Photo: Richard Termine
Parente's love of Sesame Street started at an early age. As a child, she tuned in to see Grover, her favorite character. Then, as an adult, she landed a position as the assistant to the post-production supervisor, which she says involved schlepping hundreds of tapes to the edit room. Over 21 seasons, she worked her way to the top and watched as the show evolved.
"I like to describe the 40 years of Sesame Street like a 40-year timeline for history and pop culture because those references are so much a part of the show," she says. "There are all sorts of little changes. We have kids riding bikes on the sets who now wear bike helmets, and they didn't back in the early days. But so much of the warmth and sense of humor of the show is just the same as it always was."
Over the years, Sesame Street has adjusted its curriculum and welcomed new neighbors to the block, but its concept and goals have stayed constant. Parente says the show has always been written on two levels—one for children and one for parents—to better educate young viewers. "We know the best way extend the learning beyond our show is to have children co-view with a parent or caregiver," she says.
At the start of every season, Parente says experts and educators meet with Sesame Street producers to help them find the best ways to teach children about topics like hygiene, nature, personal relationships and difficult life events.
Sesame Street has never shied away from tough topics, and in the '80s, when Will Lee, the actor who played the beloved Mr. Hooper, died of a heart attack, producers took the opportunity to teach children about death. After consulting child psychologists, they wrote an episode called "Farewell, Mr. Hooper," which aired in 1983.
"What differentiates us from the rest of children's shows is we do deal with those kinds of issues," Parente says. "We didn't set out to teach death. We had our cast member pass away. I think any other children's show would have just recast the role of Mr. Hooper. ... But we chose the opportunity to deal with something that's difficult to talk to kids about."