Are Burt and Ernie gay? The cohabitation of the two puppets in Sesame Street has always raised that question. Fixtures of the US children’s show since it debuted in 1969 (the same year that Mike and Carol Brady become the first television couple to snuggle up on screen) the male puppets share a room, but not a bed.
Speaking to the Australian magazine Queerty, Mark Saltzman, a former Sesame Street writer who joined the show in 1984, answers unambiguously, at least about his time writing the characters: Yes, as their writer, he thought of the pair as a couple. Not just friends, but lovers.
I remember one time that a column from The San Francisco Chronicle, a preschooler in the city turned to mom and asked “are Bert & Ernie lovers?” And that, coming from a preschooler was fun. 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 & Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.
He goes on to say, “I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple,” and to describe how the puppets’ dynamic sometimes mirrored his relationship with his partner, the film editor Arnold Glassman.
As Saltzman’s assertion spread across the internet, Sesame Workshop, the company that continues to produce Sesame Street for HBO after its departure from PBS in 2015, quickly took to Twitter to dispute his framing, releasing the following statement, which is similar to others they have made over the years:
As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets and do not have a sexual orientation.
That statement caused another wave of backlash, with some expressing disappointment that Sesame Workshop didn’t embrace the suggestion, and others pointing out a logical flaw: The claim that Muppets can’t have sexuality or romantic relationships is contradicted within the world that the puppeteer Jim Henson created, which includes the smoldering, on-again-off-again relationship between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. The two wed at the end of The Muppets Take Manhattan and then split in 2015.
This is hardly the first time that speculation about Bert and Ernie’s relationship has caused a stir. Some have traced the rumor back to a passage by the novelist and radio host Kurt Anderson in his 1980 book The Real Thing. In what Anderson later described as a “joke,” he wrote:
Bert and Ernie conduct themselves in the same loving, discreet way that millions of gay men, women and hand puppets do. They do their jobs well and live a splendidly settled life together in an impeccably decorated cabinet.
In 1990, a Pentecostal minister from North Carolina condemned the Muppets for their same-sex relationship on his conservative radio show for their cohabitation and being “blatantly effeminate,” according to the fact-checking website Snopes. And a 2013 New Yorker cover illustration called “Moment of Joy” depicted Bert and Ernie cuddled up in front of a TV screen, watching the news that the US Supreme Court had struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, clearing the way for same-sex marriage across the country.
Much of today’s coverage, however, misses another striking point that Saltzman made in his interview. The writer mentions that in his mind, the elephant-like puppet Snuffalupagus was closeted too. In the years in which only Big Bird could ever see Snuffalupagus, and all the grown-ups on the show assumed he was an imaginary friend, the character functioned as a metaphor for being in the closet, Saltzman said.
“Snuffalupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a gay audience,” he told Queerty. “And Snuffy, this depressed person nobody can see, that’s sort of Kafka! It’s sort of gay closeted too.”