In his job as president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, Gary Knell has found himself in some unusual circumstances.
“I’m the only CEO who has to show the Potty-Time Elmo to the Board of Directors, which can feel really pathetic,” he said.
At a Morse College Master’s Tea on Thursday afternoon, Knell spoke in front of a crowded room of students about the concept of “muppet diplomacy,” a term coined to describe “Sesame Street”’s efforts to educate children around the world. Knell has played a pivotal role in spreading “Sesame Street”’s message to more than 120 countries. In addition to his position at Sesame Workshop, Knell serves on numerous boards and councils concerning issues ranging from child education to global poverty.
Knell began the speech on a humorous note, employing a “Sesame Street” reference in his opening remark.
“Today’s presentation is brought to you by the letter M,” he said.
Knell said the show’s educational efforts focus on cognitive learning, social and emotional learning, and health.
Because of Sesame Workshop’s production of toys based on the show, Knell said, some people believe that the company is a corporate entity, rather than a nonprofit organization.
“We’re trying to ‘Paul Newman-ize’ our packaging,” he said. “Most people don’t realize this is an NGO when they walk into Toys ‘R’ Us and see a DMX Elmo doing hip-hop.”
Knell even went so far as to clear up the enigma of Bert and Ernie once and for all, eliciting widespread outbursts of laughter.
“They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets,” he said. “They don’t exist below the waist.”
Knell described “Sesame Street”’s work on combating social problems such as child obesity, 9/11 and military deployment. For the South African version of the show, “Takalani Sesame,” Knell said, Sesame Workshop introduced Kami, an HIV-positive character. When he was introduced, the character sparked some controversy about the appropriateness of discussing AIDS on a children’s television show. But Knell said the introduction of Kami had informed more Sub-Saharan African children about HIV/AIDS than all other media combined.
Knell stressed Sesame Street’s mission to have a positive influence on children’s lives.
“There is a quantitative aspect, but then there’s also a qualitative aspect,” he said. “We’re trying to use characters as teachers to model behaviors.”
Showing his understanding of popular culture as a significant learning tool for children, Knell premiered new clips from “Sesame Street” of celebrities such as singers John Legend, Chris Brown and Alicia Keys, and the television anchor Anderson Cooper conversing with the likes of Elmo and Oscar the Grouch.
Audience members said they were intrigued by Knell’s frankness as well as his level of devotion to the company.
“He confirmed what I had thought and expected about Sesame Street,” Noah Gentele ’10 said. “It’s an amazing experiment and success that consistently makes sense of the issues, even better than the adults sometimes.”
Others said they were more captivated by the show’s international dimension.
“I was impressed with the fact that they’re not just exporting American culture but rather building up programs from within the native cultures,” Alison Kadesch ’08 said.
Knell is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations.