Kieran Moore – The Muppets are a funny bunch. I mean they’re literally hilarious, but what I’m really getting at here is that they somehow straddle two very different worlds. Some Muppets are undeniably cute. They’re furry and cuddly and have big doe eyes. They have sweet personalities and you fall instantly in love with them. Or… They’re snarky and sarcastic. Cynical and knowing – and you fall instantly in love with them. Today’s subject however is firmly in the cute camp.
Zoe is possibly the sweetest monster in the Sesame Street roster – and let’s be honest, there’s some stiff competition. She lights up the screen with her good-natured personality and it’s impossible not to fall instantly in love with her. As one of the Street’s youngest characters, she portrays the innocence of childhood in a way that other Sesame kids don’t. It’s endearing and funny and, well it’s impossible not to fall instantly in love with her…
10 – It All Adds Up
It might seem weird to US readers, but I really have very little knowledge of Diane Sawyer. This might be the only time I’ve ever seen her “in person”. I’m only really aware of her career as a journalist because she gets mentioned in other movies and TV shows. And as a journalist she really has no business being able to sing as well as this. Does she also have some sort of performance background? This is the first example today (kind of obvious since it’s the first song) of Zoe’s trademark laugh. I find her breathy giggle so infectious. It’s just how I would expect a 3 year old monster to laugh!
9 – That’s The Way I Read
This song is an interesting look at how kids handle books and shows that it’s never too early to be exposed to literature. Having just mentioned Zoe is 3 years old, this song demonstrates the way various characters read based on their age and development level. Zoe, as the youngest in this song, uses the pictures in her book to essentially make up the story which is extra-cool as it means she’s basically the author of her very own book. I find it slightly odd here that Telly (who I always think of as older) is used to demonstrate figuring out letters – Elmo might have been better suited, but never mind. This song is bright, jazzy and jaunty and Fran Brill as Zoe sings it perfectly.
8 – Here Comes Santa Claus
I don’t often think of Big Bird and Zoe as a natural pairing, but they have plenty in common – both are young and innocent and excitable. They might get things mixed up, but always have the best of intentions. This is an audio only performance and as much as I miss seeing performers like Fran Brill and Caroll Spinney acting things out, I do enjoy being able to focus on the vocals of a track and listening out for the extra touches they add. Here we get the ever-excitable Zoe being even more exuberant and Big Bird is extra jolly. In fact, this piece is just plain old jolly all over. I guess it should be since it’s a Christmas track. It might be Thanksgiving this week, but as Zoe and Big Bird prove – it’s never too early to get festive!
7 – Take Care of Your Hair
The Muppet Wiki entry for this track starts “Zoe, Gabi, Miles, Elmo and a bottle of shampoo sing “Take Care of Your Hair“” Because why wouldn’t they? Silliness like this is another reason why Sesame Street is one of the best TV shows ever. To do something crazy like this with all sincerity is genius. Add on the fact that this song has a message to impart and it’s even better. This parody of the musical “Hair” was written by Christopher Cerf and Joey Mazzarino and is just about perfect. Zoe looks very pretty with her flowing blonde locks and Fran is clearly having fun swishing them around. For a character as upbeat as Zoe it’s a little odd that she doesn’t get to rock out more, but this is today’s only real opportunity for her to do so…
6 – Share
We’ve seen Zoe and Elmo a few times together so far on this list, but this is the perfect time to mention how well Zoe and Elmo worked together in her early years. Zoe was added to the Muppet cast during a period that saw several other characters debut as well. Some, like Rosita and Baby Bear, hung around but some inevitably didn’t. Zoe, of course, is still very much amongst us. This is down to two factors. First, the always amazing Fran Brill, but second (and perhaps more contentiously) her relationship with Elmo. Zoe was designed and colored to compliment Elmo and given characteristics that worked well with him also. In less skilled hands Zoe could perhaps have become a female Elmo or “Elmette”, but the writers and Fran got everything just right.
