Bert and Ernie occupy such a mighty place in the popular imagination that it’s hard for us to remember that they began as a reference to something else. But in the Jim Henson universe, sly, humourous, or worthy commentaries on public figures and social issues were always part of the process. The Muppet Show’s Janis has the laid-back vocal cadences of Laurel Canyon musicians and the hair of Joni Mitchell; Dr Teeth has the voice of Dr John and the wild eyes and hat of Leon Russell; and more seriously, Nina Simone sang ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ on Sesame Street in 1972 because the show explicitly set out to uplift marginalised urban children. The Henson universe keeps a knowing eye on our universe because it wanted to make us laugh, and relate – and occasionally, change.
The recent public debate about Bert and Ernie seems to have handily sidestepped the fact that the characters are, among other things1, an obvious allusion to The Odd Couple, originally a 1965 Broadway play by the late Neil Simon. The Odd Couple was so popular that it became both a film in 1968, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and a long-running (1970–1975) television series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. The character Felix Ungar is prim, tidy and uptight. His counterpart Oscar Madison is messy, loud and carefree. They share an apartment in Manhattan and, as might be expected from a Neil Simon joint, witticisms ensue.
‘Check it out, these two people are so different’ is a longstanding wellspring of both conflict and humour in storytelling, but of course this particular set-up contains an enormous amount of subtext for those willing to see it. Felix and Oscar are ostensibly heterosexual – they are divorced or near-divorced, and they go on dates with women – but the humour is also meant to repose in their near-facsimile of a traditional mid-century heterosexual marriage. Felix is clean, and worried, and constantly trying to keep Oscar in line; Oscar is exasperated by Felix’s neuroticism. Accustomed as we now are to differing, postmodern readings of cultural texts, it’s hard to imagine that a significant portion of The Odd Couple’s audience would be able to take its primary scenario at face value, but of course they did. Yet to us, there are several layers of meaning here which should by all rights make modern audiences uncomfortable: the feminine-coded man in this relationship is obsessive and overwrought, a figure of both amazement and amusement. Women are annoying and ridiculous and this man who acts like a woman is even more so. Oscar, conversely, is a hopeless slob, a man who can’t accept the possibility of another man with a different approach to both housekeeping and, by extension, life. ‘I don’t think that two single men living alone in a big eight-room apartment should have a cleaner house than my mother,’ he tells Felix. Underwriting all this is an even deeper anxiety and nervous laughter about the homoeroticism inherent in this scenario that, at this point, dares not openly speak its name.
Bert and Ernie, who first appeared on the pilot episode of Sesame Street in 1969, are clearly a ‘kiddified’ version of Felix and Oscar, with the unsettling subtexts cleared away.2 The premise – two male puppets sharing a New York apartment, with very different approaches to life – is a comedic ‘bit’, just as Simon’s original idea of a male couple being unwittingly ‘married’ was.
But Bert and Ernie remove all the layers of discomfort we might feel watching The Odd Couple. Their relationship is stripped of all the associations between dandyism and feminisation, messiness and manliness. They create two different, equally valid versions of maleness. It’s difficult, at this juncture, to work out how deliberate this was: we like to think we don’t imprint our ideas about gender roles or marital relationships on to very young children, but even a cursory look at gender reveal videos on social media gives the lie to that notion. Yet Sesame Street made sure that Bert and Ernie had conflicts based on inherent personality differences rather than roles society thought they should be playing. Ernie has a rubber ducky but Bert collects paper clips; Ernie eats all of Bert’s ice cream, with predictable results; Ernie tap dances himself to sleep with a posse of sheep while playing a bugle, as Bert looks on in despair.
Sesame Workshop’s ongoing assertion that Bert and Ernie ‘remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation’3 is mildly ridiculous, particularly given the lusty puppet sexuality on display during nearly every episode of The Muppet Show. Does Miss Piggy not have a sexual orientation? Even given Sesame Street’s more sedate characterisations, it’s hardly a stretch for them to allow Bert and Ernie to poke a toe out of the closet. Felix and Oscar, with all their messy, complicated subtexts, inspired these characters, which is why the question of Bert and Ernie being gay is such a regular source of pop-cultural debate.
If your romantic puppet relationship makes it on to the cover of The New Yorker, you aren’t merely ‘best friends’. You’ve transcended the (flawed) characters you were referencing in the first place. Which is surely a good thing.
1. Their origin story notes the similar friendship dynamic between Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
2. If you’re reading this you’ve probably seen Mark Saltzman’s recent interview in Queerty, in which he says that he always thought of them as a gay couple.
3. They also released this as a statement in 2011 after previous speculation about Bert and Ernie’s status.
Image: Bert and Ernie / Youtube