roll songs for him. Oscar’s fun because you can just have a totally perverse point of view.
People are very down on children’s television, but I am not. I think some of the writing for television, and I’m including Nickelodeon and shows like SpongeBob, is extraordinary. They’re fearless with vocabulary.
SpongeBob is fabulous! It’s just a cliché like everything else, that all TV is bad—and all books are good? Of course they’re not! SpongeBob is great!
Your humor is quite ‘eggheady’ in some ways … would you agree with that?
Some of it. But I think it’s also silly. I don’t want to compare myself with the Pythons because I think they’re geniuses, but what I love about them is that they combine childish nonsense with having to know a lot, you know, the way they did that whole thing of doing Jane Eyre with semaphor flags … [begins to laugh]