Bert and Ernie were gay: Fake news from true believers

September 19, 2018 • 12:45 pm

I grew up too early to watch the children’s television show Sesame Street, so all I know of it is what you’d pick up from popular culture. I’ve heard of the friends Bert and Ernie, but only now has a fracas erupted about whether the friendship was also romantic—that is, whether Bert and Ernie were in fact gay. It’s all erupted this week because one of the show’s writers, Mark Saltzman, argued that the two characters were gay, and that’s because Saltzman was gay.

Much of the Leftist internet was delighted to hear this, and accepted it at face value. Here’s one example from my favorite mushy-left rag (click on the screenshot):

A summary of the piece with Saltzman’s claim:

A former “Sesame Street” writer says there’s some truth to the long-standing rumors that two of the show’s most beloved characters, Bert and Ernie, are gay.

Emmy winner Mark Saltzman, who is credited with having worked on 31 episodes of “Sesame Street” that aired from 1985 through 1998, told LGBTQ news outlet Queerty he always saw Bert and Ernie as a same-sex couple.

“I remember one time that a column from The San Francisco Chronicle, a preschooler in the city turned to mom and asked, ‘Are Bert and Ernie lovers?’ And that, coming from a preschooler was fun,” Saltzman said in an interview published Sept. 16. “And that got passed around, and everyone had their chuckle and went back to it. And I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”

The writer, whose other credits include “The Jim Henson Hour” and the TV movie musical, “Mrs. Santa Claus,” went on to suggest that the Bert and Ernie’s storylines were inspired by his real-life relationship.

“The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie and I as ‘Bert and Ernie,’” Saltzman said, referring to his partner, Arnold Glassman, a filmmaker and film editor who died in 2003.

“I was already with Arnie when I came to ‘Sesame Street.’ So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple,” he said. “I wrote sketches … Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert and Ernie dynamic.”

To be sure, HuffPo does grudgingly present the show’s denial (see below) as well as that of Frank Oz, who directed the show and was a puppeteer, including the person who did Bert. But then HuffPo buttresses the puppets-were-gay theory by noting that some other venues interpreted Bert and Ernie as gay—as in this New Yorker cover showing “the characters cuddling together on a sofa to celebrate the Supreme Court declaring the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, unconstitutional that June.”

Clearly the New Yorker itself wants to support the “Burt and Ernie are gay” side. I’ve pretty much given up on the magazine, though, as it makes the inevitable slide toward Authoritarian Leftism.

Well, frankly, I don’t worry much about whether Bert and Ernie were meant to be gay. If they were, then more power to Sesame Street for breaking it to children that not all relationships must be between people of different sexes. (However, if they wanted to impart that lesson, why weren’t the characters presented as gay more explicitly?) I applaud books and shows that let kids know about the diversity of sexuality in a sensitive way.

Sadly, the data suggests that “gay” theory was wrong. Sesame Street itself, which, one would think, doesn’t have a dog in this fight, denies it. Here’s a story from Sky News (click on screenshot):

An excerpt (my emphasis):

The makers of Sesame Street have denied that the classic characters Bertie and Ernie are homosexuals.

Their statement comes after one of the writers on the children’s TV show said he believed the educational puppets were “lovers”.

. . . Rumours have swirled for years that Bert and Ernie might be more than just friends, with the puppets known to sleep in the same double bed at night.

Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation that makes Sesame Street, said in a statement: “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends.

“They were created to teach pre-schoolers 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.”

Well that’s a good lesson, too. Being friends with people who are very different is not that far from being lovers with someone of the same sex, and imparts a message of similar tolerance. Below are the denials by the Sesame Workshop and Frank Oz.

Given the pushback from those in the know, the New York Times has taken up the controversy, reporting that Saltzman says that his comments were misinterpreted (click on screenshot below):

An excerpt (my emphases below):

The recurring question shot back into our consciousness this week after a former “Sesame Street” writer who is gay said in an interview that he wrote Bert and Ernie as a “loving couple,” taking inspiration from his own relationship with his longtime partner.

