On November 23 — appropriately, the same day “The Muppets” hit theaters — “Monsterpiece Theater” turned thirty. (We know — try not to feel old.) This popular recurring “Sesame Street” segment features Cookie Monster as ascot-and-smoking-jacket-clad host Alistair Cookie, named after “Masterpiece Theater” presenter Alistair Cooke, who appreciated the tribute. Despite his crazy eyes and ungrammatical speech, Cookie is a triple threat, introducing, commenting on (“Yeah, that deep, deep stuff”), and occasionally starring in humorously educational takeoffs on famous texts. In the cleverness of their parodies, these segments offer something for both children and adults, becoming appealing classics in their own right. As Cookie happily announces, it is indeed the “home of classy drama.”
Every “Monsterpiece Theater” segment is a gem, but here are our literary favorites:
“Me, Claudius” (1981)
Inspired by the 1976 miniseries of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, this is widely acknowledged as the first “Monsterpiece Theater” segment. It begins with a parody title mosaic and features four monsters, including a pre-Kevin Clash Elmo, all claiming to be Claudius. The scene ends with Alistair Cookie eating his pipe, edited out in later broadcasts.
“The 39 Stairs” (1987)
Based on the film (“made by guy named Alfred”) of John Buchan’s thriller, Grover counts his way up a long staircase to discover what’s at the top, only to crash the “Monsterpiece Theater” set. Presented in black and white, the segment uses noir conventions to build suspense (and Grover’s excitement).
“Gone with the Wind” (1988)
This lesson in subtraction satirizes the 1939 movie of Margaret Mitchell’s bestseller. Kermit and Scarlett cling to the banisters as heavy gusts blow household items around them, but the best part is the introduction: “Tonight, me very excited to bring you all-time favorite movie, ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Me not seen it yet.”
“Guys & Dolls” (1989)
Borrowing the theme tune of the 1950 “good, old-fashioned musical” (based on Damon Runyon’s short stories), this segment offers reassurance about gender roles. Herry expresses love for baseball and his monster doll, while Ruby sings about her love for her doll and her toy truck. It’s so catchy that we sang “Sleep tight, dolly, vroom vroom!” for days.
“It don’t get classier than this” in this take on the Shakespearean tragedy. In one of the more famous “Monsterpiece Theater” skits, Mel Gibson reprises his role as the prince of Denmark to discuss emotions with an increasingly sarcastic Elmo, which concludes with Cookie revealing his love of prune danish.
“Cyranose de Bergerac” (1993)
Adapting Edmond Rostand’s play, this teaches kids about rhyming. When the queen of France can’t find a rhyme for “grows,” the court brings in large-nosed Cyranose, the greatest poet in the land who’s sensitive about the word “nose.” It’s a fairly sophisticated sketch, but the best part is nevertheless the comedy French accents.
“Waiting for Elmo” (1996)
Spoofing Samuel Beckett’s play, Telly and Grover wait for their friend by a tree while demonstrating emotion. As absurdist as the original, this version is, in the words of Alistair Cookie, “so modern, so brilliant that absolutely make no sense to anybody.” Which totally sums up Beckett.
“Little Red Riding Cookie” (1996)
Cookie Monster plays the eponymous hero in this non-scary version of the famous fairy tale. No message here, but his justifications for eating the cookies in his basket during his journey (“Maybe one more for me baby and one more for the road”) as well as his interactions with his grandmother are hilarious.
“Conservations with Me Father” (unknown)
Alistair Cookie transitions from host to actor in this “touching drama” inspired by Herb Gardner’s play. Pop explains to his excitable son the importance of green living with simple tips for saving water and energy, though their efforts to stop cookie waste go disastrously.
“Dr. No” (unknown)
Literally interpreting the title of Ian Fleming’s novel, this segment teaches kids the word “no.” (They need help knowing it?) “Famous spy and extremely cool guy” James Bond seeks Dr. No’s help with a word sewn into his coat. Featuring a Bond theme pastiche and comically bad accents, this smart parody ends with Alistair Cookie yelling “Me love culture!”