5 – Because We’re Friends
Speaking of friendships… Zoe was part of an effort in the early 90’s to add more female Muppets to Sesame Street, but 25 years on the show is much more balanced. With the addition of Abby Cadabby in 2006, a power trio of young girl Muppets consisting of her, Rosita and Zoe was established. Please do spare a thought for Prairie Dawn… The girls portray a different kind of friendship to those seen elsewhere on the Street through characters like Bert & Ernie, Big Bird & Snuffy and Biff & Sully in that this relationship feels younger and more authentic to how kids really get along. Girls and boys can see themselves portrayed in this song. Speaking of which, this is fast-paced and fun and features spirited performances from Fran, Carmen Osbahr and Leslie Carrara-Rudolph.
4 – Me and My Jacket
This is another silly track that seems quintessentially Zoe. It’s upbeat and sunny and full of charm. Fran Brill was part of the team that helped create the character and as such spent lots of time in preschools with girls around the age of three. You can see just how well that time paid off as Zoe’s characteristics are spot on. It was through this process that Zoe’s sometime catchphrase, “Don’t Joke Me” was born, as Fran heard a little girl say it in one of her visits. It’s that level of research that makes Sesame Street characters feel so real. This song is obviously a parody of Me and My Shadow and talks about how differences don’t matter when two people (or monsters and garments) get along.
3 – I’ve Been Working on the Railroad
There was a point while I put this chart together that I realised almost all of these songs were at the very least duets and Zoe had very few solo numbers. That led me to wonder if maybe Fran Brill found it hard to sing in Zoe’s voice (we know Fran can sing well generally). This track shows that even if she does, Fran can still put in a great performance as Zoe with fantastic vocals when required. Again, as an audio release we only have Zoe’s voice to enjoy, but that’s easy to do. Fran is hitting every note perfectly and acting up a storm by getting us to imagine Zoe having fun singing this nonsense song. I can picture everything that’s going on here thanks to the little inflections of Zoe’s voice.
2 – Moonshine
If you watch only one video today make it this one. Regular readers know there are certain song types I can’t resist and one of those is lullabies. They’ve featured highly for the last few weeks. This one has everything going for it. Sweet sentiment, gorgeous orchestration, serene visuals… Possibly above all of that though are the central performances from Fran Brill as Zoe and Jerry Nelson as Herry. How is it that even as a gruff monster Jerry has to power to be emotional and delicate and touching? It must be some kind of magic (to misquote Queen). We haven’t seen many quieter moments from Zoe today so this stands out as something to savor. This is a truly beautiful song that creates a real moment. It was so close to being number one…
1 – My Name is Zoe
FUN FACT: Zoe’s name was actually suggested by Fran Brill and is inspired by the book Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. This came about because someone else suggested naming her Frannie in Fran’s honor.
If you haven’t realised yet, I love kind of Zoe and this song encapsulates why. It’s full of energy and enthusiasm and a word I’ve already used today – charm. Zoe has charm to spare. This song never fails to draw me in. Compared to the previous piece this could be seen as being a bit lightweight, but that’s doing it a disservice. This song is a quickfire character piece that introduces Zoe to the world in the most wonderful way. By talking about how she can spell her (admittedly simple) name we can judge her age and development level and see that she gets excited and proud of her achievements – that tells us she has worked hard at this and maybe isn’t always right first time. It also tells us she has a support structure and people who love her. Fran’s performance also indicates both she and Zoe like fun and being silly. Having seen Fran’s amazing work with the Muppets over the last five decades, I can honestly say I attribute how much I love Zoe to her. This song (and character) is one of her most engaging and charismatic performances ever.
In a strange bit of serendipitous weirdness, yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Zoe’s debut on Sesame Street. This was purely coincidental and not planned in anyway, but given that fact it’s very fitting that I’ve had an absolute blast this week going through Zoe’s back catalog. As the nights here in the UK get dark and the weather turns cold, it’s easy to feel the winter blues setting in. Zoe has been like a ball of orange sunshine in my life over the last few days. I wish I could give her a hug and say thank you.
Instead, I’ll have to settle for thanking Fran Brill (and Zoe’s new performer Jennifer Barnhart), as well as everyone else who’s worked with Zoe for creating a bundle of joy, laughter and light that has kept the world smiling for so so many years. Thank You and Happy Birthday Zoe!