Grover and The Very Bad Word
Last Updated by
Here I go, splashing a few ounces of cold water on the Sesame Street parade.
Right now PBS is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street – a revered American institution almost as old as the practice of public media in the United States. We should be happy, and we are, even if Sesame Street and its parent, Sesame Workshop, are independent from PBS and these days more closely related to the HBO network. But no amount of business distance can fully separate the Sesame Street and PBS brands.
That said, for almost a year now, there has been a fair amount of online conversation over an episode of the iconic children’s show – number 4902, titled “Picture This.” Starting in late December 2018, many viewers have said they’ve heard the Sesame Street character Grover utter an offensive word. I’m raising this now because the episode has come up in reruns, and some viewers again swear they just heard a swear word on PBS – in a kids’ show, no less.
Of course I thought there’s no way Grover’s creators would allow that kind of slip-up to reach the airwaves. (If you want that kind of language from puppets, go see the Broadway parody Avenue Q.) Yet I could not discount, out of hand, the astute observation of viewer Kristal Hanselman of Saint Charles, Mo. She insists that she and members of her family heard the bad word in a recent rebroadcast of the episode.
“It sounds like he is very clearly saying ‘f***ing excellent,’ so I’m not sure why it’s still being aired. This is a children’s show. If it can be misconstrued, then it should be removed.”
Skeptical, I went onto YouTube and searched for Grover and "bad word". Several clips of the same episode came up. In each, sure enough, it sounds like Grover is uttering the ugliest of cuss words. To be sure I wasn’t just kidding myself, I shared one of the episone clips with friends and professional colleagues. We all heard it.
I worried that a social-media storm might once again engulf the children’s show like a year ago, when the original broadcast sparked many articles and late-night TV jokes.
Well, with an assist from social science and an expert on linguistics, I’ve come up with an answer to this mystery: I can report that Grover DID NOT drop the F-bomb.
Laurel, Yanny and Grover’s Monster Accent
What we have here is actually another example of how different humans can reach different conclusions after hearing the same sound, or seeing the same image.
Remember the viral photos of the dress with the stripes? Did you see blue or white? A raucous online debate kept us entertained for a few days. Then, a couple of years ago, it was the artificial voice enunciating the name Laurel. Or, was it Yanny?
University of California, Los Angeles professor Jody Kreiman provided a strong clue. She’s a head and neck surgeon and co-editor for the International Phonetics Association. She viewed the Sesame Street episode in question and listened a few times to the dialogue. Here’s her explanation of how it was that many in our audiences heard what they thought they heard:
She typed out the line that Grover, speaking in his usual rapid-fire cadence through a heavy monster accent, is heard saying: “Yes, yes, that’s a f***ing excellent idea!” She then laid above that the actual words Grover speaks, as reported by Sesame Workshop: “Yes, yes, that sounds like an excellent idea!”
“Grover needs a speech coach,” Kreiman said. “He does not articulate, and he doesn’t have normal word boundaries. Human speech perception is not just from the bottom up. We are always looking for something when we listen … Grover is excited here, so we almost expect he’d say something that strongly reflects his excitement.”
Kreiman found that in “mushing his vowels” and hurrying through the normal word barriers humans normally use to be clear when they speak, Grover created what’s known as a “fricative.” Yes, it’s a thing. It means “a consonant sound, such as the English f or v, produced by bringing the mouth into position to block the passage of the airstream, but not making complete closure, so that air moving through the mouth generates audible friction,” according to Britanica.com
For me, that solved the audio puzzle.
But it didn’t fully answer why we all so clearly heard come from Grover's furry mouth.
Why do we humans hear different things from the same sounds? I turned to Shankar Vedantam, host of National Public Radio’s popular Hidden Brain podcast. In an email, he initially demurred. He’s no expert, he said. But he did offer an educated assumption – which I now see as a spot-on explanation: We humans are suckers. We’re easily influenced. When a message is muddled, we often end up hearing what we expect to hear – or want to hear. Think of it as a form of temporary confirmation bias.
Intrigued, I conducted my own, decidedly unscientific and laughably unempirical research. While in New York recently I told a few friends that Grover cussed in an episode. These friends are seasoned journalists at the top of their game – certainly no push-overs and the last people I thought I could easily influence.
I played the clip. Everyone heard the F-word.
We chewed on that for a while. Then, before replaying the clip, I read to the group what Grover actually says. This time, we all heard “… sounds like an excellent idea.”
As a control, we used the F-word liberally in a subsequent debate over what had just happened. Then I replayed the clip. Bingo, the F-bomb exploded again.
The Serious Consequences
There’s a serious side to all this. Broadcasters and our minders at the Federal Communications Commission are dead serious about cussing on the public airwaves.
Right at the top of the chapter Obsenity, Indeceny and Profanity, the FCC says:
“It is a violation of federal law to air obscene programming at any time. It is also a violation of federal law to broadcast indecent or profane programming during certain hours. The (FCC) defines indecent speech as material that, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium ... The FCC has authority to issue civil monetary penalties, revoke a license or deny a renewal application. The FCC vigorously enforces this law where we find violations. In addition, the United States Department of Justice has authority to pursue criminal violations. Violators of the law, if convicted in a federal district court, are subject to criminal fines and/or imprisonment for not more than two years. At the same time, however, the Commission is careful of First Amendment protections and the prohibitions on censorship and interference with broadcasters' freedom of speech. The FCC has denied complaints in cases in which we determined the broadcast was not indecent based on the overall context of the programming.”
Bad words make their way onto television and radio broadcasts, especially if a show or segment is live or, for example, a performer delivers racy song lyrics on a concert stage. But there is no excuse for clearly avoidable foul language.
Here’s a salient portion of what PBS’ standards hawks say, in article 14 of the system’s rulebook:
Avoid Gratuitously Offensive or Objectionable Material
‘’… gratuitously offensive (e.g., extreme violence, racial epithets, sexism, graphic language, or nudity) should not be included unless it is essential to understanding the matter at hand and does not violate federal law against broadcasting indecent and profane content. Material that is included merely to shock or draw attention and that does not impart valuable information is gratuitous…
“PBS KIDS reviews all episodes to ensure that they comply with our rigorous editorial standards and are appropriate for our young viewers. None of our programs include any profanity,” said Tommy M. Gillespie, PBS’ director of children’s programming.
So today, as we celebrate Sesame Street’s 50th, we can take Grover off the cuss-word hook and finally put this debate to bed.
With the Grover puzzle solved, can someone now explain to me why, after so many decades, I still hear Jimi Hendrix sing, “ ’scuse me, while I kiss this guy"?
Posted on Nov. 26, 2019