Guest Post: Helle Strandgaard Jensen on Kermit’s Chubby Danish Cousin

Helle Strandgaard Jensen recently graduated from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy with her PhD entitled Defining the (In)appropriate: Scandinavian debates about the role of media in children’s lives, 1950-1985. She has written a number of articles on the history of children’s media and the epistemological failures of ‘moral panic’ theory. She starts as assistant professor of Film- and Media Studies at University of Copenhagen 1 February 2014.

At the small and narrow desks in the old buildings of the Danish National Archives, it is virtually impossible to avoid peeking at your neighbors’ documents. In this way I discovered that, unlike me, most of the archives’ users come there to study their own ancestry. Personally, family history never excited me much until recently when I discovered a very peculiar kinship relation between two TV-star hand-puppets!

What I found as I went through the archive’s documents was evidence that a very popular Danish TV hand-puppet, a little chubby frog named Kaj, was made with direct inspiration from Sesame Street’s Kermit. At first I just thought it a funny fact. Lately, however, my mind keeps returning to the kinship between the two frogs and the story it relates of transnational transfers, and the tension between globally-marketed children’s media and local demands of enculturation.

The way in which Kermit came to have a chubby Danish cousin can be traced back to 1970, when the Danish director of pre-school television, Jimmy Stahr, made a trip to the US. At this time Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), who were the makers of Sesame Street, advertised their program all over Europe. The national broadcasting services in Italy (RAI) and West-Germany (NRD) had already bought the show. The Scandinavian broadcasters were a little more skeptical, just like those at the BBC in Britain. On his trip, however, Stahr was taken by the program’s popularity. His notes clearly show that he believed the program to represent the future of pre-school television. In the eyes of the Danish television producers the program nevertheless had two major faults: its style was too close to the up-beat and simplistic aesthetics of advertising and the “products” it advertised (letters, numbers and words) were too much like curricula. The result of this ambivalent fascination with the American program was that the Danish broadcasting corporation made one based on similar production methods, but with significantly different content.

In 1971, the Danish programme, Legestue [Play Room] aired for the first time. Like Sesame Street, its framework was based on insights from psychology and education studies, but while Kermit was teaching child viewers about letters, numbers and words, his Danish cousin Kaj was teaching them about friendships, jazz and to be self-aware and independent. The style of the Danish program was different, the pace was slower and less ‘advertisement’ like.

Thanks to the discovery I made about the family ties between two frogs that became TV-super stars, my new research is about kinship. Not only between hand-puppets, but between Sesame Street and a new wave of programs for preschoolers in European television that aired during the 1970s. As I see it, these programs express an interesting tension between what was seen as universally useful in the production of children’s television and what was seen as specific national needs for enculturation.

In this clip you can see Kaj with his friend the parrot Andrea http://www.dr.dk/tv/se/kaj-og-andrea/kaj-og-andrea-22#!/00:15
A short clip of Kermit teaching the meaning of the word ‘subtraction’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fh524rA47rI