Geek Couples: Bert and Ernie - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Geek Couples: Bert and Ernie

Can you tell Tony how to get to Sesame Street?

The law that opposites attract has of course been a fundamental of romantic comedies since the year dot – certainly since the likes of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing were entertaining theatregoers. There’s something about people who are far apart in their modes of thinking and behaviour that perversely makes them seem close together, and the sparks of argument are rarely far from the sparks of passion.

But confusingly, the notion of opposite personalities finding a way to be friends is also something that inherently appeals to the young mind. Frequently among our initial friendships in school we find the kid who drives us absolutely stark raving mad some times, with whom we seem to have nothing in common, but who nevertheless makes us laugh, or lends a hand in our adventures or a shoulder to cry on, who swears on their parents’ lives not to tell our secrets to another living soul, and goes on to keep their promise. Someone with the potential to drive us absolutely mad, but who we can’t help liking in spite of themselves.

That’s the dichotomy of Bert and Ernie – on the one hand, they seem so opposite that surely they must be a couple. And on the other, they’re characters in a children’s show, which suggests the just-friends relationship.

Given the generally useful nature of Sesame Street, it was one of the first intelligible shows that several generations of growing children watched, helping them make sense of concepts, numbers and letters. And whatever their relationship is, Bert and Ernie were there from the very beginning.

Bert and Ernie appeared in the original pilot for Sesame Street back in 1969, and were reportedly the only part of the show that tested well with audiences. From the performance of their characters by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the show was commission, and the fundamental nature of its format – Muppets and humans interacting – was apparently approved. Let that sink in for a moment – without Bert and Ernie, there’d be no Sesame Street. Without Sesame Street, there’d be no wildly successful Muppet industry. No Muppet Christmas Carol! Oh, it’s enough to give you the vapours.

Their characters on the show are really little more than a way of illustrating opposites – loud and quiet, high and low, big and small (Stop that sniggering at the back!), but from that necessary opposition, something true to the human condition is born. Because, for instance, if you’re a Bert, trying to quietly read your book, there’s always an Ernie around to interrupt you, to ask you questions, to share their day’s adventures or their thoughts with you. Likewise, if you’re an Ernie, all bubbling, vivacious energy and an eagerness to share, there’s always a Bert who just wants to be boring and quiet and also wants you to be quiet, so their quietness ultimately wins. The story of Bert and Ernie should probably end in Muppicide, as one of them tears the other’s face off for being so fundamentally themselves that they drive them to kill.

But it doesn’t do that, and it never will.

Because even though they are fundamentally opposite personalities, ‘born that way’ to coin a phrase, so they can illustrate the very nature of opposite-concepts, their opposition to one another is at worst as long as their scenes, as long as their opposition is healthy and educational. They drive each other sometimes briefly mad, though usually the exasperation is shown surfacing in Bert – Bert of the sterner face, the thinner body, the more uptight nature and the monobrow that seems designed always to be stressed. Ernie is always shown as more freewheeling, more open and engaging and comical, the practical joker compared to Bert’s somewhat nerdy victimhood. In school, Ernie would get in with a relatively popular set, always able to find new interesting things to look at, talk about and share, while Bert would be in among the nerds, more bookish and quiet, more reserved and fretful about the state of the world and his place within it. In spite of these fundamental differences though, they work together, they find ways to stay together.

Much has been made of their supposed sexual orientation, with scriptwriter Mark Saltzman claiming in 2018 that they were analogous to himself and film editor Arnold Glassman, despite Bert and Ernie pre-dating Saltzman beginning work on the show. Again, the question of Bert and Ernie raised interest and covered column inches – were they a gay couple, or were they just pals?

Ultimately, it’s probably true that Bert and Ernie are Schrodinger’s Couple.

They’re a gay couple if and when you need them to be. If you’re a young viewer feeling isolated in a heteronormative world, aware that you don’t fit the seeming expectations of that world, then Bert and Ernie can speak to you on that level – they’re two boys, or men, who live together, who sleep in the same room but in different beds, who like each other enough to live together, apparently alone with no adult supervision, and that can give young viewers something to hold on to, something which seems to show them they’re seen, and liked, and represented on the street of friendly neighbours, where ‘everything’s A-OK,’ that however dislocated they might feel in the here and now of their youth, that things get better, that they belong, like everyone else, on Sesame Street – also incidentally a groundbreaking show in its treatment of multiculturalism. Everybody belongs on Sesame Street, living, learning, singing songs together – hell, even the grouch and the vampire belong on Sesame Street. If you identify with Bert and Ernie as a gay couple, you can do that and take a positive message of inclusion from it, and that’s wonderful.

If you’re a cishet kid watching Bert and Ernie, the acute sense of self-recognition probably passes you by, but if you have siblings, the opposites they represent can catch in your understanding of the world on that level. More to the point though, they still speak to that schoolyard truth of the friends who drive you mad, but who you know enrich your life even while they’re frustrating you. To cishet kids, Bert and Ernie are what the Sesame Workshop (or the Children’s Television Workshop as it used to be) say they are. They’re non-sexual in the first instance, but they’re also friends. They’re Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple. They’re Chandler and Joey from Friends. They’re Laverne and Shirley from Laverne and Shirley. They’re Starsky and Hutch (oh my god, can you imagine if Bert and Ernie solved crimes together in their own Sesame Street spin-off? You know you’d watch the absolute Muppets out of that!). They might live together at 123 Sesame Street, but ultimately, unless you need them to be more, they’re pals who shouldn’t be pals, but still are anyway. They’re the odd couple of Sesame Street, speaking to an immortal truth in friendship, and also, if you need them to, to an immortal truth in love – not so much that opposites attract, but that people who really like each other can overcome their differences of nature and gain from each other, becoming ultimately stronger than the sum of their parts.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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