You might not have thought of Sesame Street or its characters in years, but wouldn’t you be lying if you said you hadn’t asked yourself — at least once — whether any of the Muppets had interesting backstories?
If you’ve ever wondered, or at least contemplated in passing, whether Bert and Ernie were more than just best friends-turned-roommates, then you know what I’m getting at. Rumors that the Muppets are meant to depict a gay couple have been circulating for more than thirty years, but today, we finally got some answers from one of the show’s Emmy-winning writers.
A 1980 book called The Real Thing might be where this rumor began, according to Snopes. The fact-checking website cites author Kurt Andersen as having first ignited the whispers with this whimsical claim: “Bert and Ernie conduct themselves in the same loving, discreet way that millions of gay men, women and hand puppets do. They do their jobs well and live a splendidly settled life together in an impeccably decorated cabinet.”
Ever since Kurt penned those cheeky lines almost forty years ago, Ernie and Bert have frequently been under fire for their suspected homosexuality. In 1994, a North Carolina preacher by the name of Rev. Joseph Chambers even tried to get the Muppets banned for being gay. Plus, talks of the best friends getting married — which you might remember from the popular change.org petition calling for the two to tie the knot on-air — have been circulating since the ’90s.
The people at Sesame Street have publicly denied the Muppets were gay on several occasions, usually rehashing this prepared statement that seems to have come in handy on numerous occasions:
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. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.
But when Queerty spoke to Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman, the Ernie and Bert creator begged to differ. When asked whether he conceptualized of the two as being lovers, Mark retorts, “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”
Mark, who has seven Emmys under his belt from his work on Sesame Street, is an openly gay screenwriter, songwriter, playwright and TV writer. But when he started on the show in 1984, he wasn’t as forthright about his sexuality. “All our friends knew, but I don’t think I was professionally out,” he explains, “I think I was cautiously out. I remember not inviting Arnie to the first Christmas parties, you know.”
The Arnie he refers to (sounds an awful lot like Ernie, are we right?) is Arnold Glassman, an acclaimed film editor and Mark’s “life partner, the love of my life,” who passed in 2003.
Mark explains that a lot of analogies within his partnership made their way to Sesame Street viewers’ screens. “More than one person referred to Arnie & I as ‘Bert & Ernie,”http://undefined/” he begins.
“I was Ernie. I look more Bert-ish. And Arnie as a film editor—if you thought of Bert with a job in the world, wouldn’t that be perfect? Bert with his paper clips and organization? And I was the jokester. So it was the Bert & Ernie relationship, and I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street,” Mark continues.
You know that famous (and kind of trite) saying people are always throwing at writers — ‘Write what you know’? It seems like Mark did exactly that: “I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple. I wrote sketches… Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert & Ernie dynamic.”
And though he never pitched scenes that were downright lifted from his domestic partnership with Arnie, some aspects of their relationship did help to shape the Muppets’ on the show. “That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship,” Mark told Queerty. “How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not?”
So there you have it, after more than 30 years of doubt and deception, the Sesame Street writer has finally confirmed Bert and Ernie have always been a couple. Which explains the questionable New Yorker cover a bit further.
I always knew these two were my favorite Muppets.