“I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were” gay, the writer, Mark Saltzman, said in an interview with Queerty, a gay news and entertainment site. “I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”

His comments thundered across the internet, spreading both outrage and glee. “They’re official!!!!!” said one post, showing an image of a smiling Bert and Ernie wearing sparkling wedding rings. But Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street,” quickly knocked down the idea, saying in a statement that Bert and Ernie are “best friends” and, being that they are puppets, have no sexual orientation.

Mr. Saltzman, who was a writer for “Sesame Street” in the 1980s and ’90s, now says that his comments were misinterpreted.

He said that he and his partner, Arnold Glassman, who died in 2003, were much like Bert and Ernie, opposites who found a way to love each other. “As a writer, you just bring what you know into your work,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday night.

“Somehow, in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay,” he said. “There is a difference.”

Of course in the statement at the top, Saltzman says they were indeed portrayed as gay, and that he meant them to be, so he’s simply walking back his claim. Now he argues that he just infused the characters with the spirit of homosexuality.

That may be a distinction without a difference, and I can’t be too bothered to make a judgement on all this. What does amuse me, and why I’m writing about this, is because many people insisted that they were gay, despite the show’s denials, and in fact demonized those who claimed that they weren’t gay. Such is the power of confirmation bias, and of the ideological Zeitgeist. 

HuffPo is one example, and here’s another (these aren’t hard to find) from the NYT:

Frank Oz, who helped create Bert and Ernie nearly a half century ago, said on Twitter on Tuesday that the characters were not gay

His comments received pushback from those who shared the importance of having gay and lesbian representation on television. One person wrote on Twitter that “having the flexibility to see them” as gay “was good for me, and the more voices I see CONFIRMING that they DEFINITELY ARE NOT is what makes me sad.”

Good Lord! Isn’t it enough for that person that they weren’t meant to show that very different people can be friends? Isn’t that an equally valuable lesson?

So be it. Here are some tweets that Grania found appropriate for this teapot tempest:

This one appears to show that “different types can be friends” (after all, they’re in separate beds):

From comedian Shappi Khorsandi, former President of the British Humanists:

And Grania insisted I post this, which shows that the debate has been raging a long time:


86 thoughts on “Bert and Ernie were gay: Fake news from true believers

  1. I grew up too early to watch the children’s television show Sesame Street,

    We weren’t allowed to watch it growing up, the parents said it was ‘secular propaganda’. That said, I watched this unfold on twitter last night with much amusement.
    I think my favorite was a response to

    they remain puppets and do not have a sexual orientation.”

    that went along the lines of ‘please explain Ms. Piggy then’.

    1. Ha ha! My dad wouldn’t let me watch the Tales of the Wizard of Oz cartoon because he said it was “stupid”. But I could watch The Shining & the Exorcist. I have to agree that the cartoon was stupid.

      1. From what I understand, SS does model some very secular/humanist values, so my parents were probably right in that sense ;).

    2. I think “they remain puppets and do not have a sexual orientation” was their was of saying; “We can’t believe we have to respond to something this stupid”.

  2. When I was a kid, Bert always seemed like such a hard ass to me. I also thought Moe from the Three Stooges was mean and that George Costanza from Seinfeld was an idiot. Now I think Bert had legitimate reasons for being angry at Ernie (cookie crumbs in the bed), Moe had every reason to smack the Stooges & George Costanza is a genius!

    1. I always thought they were a send-up/kid’s version of the Odd Couple (Felix and Oscar). One is messy and relaxed, the other is type-A and high strung.

      If that’s where the idea for the pair came from, that would imply they aren’t a gay couple. Though either of them could theoretically be gay ‘on their own,’ I guess.

      I have to say I like Sesame Street’s reply: characters intended to show how you can be best friends with someone unlike you. In 2018, that might be more important message than ‘gay people are normal.’

      1. “I always thought they were a send-up/kid’s version of the Odd Couple (Felix and Oscar). ”

        Ah! Nailed it!

        Really that’s it – same time frame.

