Frank Oz, who helped create Sesame Street with Jim Henson, has changed his opinion on whether longtime companions Bert and Ernie are gay.
After Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman told Queerty he modeled the Muppet odd couple after his own relationship with his late partner, documentarian Arnold Glassman, fans took it to mean Bert and Ernie were officially queer.
“I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were [gay]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them,” Saltzman said. “”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.”
After the interview went viral Sesame Workshop issued a statement insisting the characters were asexual.
“As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves,” the statement continued. “Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most ‘Sesame Street’ Muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation.”
Of course that ignores the numerous heterosexual Muppet pairs on Sesame Street, including Elmo’s mom and dad, The Countess and The Count, Oscar the Grouch and his girlfriend, Grundgetta.
Frank Oz, who voiced Bert and helped shape Sesame Street, initially towed the party line: “It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert & Ernie are gay. It’s fine that he feels they are. They’re not, of course,” Oz tweeted.
He added that the issue didn’t really merit discussion.
“Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There’s much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.”
As the debate raged on, Oz insisted “I created Bert. I know what and who he is.”
I created Bert. I know what and who he is.
— Frank Oz (@TheFrankOzJam) September 18, 2018
But on Friday, it seems Oz, who also voiced Yoda and directed In & Out, had a change of heart.
“A last thought: If Jim and I had created Bert and Ernie as gay characters they would be inauthentic coming from two straight men,” he tweeted. “However, I have now learned that many view them as representative of a loving gay relationship. And that’s pretty wonderful. Thanks for helping me understand.”
A last thought: If Jim and I had created B & E as gay characters they would be inauthentic coming from two straight men. However, I have now learned that many view them as representative of a loving gay relationship. And that’s pretty wonderful. Thanks for helping me understand.
— Frank Oz (@TheFrankOzJam) September 28, 2018
Perhaps Bert and Ernie have endured for nearly 50 years because they were written in such broad strokes, allowing viewers to project their own relationships and ideas onto them. It’s worth noting that Mark Saltzman didn’t create Bert and Ernie, he merely wrote for them while part of the Sesame Street writers team in the 1980s. The rambunctious roommates were envisioned by Jim Henson in the early 1970s, and were built by Muppet designer Don Sahlin and performed by Oz.
In his autobiography, original Sesame Street crew member Jon Stone said that Bert and Ernie were modeled after the real-life friendship between Henson and Oz, both of whom are straight.