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When Cigarettes Invaded TV: 5 Big Tobacco stories revealed

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Ed note: we're having a little trouble with our systems here, so we're highlighting a few best-of posts today. Enjoy!

If you didn't start watching TV until after 1971, then chances are you've never seen a cigarette commercial outside of a retrospective special. When the medium came into its own in the 1940s-50s, Big Tobacco was one of the first industries not only to advertise on television, but also to pick up the tab for entire shows. The commercials grew more elaborate over the years, using everything from cute animation to glamorous women and men to promote their cancerous wares. Sure, we all know now that smoking is bad, but boy did they know how to make it look tantalizing back in the day!

1. The Cigarette Company that saved I Love Lucy from being canceled

It's true. I Love Lucy had been turned down by General Foods and several other companies. In fact, the sitcom probably would've never seen the light of day had Philip Morris not taken a chance on it. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz dutifully promoted the sponsor's products, even though Lucy's real-life preferred brand was Chesterfield (she stashed her own smokes in empty packs of PMs on the set). Johnny Roventini, longtime Philip Morris spokesman, was an actual bellhop working in New York when he was spotted by a marketing exec. A childhood illness had stunted his growth, so although he was 22 years of age, he was only four feet tall and had a somewhat child-like voice. Johnny's contract with Philip Morris made him the world's first "living trademark."

2. How Marlboro got Rebranded as a Man's Cigarette

Marlboro was originally promoted as a women's brand. By the early 1960s, the world had become a complex, stressful place"¦President Kennedy had been assassinated, and Americans and Soviets lived in fear of The Bomb. The U.S. Surgeon General published a pesky report that stated cigarette smoking might be dangerous to one's health. Marketing execs put their heads together, trying think of an image that allowed a man to be his own man while getting away from it all. The perfect image dawned like thunder "“ a cowboy! Elaborate commercials showing men with perfectly chiseled features rounding up stray colts while the theme to The Magnificent Seven played in the background made even non-smokers long to visit Marlboro Country.

3. Playing the Feminist Angle

When Philip Morris introduced Virginia Slims in 1968, the company pressed every possible feminist button when it came to their marketing. Commercials and print ads (click here to view a TV spot) emphasized how oppressed women were in the past, and times had changed so radically that women even had their own longer, slimmer cigarette (available in a "purse pack"). V-Slims was actually the very last cigarette ever advertised on U.S. television. And perhaps we're picking a nit here, but if they were trying to emphasize how liberated and empowered women were, why did they still refer to them as "baby"?

4. Cigarette Breaks on The Flintstones' set

An animated prime-time series was a completely new idea and a questionable venture in 1960, so when Hanna-Barbera pitched The Flintstones, they accepted whatever sponsor agreed to take them on, and in this case it happened to be Winston cigarettes. Much like Lucy and Desi, Fred, Barney, and the Bedrock faithful were shown smoking the sponsor's brand in episode tags. (For the grammar wonks in our audience, please note that Winston later changed their jingle to "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.") Once The Flintstones became a hit, Hanna Barbera was able to secure a new sponsor, Welch's Grape Juice. This proved a public relations benefit, since demographic studies showed that even though the program was aimed at adults, the show had just as many younger fans.

5. And one majestic Public Service Announcement

On the other side of the coin, there were many anti-smoking commercials aired during this time, but perhaps none as poignant as this Public Service Announcement filmed by The King and I star Yul Brynner, who was suffering from lung cancer and knew that he'd be gone by the time the spot aired.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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