        1. I have no dog in this fight, but citing The Odd Couple as proof that Bert and Ernie weren’t gay doesn’t help matters much. Recently, I was vacationing in a place where the local TV station broadcast a lot of long-forgotten (for good reason) late 50’s through late 60’s TV series. My wife and I were astounded to see how much now-obvious gay subtext there was.

          1. Oh oh oh – I see – you are saying The Odd Couple was a subversive show in that it was displaying gayness.

            This is about a children’s show – Sesame Street – if anyone was to pick up on subtext, it was parents.

            But the simpler view is that it merely looked like a show that was already on TV. Many other Sesame Street segments were exactly this, e.g. Guy Smiley was a game show host.

          2. Oh sure; IIRC Felix is the one you’re probably talking about.

            Hey look if the Odd Couple comparison makes you think Bert might be gay, that’s your perogative. What I’m saying is I don’t think Sesame Street did not set out to portray a gay couple. They set out to portray an odd couple of friends. This is consistent both with their own statements and with the analogy to the original Odd Couple.

      2. It’s possible that they were written as friends that were very different but the writers also put some of their own experiences into the characters, which might include being in a relationship with another man.

        I always found Bert’s love of pigeons amusing as well. He was a little eccentric as well as type A.

  3. If you’ve never seen the video where the desert scene from Casino plays over Bert and Ernie, look for it. Just a couple of minutes and you realize, OMG, those puppets are Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci!

  4. Sesame St missed a teaching opportunity. They taught kids about many concepts:
    Bert and Ernie could have explained Top, Bottom and maybe even Versatile.

  5. I think the writer did impart a gay subtext to Bert and Ernie’s relationship, but they weren’t shown as being overtly homosexual. So points for being subtle.

  6. “The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie and I as ‘Bert and Ernie,’” Saltzman said, referring to his partner, Arnold Glassman, a filmmaker and film editor who died in 2003.”
    Referred to Arnie and ME, FFS…

        1. But since you and Arnie were like this it meant that Arnie and I were not like this so people did not, therefore, refer to Arnie and me this way.

  7. Everything must be politicized today. There were tons of articles about how Lando Calrissian was “pansexual” after Solo was released. When Serena Williams threw a games-long tantrum and was penalized a game, not only did she accuse the umpire of sexism, but the media immediately did so as well (not to mention racism), all because she was punished deservedly and exactly as a white man would be and has been punished in the past.

    There is nothing that can go unscathed by politics. Everything must be in service to the progressive agenda (and I say this as a liberal).

    1. BJ, I suspect that some of your frustration might be due to the types of media you are choosing to consume. It can be easy to think that everyone, everywhere thinks the same – but it just isn’t so.

      The onion did have a funny article a while back about a woman who takes a half hour off from being a feminist so she can enjoy some tv show.

      1. I remember that Onion article, and it was very funny!

        I don’t really consume the media to which I’m referring, but it’s hard not to notice when articles from places like The Washington Post (which had at least ten outright lies in it to justify its opinion on the Serena incident), to every lefty rag like HuffPo and Haarpers, to messages all over social media (including from big names like Billie Jean King and JK Rowling) are talking about it. But you are absolutely right that I let these things get to me and should do a better job of avoiding them. It’s hard because a big part of me feels a need to know what the narrative about something like this is.

        1. It’s hard because a big part of me feels a need to know what the narrative about something like this is.

          I am sympathetic! As an endlessly curious person, I can get sucked right down a rabbit hole. I’ve tried to balance my twitter account with legit journalists (the Oregonian staffers are great), attorneys, a mix of left and right pundity types, the occasional athlete/musician/author and a nice array of global news orgs. It is interesting to note when the whole feed does seem to center on a specific topic at a specific point in time.

          1. I’m going to try and be very conscious of your advice in the coming days, but it will be difficult. While it’s infuriating to wade through the idiocy of the media, part of me feels like I’m missing something important if I don’t. It really is hard to climb out of that rabbit hole!

        2. You talkin’ Harper’s or Harper’s Bazaar maybe? I let my subscription to the former lapse a few years back, after Lewis Lapham retired as its editor (and, thus, it stopped publishing his wonderful, flinty essays every month), so can’t speak to its recent editorial policy, but the magazine has a venerable tradition going back to before the Civil War.

