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.”
“Sesame Street” issued the following statement in response to Saltzman’s remarks Tuesday.
Actor, director and puppeteer Frank Oz, who performed regularly as Bert from 1969 through 2001, also offered his take.
Bert and Ernie have, of course, endured speculation over their sexuality numerous times since they were created by Jim Henson for the pilot episode of “Sesame Street,” which aired in 1969.
In the 2001 book Hollywood Urban Legends, author Richard Roeper traced the rumors back to Spy magazine founder Kurt Anderson, noting that Bert and Ernie “conduct themselves in the same loving, discreet way that millions of gay men, women and hand puppets do” and “live a splendidly settled life together in an impeccably decorated cabinet.”
In 1994, the Rev. Joseph Chambers, a Pentecostal minister from North Carolina, even attempted to get the characters banned under the state’s sodomy laws, according to The Advocate. “Bert and Ernie are two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom,” Chambers said at the time. “They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics.”
And while “Sesame Street” has repeatedly denied the claims, Bert and Ernie have been depicted as a same-sex couple in popular culture numerous times. The July 8, 2013, issue of the New Yorker, for instance, showed the characters cuddling together on a sofa to celebrate the Supreme Court declaring the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, unconstitutional that June.
Still, given the years of scrutiny, it’s unlikely we’ve heard the last of the Bert and Ernie debate just yet.