The iconic children’s show has handled a lot of tough topics over the years. What was the one it couldn’t pull off? Divorce.
By 1991, divorce rates in the U.S. were as high as they would ever be, with reports calculating that 40 percent of American children had divorced parents. A huge social and emotional issue, Sesame Street’s writers wanted to cover the topic in a way that its preschool-age viewers could understand and be comforted if their parents were divorcing. The show had received plaudits many times over for its sensitive handling of other issues facing kids, including death, natural disasters, and a new baby in the family.
The plot: The elephantine Snuffleupagus plays blocks with his best friend Big Bird, and knocks down a tower, sending himself into hysterics. Big Bird surmises that something else is wrong, and Snuffy confesses that his “dad is moving out of our cave. I’m not sure where. Some cave across town.” The two go to the human character Gordon, who gently explains that sometimes divorce happens, how sometimes it’s a good thing, and, most importantly, that Snuffy and his little sister Alice won’t be loved any less by either of their parents.
The show was written, taped, and was then scheduled to air on PBS in April 1992. Then Sesame Street’s producers, the Children’s Television Workshop, decided to test it out with a panel of preschoolers. It was nothing short of traumatic and confusing. One toddler reportedly thought Snuffy didn’t have a place to live anymore, some thought that Snuffy’s father ran away and would never be heard from again, others thought Snuffy’s parents were divorcing because of Snuffy, and a few cried because they got so worried about their own parents potentially getting divorced. CTW pulled “Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce” from the schedule. It has never been aired anywhere.
CTW was so put off by the experience that Sesame Street didn’t address divorce until 2012—20 years later. But instead of an episode, a home video was produced called Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce. It’s only available to family counselors, family courts, and childcare facilities. Instead of Snuffy and his parents going through divorce, the video features the Muppet named Abby Cadabby. And this time, the divorce was in the past: Abby talks about how she got through the divorce, rather than Snuffy going through the traumatic event as it occurs.