          1. Still mostly love Harper’s (have subscribed since 1964), though do miss Lewis L. Hasn’t been an editor like him since. Not even sure who the ed is as they sort of rotate the Easy Chair column.

        3. “… when articles from places like The Washington Post (which had at least ten outright lies in it to justify its opinion on the Serena incident)”

          Do you have a reference to the article and to a list of the lies?

          1. Here’s the article:

            The narrative itself — that men aren’t treated like this, or that it was unfair, and the complete downplaying of what Serena did and excising a significant portion of her conduct to portray it as somehow less awful than it was — is the worst of the article.

            Rather than type everything out myself, I’m going to take some quotes from several Reddit comments that explained how many times this has happened to men, and how fallacious the presentation of Serena’s actions is in this article.

            “David Nalbandian got a match penalty back in 09 in Queen’s Club Finals. He kicked an advertisement board out of anger but there was a line judge right behind that and he got hurt.


            ‘This was the first incident for him that tournament, and Nalbandian was immediately penalized the entire match. Queen’s Club is a second tier tournament, kinda like Indian Wells.

            ‘McEnroe in 1990 got a third violation in Wimbledon’s fourth round, which is right before the quarterfinals, but in Wimbledon they automatically disqualify you. He was yelling at the line judge, threw his racquet, and then yelled at the chair umpire.

            ‘McEnroe in 1982 also got a game penalty for the ‘you cannot be serious’ tantrum but that was in the first round?

            ‘Serena was penalized a point in 2009, but that was on match point, she likely would have been penalized a lot more for threatening a line judge repeatedly.”

            “The game penalty was the culmination of three penalties.

            ‘First: Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach was coaching during the match. The video showed it and he even admitted in the post-game interview. There is controversy over whether other chair umpires consistently call a coaching violation.

            ‘Second: Racket abuse. She smashed the racket. Whether or not this gets called by chair umpires at other tournaments is irrelevant. And this regularly receives a warning when it happens. Non professional players often receive far more serious penalties.

            ‘Third: Verbal abuse. Calling the chair umpire a “thief” was the proverbial last straw. As was repeatedly demanding an apology, demanding that the chair announce an apology and continually harassing the chair umpire during and between points is a clear violation. Declaring that he will never work in her court again. This was not a single offhand remark.

            ‘These rules are in place to uphold the integrity and professionalism of the game and to ensure that players follow a certain code of conduct. To not enforce the rules because of the dominant popularity of a player or because it is a Grand Slam Championship match is ridiculous. Not to mention she was interrupting the game to make her juvenile remarks.

            ‘To be fair to the umpire he was trying to have a calm dialogue with her until she literally told him not to talk to her while she continued to verbally abuse him. He just sat and listened and then issued the violation when she was done.

            Her point about the men doing worse was ridiculous whataboutism that is not even applicable. Yeah men have said worse, but they tend to shut up after a warning or point penalty. Serena was on violation number 3. At any point she could have just stopped and focused on winning the match.”

            In sum: this has happened to many men, Serena did far more than what the article claims, and she verbally abused the umpire after every point for several games after her second warning, until he finally gave her the third warning and penalized her a full game (which is the automatic penalty for a third violation, not a decision by the umpire).

          2. And, of course, Billie Jean King, among others, has been complaining since it happened that the umpire never would have treated a man this way, and it was all indicative of sexism on the part of the umpire and the sport of tennis. Not only has this happened before to men from other umpires, but even from this umpire in particular.

          3. Here’s one last comment from Reddit explaining more:

            This article has me picturing something very different from what I’d already seen in TV clips.

            [editor’s note: everything with “##” around it is a quote from the Washington Post article, since the Reddit poster used formatting to delineate the quotes and the formatting doesn’t carry over to this comment section]

            ##’Ramos has put up with worse from a man. At the French Open in 2017, Ramos leveled Rafael Nadal with a ticky-tacky penalty over a time delay, and Nadal told him he would see to it that Ramos never refereed one of his matches again.’##

            That’s not something that Ramos has only put up with from a man! A mere minute before the “theif” line the article quoted, Williams said “You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live.” (Of course this leaves open the interpretation that Ramos has received as bad from a man without issuing a penalty.)

