Won't You be My Neighbor is almost here. Get your tickets now!
When it comes to the people in your (children's television) neighborhood, there are a few staples. A certain giant yellow fowl, a purple Tyrannosaurus Rex, a blue moon-eyed train, and of course, the incomparable Fred Rogers. In Won’t You Be My Neighbor, we get to peer behind the curtain and see what makes a show tick.
While the aforementioned characters may be squeaky clean on screen, those of us responsible for making said shows tended to skew considerably less so. You don’t work on children’s television shows (particularly ones on public broadcast networks) with the intention of getting rich. You do it because you get to work on something people love, and because you get to work with some of the funniest, sometimes filthiest, most kind-hearted people you’ll ever meet.
I was lucky enough to land a role at Sesame Workshop right out of college. They’re the folks responsible for Sesame Street and The Electric Company - the latter of which was rebooted in the late 2000s (and often featured guest spots from a pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda - they are still online if you don’t believe me). I was hired to join The Electric Company’s visual effects team, and I assumed I’d have to spend the course of my career there hiding any joke beyond a G rating. I was wrong. In retrospect, I probably should have known better considering some of the most important people at the overall company spend much of their time with their hands up a puppet’s rear. There’s a certain sense of wackiness that has to go along with doing that for your day job.
If you want some examples of our senses of humor, look no further than what happens when you let us make R-rated fare, you get your Avenue Q’s, your Wonder Showzen’s, your The Happytime Murders, and your Team America: World Police’s (okay, that one isn’t from folks who made children’s television but you get the idea). Or ask Caroll Spinney to improvise as Oscar the Grouch for you if you ever have a chance. He may live in a trash can, but his mind is in the gutter (around adults only, of course; we may be crude but I never met anyone during my time who didn’t have the utmost respect for the intended audience of the shows).
That’s what I loved about Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Not only did it show the impact Fred Rogers had on public broadcasting and children’s television (he basically saved federal funding for public television) but it also showed how in spite of being probably the squeakiest of the clean, he still had a great sense of humor with his crew.
Seeing Fred Rogers laugh at his crew constantly coming up with creative ways to moon him (this really is a great documentary, everyone) made me realize that from the lowest rungs on the production ladder to the stars of shows, humor is ultimately what brings us all together. Won’t You Be My neighbor made me miss the non-HR approved nicknames we gave each other (the mildest of which I can share is probably “Assbag”), the nerf wars, the pranks (the police were only called once over an April Fool’s Day prank gone wrong, and the suspensions were short), the long hours, the gossiping about celebrity guest stars when you found out they were coming in (I can testify that the ladies - and men - love Cool James), and the sense of family.
Sure, I cried through half of Won’t You Be My Neighbor. In part because it reminded me of all the good times with my work family I missed. In part because it showed that some people don’t just talk the talk of what they believed in, they walk the walk. Fred Rogers was able to walk the walk of his values while inspiring others. He wasn’t in in your face about it, and most of all was able to do so while accepting everyone, even with their messed up senses of humor.