Christopher Cerf

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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So, is it really true that Cookie Monster has been replaced by Veggie Monster?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.

The bulletin board Chris’s recording studio.
Clockwise from above: Framed baseball cards saved from childhood; Lining a bookcase in the recording studio are cassettes including every single song from Sesame Street since its first season in 1970. Three hundred and fifty three of the songs were written by Chris; In the recording studio, an often-used treadmill.
Each book contains a month’s worth of daily notes and Chris’s schedule for the past 36 years.
The recording studio.
Hanging on the back of the door is the audience card ‘Son of Bennett Cerf” used for Chris when he was on the TV show What’s My Line?
Chris back at work.

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.

Files and catalogues in the staff office.
Atop the office mantel: Paige’s portrait of ‘bad’ Chris with a cigar; a photo of Paige with her children; a baby announcement from Tina, Chris, Executive Assistant, for her son, Ryan.
L. to r.: More filing cabinets; Snapshots of Paige, Chris, Honey Bunny and Jack through the years.
Paige and Victoria with Jack (Paige Peterson’s dog) in their office.
Jack Peterson, hard at work.

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.

Chris’s bedroom.
Spring cleaning pushed to the summer months.
Chris’s Bedroom.

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.

Lining the walls of the stairwell are photos of friends and family interspersed with art and awards given to Chris.
Lining the walls of the stairwell are photos of friends and family interspersed with art and awards given to Chris.

L. to r.: Another view of the staircase and walls; Hanging below Big Bird is Paige Peterson’s portrait of her parrot ‘Honey Bunny’, named by her then eight-year-old daughter, Alexandra.

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.


A ladder helps reach books on the upper shelves of the living room bookcase.
Looking across the living room towards the staircase.
‘Red Boots’ by Jim Dine hangs above the fireplace mantel in the living room.
L. to r.: ‘Russian Persimmon’ by Chris’s co-author and illustrator of his children’s books, Paige Peterson; More living room views. The box stacked in the corner are part of the Spanish Education Department of his company, Sirius Thinking.
Chris’s ‘Big Bird Busy Book’.
A photo of Mayor Wagner, Chris’s Stepfather, riding on a Rickshaw on 39th street. The photo was part of a National Lampoon piece predicting there would be no oil and gas to buy and we would all convert to rickshaws.

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.

Jack Peterson says a quick hello to JH …
… and descends the staircase.
L. to r.: The second-floor terrace; A view of Jack’s townhouse garden from the staircase window.

Jack marking his territory …
… And again just to make sure we get the picture.

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.

Views of Jack’s townhouse garden.
‘Lone Lemon’ by Paige Peterson.
An original Dr. Zeus sculpture hangs between a pair of photographs of Bennett Cerf with his sons Jonathan and Chris.
L. to r.: Emmy and Grammy awards given to Chris for Sesame Street and Between The Lions line the dining room mantel; An invitation for Rockwell Kent, the first illustrator for Random house hangs in the dining room stairwell.
Stacks of ‘Blackie; The Horse Who Stood Still,’ written by Chris Cerf and illustrated by Paige Peterson sit atop a table in the dining room. Above the books on the wall hang, to the right: a limited edition print of Blackie and the moon. To the left: two original photos from the first moonwalk. Nearby boxes hold puppets from ‘Between The Lions’. Click image to order.
Another view of the dining/conference room.
Miss Piggy, Degas style.
Geraniums line the kitchen windowsill.
A stocked bar is every writer’s best friend.

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!

A portrait of Phyllis and Bennett Cerf.

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]

Christopher Cerf standing in front of his townhouse, which is also the headquarters for The Institute of Expertology. He is holding his most recent book ‘Mission Accomplished,’ co-authored with Victor Navasky.

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