            ##She has had instances where she ranted and deserved to be disciplined, but she has outlived all that.##

            I REALLY don’t get this. Was she not ranting during this very match? Seems like it to me. Added to the lack of quotes and the implication that an apparently bad thing wasn’t said when it was, it feels weird and manipulative (thinking of stuff like “that [thing that happened two minutes ago] is in the past, it’s disrespectful to bring it up”. Or, to take an example from Williams in this match, continuing to talk to someone after snapping “don’t talk to me.”)

            I don’t know how it works in tennis, but I’m used to repeated bad behavior lowering the threshold for future calls. The first incident was over being penalized (just a warning?) for “coaching” (I take it this is members of the audience providing in-the-moment advice). It eventually culminated in the “thief” line, but it wasn’t limited to that.

            Williams was at first calm but firm in her denial. Set 2 Game 2, when the “coaching” happens:

            ##”We don’t have a code, and I know you don’t know that. And I understand why you may have thought that was coaching. But I’m telling you it’s not. I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose. I’m just letting you know.”##

            Set 2 Game 6 it comes up again because she loses a point for breaking her racquet in frustration (which would have been a warning if not for the coaching thing):

            ## “I didn’t get coaching. You need to make an announcement that I didn’t get coaching.” [Inaudible reply]. “I don’t cheat! I didn’t get coaching. How can you say that?” [Inaudible reply]. “You need… you need to… You owe me an apology. You owe me an apology. I have NEVER cheated in my LIFE. I have a daughter and I [??] what’s right for her and I have never cheated. You owe me an apology.” ##

            Her coach, after the match, isn’t on the same page, flatly saying that he was coaching, but that it’s something that “100% of the coaches on 100% of the matches” do.

            Lastly I don’t know if the ref’s penalty takes into account anything more than the “thief” accusation itself (commentary seems imply that it does not) or what exactly the rules say, but here’s some more from that part (umpire is inaudible):

            ## “[…] and I explained that to you. For you to attack my character!? Is something that’s wrong. It’s wrong. You attacking my character. Yes you are. You OWE me an apology. You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar. … When are you gonna give me my apology? You. Owe. Me. An apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry. Well then you’re–then–Don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to me. … … How DARE you insinuate that I was cheating. … … And you stole a point from me. You’re a thief, too.” ##

  8. Sesame Street came too late for my childhood. I watched it with my children and I think I often enjoyed it more than they did. I thought of Bert and Ernie as a prepubescent version of Neil Simon’s Odd Couple. The usual plot for the Bert and Ernie segments included an argument and then they made up. Often Ernie played a joke on Bert, they argued, and they made up. Sometimes they were allowed to show a level of mutual affection that would have been unusual for boys when I was a child. Sexual role modeling happened very early then. I should ask my children what they think about Bert and Ernie. When I was 12 I had no idea there was such a thing as being gay.

  9. OK, maybe there was that one time for Bert & Ernie, over the long holiday weekend when all the other Sesame Street characters went home, and they drank some Ripple and ate a couple quaaludes and ended up taking a shower together and can’t really remember exactly what happened — but, hey, that don’t make ’em full-on gay!

  10. They are not gay. They are obviously a heterosexual couple. Ernie is obviously a woman and anyone who denies this is just stereotyping what a woman should be!!!

    1. OTOH, both are male-like (still puppets) but one is homosexual, the other not. An even more poignant différence that can be ignored/accepted neutrally while still being besties/roommates.

  11. Ok everyone. Go to your respective corners and argue for the position that makes the universe seem right to you.

    Sesame street writer who has been at it for only a fraction of the history of B. and E. But he is gay: “B. and E. are gay. Obviously.”

    Conservative pundit: “B. and E. are not gay. They are straight! This is another example of the moral decay of ‘Mericah.”

    Creators and long term spokespersons of the Seseme street characters: “Muppets do not have a sexual orientation. This is a show for young children, and such matters just are not relevant. The rest of you are projecting.”

