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Bert & Ernie are based on a real-life gay couple

Bert & Ernie based on their creator's same-sex relationship.
Photo credit:
Vimeo - Lance Kaplan

In an exclusive interview over at Queerty, they sit down with longtime Sesame Street script and songwriter Mark Saltzman. His work on the children's show won him seven Emmys throughout the years. 

Saltzman's life partner was famous film editor Arnold Glassman, they were together for over two decades until his death in 2003.

That relationship was the inspiration for the ambiguous roommates Bert and Ernie who lived at the Children's Television Workshop on Sesame Street. It should be noted that when Saltzman came to the show Bert and Ernie had already been a part of that universe since its pilot episode in 1969. 

Reporter David Reddish asked the artist if he was out during his time on Sesame Street, "I think I was cautiously out," said Saltzman, "I remember not inviting Arnie [Glassman] to the first Christmas parties, you know. But then I have memories of bringing him to beach house parties with everybody. I think during Sesame Street was when I came completely out. By ’86 we had an apartment together. My father knew. There was no hiding it."

Reddish asks if Saltzman was thinking of Bert and Ernie as a gay couple when he helped write them. Saltzman says everyone sort of chuckled about it after a preschooler posed a similar question, "And I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them. The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie & I as “Bert & Ernie.”

As with so many successful television comedies such as "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "I Love Lucy," writers took from their personal experiences respectively and incorporated those situations in the script.

"Yeah, I was Ernie," he says in the interview. "I look more Bert-ish. And Arnie as a film editor—if you thought of Bert with a job in the world, wouldn’t that be perfect? Bert with his paper clips and organization? And I was the jokester. So it was the Bert & Ernie relationship, and 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. I wrote sketches…Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert & Ernie dynamic."

That chemistry was comedy gold, Bert and Ernie have become one of the most recognized comedy duos falling in line with Felix and Oscar or Lucy and Ethel. 

"That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship," he says. "How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not? I will say that I would never have said to the head writer, “oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.” But those two, Snuffalupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a gay audience. And Snuffy, this depressed person nobody can see, that’s sort of Kafka! It’s sort of gay closeted too."

Saltzman also talks about other Sesame Street characters in the interview and anecdotes, some tragic, from his career. He touches upon other gay co-workers he met at Sesame Street including Kevin Clash; the man behind Elmo. 

Read the rest of this eye-opening interview HERE