    I would personally take the creators at their word.

  12. I think I can clear this up:

    Ernie is gay. Bert is straight and they are just good friends. Ernie hasn’t been sexually active in decades so you could say he’s asexual. Ernie used to fantasize about ‘converting’ Bert but hasn’t indulged in that in many years and the thought no longer interests him. Bert is also celibate, although he has recently acquired some unusual porn habits.

    1. Do people on the right really object to this? Its funny that all this time they’ve had nothing to say about the relationship between Kermit the Frog and Missy Piggy who not only are different species but come from different taxonomic orders!

  13. Sesame Street’s owners most certainly do have a dog in this fight. There are likely parents out there that wouldn’t let their kids watch gay Bert and Ernie. While they are non-profit, I assume they still care about their show’s popularity and seek to avoid controversy.

    1. This is very true. I for one and glad that they are trying to not sexualize puppets made of felt and stuffing. Gender should not matter. Sexual orientation should not matter. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of building a progressive society?

  14. Oscar the Grouch is a Vietnam vet with PTSD, living on the street.

    Big Bird has various disorders, including giantism and acromegally.

    Cookie monster? Compulsive eating but also bulimia. This is why he is still thin. No, wait. He is addicted to crystal meth. Teeth had fallen out long ago.

  15. When my older son was a tyke of about two, I was going to law school during the day and tending bar at night. My wife was working a double shift at the hospital over the weekends, so I had baby duty then. She went to work early and I got home late, so as soon as she’d leave on Saturday mornings, I’d drag the playpen over to the couch and turn on Sesame Street for the kid while I tried to grab a couple more winks.

    One Saturday I conked out for I don’t know how long, but when I woke up, the afternoon PBS fare was on the tube and my son had poop leaking down his leg from his Pampers.

    I still feel guilty about that one. My son and I still both have big crushes on “Maria” from Sesame Street, too.

    1. And I had a crush on Maria’s bf, Luis😻
      Loved S Street when my kids were little: Kermit surprising the British with noisemakers and crossing the Delaware as Washington, saying “Cheese”. Lotsa good memories. My kids hardly remember it at all!

  16. I remember a while back when some right wingers accused Mr. Rogers of being a feminizing role model. They used that view to try to unfund PBS.

  17. It never ever occurred to me that Bert and Ernie were either straight or gay. The concept of sex was simply not there yet.
    I was particularly fond of Ernie, especially when interacting and/or singing with Cookie Monster.
    Gay, who cares?

  18. What a bunch of wallies. And I mean, people who really think puppets could be ‘gay’ or ‘straight’. (I’m not referring to commenters here, who are being suitably facetious about it).

    I’m reminded of the controversy over the Teletubbies –

    [Jerry Falwell] warned parents that Tinky Winky could be a covert homosexual symbol, because “he is purple, the gay pride colour, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle: the gay pride symbol.” The BBC made an official response, explaining that “Tinky Winky is simply a sweet, technological baby with a magic bag.” Ken Viselman of Itsy-Bitsy Entertainment commented, “He’s not gay. He’s not straight. He’s just a character in a children’s series.”


  19. whether Bert and Ernie were in fact gay

    There is no “fact” of the matter. They’re puppets. It’s perceptions all the way down.

  20. I am reminded of a theological discussion from
    The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin. One character was explaining why a woman could never be a true Odonian. The other character objected weakly: “But Odo herself…”

  21. I never heard the last letter of the English alphabet pronounced as “Zee” until my daughter (now 35 and with two kids of her own) started watching Sesame Street as a toddler. I presumed the change from “Zed” was to make the alphabet song end in a rhyme. Nowadays, I sing the song to my granddaughter and end it with an emphatic, non-rhyming “ZED!” much to her feigned outrage. 🙂

    1. I can assure you that Americans pronounced the last letter of the alphabet as “zee” well before Sesame Street came on the air. I mostly grew up in the US but with English parents. I heard “zee” at school but “zed” at home. I don’t ever remember any Americans saying “zed”, or English saying “zee” for that matter.

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