Why Everyone’s Talking About Elmo

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S1: I should stop here. Such a cute hamster. Yeah, yeah. Say hi to Rocco Elmo. Hello, Rocco.

S2: Hi, I’m Rachel Hampton

S3: and I’m Madison Malone Kircher. You’re listening to I.C.. Why am I?

S2: In case you missed it?

S3: Slate’s podcast about internet culture.

S2: I’m back. This is

S3: Rachel’s back.

S2: Once people say that you will hear me groaning at Madison’s joke, I did not pay you to say that.

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S3: Now don’t get Venmo five bucks, thanks.

S2: I’m going to reject that immediately. I just want you to know that.

S3: Fair enough. Do you know what else I reject? And you also reject the new hype house show on Netflix?

S2: Oh my god. That’s a firm reject for me.

S1: It’s so boring.

S3: The Hype House is a reality show about the Hype House, which is a content creator, collaborative incubator house in Los Angeles, where a bunch of TikToks. Best and brightest, the most popular live and and work and play.

S2: The question under best and brightest was perfect because I mean, importantly, this show started filming as most of the people who made hype house famous have already moved on from Hype House. So the people that I think the broadest audience would know, our Charli and Dixie D’Amelio came from Hype House. Little Harry, who I must confess I had no idea who this child was until I saw this

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S3: little Harry, one time boyfriend of Charli D’Amelio.

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S2: Yes, yes. Apparently, it’s been a lot of time kind of edging their fans about whether or not they would kiss on camera, which I know I got to say if I was 15, I probably would be into that. I’m not going to lie. I’m sorry.

S3: Yeah, you absolutely would be. So what are we? What are the people need to know about the show that we watch so they don’t have to?

S2: Well, it’s eight episodes. Each episode is 30 minutes, and nothing happens. That’s basically it. The central tension of the show is that little Harry, who is the creator in the house that has the most followers. He has about 32 million followers on TikTok right now and is currently the most popular creator in the house. Well, he moves out into a different house that looks like a Cheesecake Factory.

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S4: Chase’s house is so, so sick. I love it. Do you have a throne yet? A throne like Loki looks like Cheesecake Factory? I don’t know. I love Cheesecake Factory, so it rises up in the house. I was like, Come on, give me the bread. Where is it? I need the bread and butter.

S3: That is actually. The only funny moment in the whole show is when someone walks into your house. Looks like Cheesecake Factory. It really does. Yeah.

S2: Weirdly, the person who set that was not insulting him. He was like, I love to fake factory. And I was like,

S3: It only elevates the comedy it. Cheesecake Factory. No, I love Cheesecake Factory.

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S2: No, I do love Cheesecake Factory. But the decor is atrocious. Why are we pretending anything else? The cheesecake immaculate.

S3: I’m just there for an oversized chicken piccata.

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S2: Anyways, so little Heidi has moved out, which creates an issue for the remaining content creators because all the brand deals that the hype house gets collectively to pay the rent for the titular hype house is based off of videos they make under the Hype House account, and apparently despite the fact no one is paying rent to live in this mansion, none of them want to post any content under the Hype House account. And so the dad slash manager of this group is just spending the entire eight episodes trying to get these kids to basically do the only thing they’re supposed to be doing and not being able to do it.

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S3: When Rachel says the dad of the house, she means Thomas Petrow, who is 23 years old.

S2: Just to be clear, they’re all children.

S3: Honestly, the thing my show suffers from for me is that there is no editorialize Asian like you and I are two people who we enjoy this world. The way this is presented is so boring. There’s no editorialize Asian like I want the David Attenborough of influencers calmly in a British accent explaining to me, like, yes, the hype house in their natural habitat is why they’re full of shit. That’s a sumo wrestler coming to fight one of them. That’s racist. Like, they just they’re allowed to just be and do unchecked in a way that is so unsatisfying because they’re both boring and disgusting.

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S2: That is completely true, and I think the lack of edits realisation really makes it hard to connect to any of these people if you aren’t already caught up on the kind of intimate drama.

S3: Like we said, we watch this thing so you don’t have to. Rachel watched more of it. Take our word for it.

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S2: The interesting clips will make their way onto Twitter, I swear to God.

S3: Now they’ve talked more than anybody should talk about. Hype House on Netflix. Let’s get into what the internet actually cares about this week.

S2: He’s read. He’s Furry

S5: Clifford. La la la la. No wonder what we discovered.

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S3: All right. So we’re talking Elmo.

S2: We even got a voice memo from a listener about why the fuck is Elmo blowing up on the internet? Alana, take it away.

S6: Hi guys. Why am I? I’m just calling to ask about the recent onslaught of Elmo means that I keep seeing on Tik Tok and Twitter. So a few weeks ago, I saw the plastic water bottle in a paper towel roll Elmo meme on Tik Tok. But now on Twitter, I keep seeing these like Elmo hating rocko videos of like Elmo screaming at a rock. If you could explain why all of a sudden Elmo is in my feed. It would be much appreciated. Love the pod! Bye!

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S2: We love you, Ilana.

S3: We really do. And what I think this means is it’s time for a read receipt segment.

S2: Yeah, it is time for a read receipt segment, Rachel.

S3: I’m sorry. Can we rewind the tape? What were those words you used to describe Elmo?

S2: Oh my god. No. No, no. No. Read receipt. No clothes. We’re not. That’s not the point here. Anyway, this cute, fuzzy red muppet. He’s a muppet. I didn’t know that he was a muppet until this show, but he’s been all over Twitter and TikTok on the show today. We’ll be talking about Elmo’s recent viral moment. The most recent of many viral moments, his history as a meme and as a member of the black community know that last part is not a joke.

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S3: We’ll be back with this read receipts after a quick break.

S2: And we’re back with another installment of read receipts.

S1: I want to see the receipts.

S3: He’s read Rachel.

S2: Anyway, we’re back with Elmo, but not we don’t actually have him in the studio. I’m sorry, we’re

S3: not that famous. We did. That would be so fun.

S2: It would be, but we don’t have that kind of money.

S3: That’s true. That’s true. That’s just copyrighted. I will not even be doing an impersonation because I think I could be sued also because I was doing an impersonation over Christmas and my sister told me I sounded nothing like Elmo. I really thought I did, but apparently I didn’t. So, Rachel, where does the Elmo love begin

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S2: in our childhood? Do you not remember this?

S3: Oh, you’re so funny. In recent internet history, where does the Elmo love begin?

S2: So Elmo, I think, goes viral every few years. I think one of the recent iterations I love the most is, you know, the GIF of him where his arms are kind of raised and there’s just fire behind him. And it’s like,

S1: Yeah, it’s chaos.

S3: Yes, I am very much familiar with that gift. Frankly, it’s become a little too on the nose as the years have gone by. But that’s not Elmo’s fault.

S2: It’s not. But the cycle we’re talking about does not begin with that give. It begins in December of 2021, a different time. We’re going to offer the usual caveat. We do that. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint the beginning of a trend, but it looks like this one began on TikTok when you were at Chelsea. Vote uploaded this video on December 13th with the caption Why does Elmo sound so sassy?

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S1: New container? I would involve a plastic water bottle and a paper towel.

S3: I just it didn’t have to go that hard.

S2: It really didn’t like Elmo was clearly enjoying himself. And more importantly, the internet is clearly enjoying Elmo enjoying himself because this video currently has five point six million views. It’s been shared more than 75 times. And importantly, I think this all worth a clue as to why exactly Chelsea decided to upload it its hashtagged moms of TikTok. So while I have no evidence of this, I think this started because a mom who happened to be online was watching Sesame Street with her children saw this was like, This is fucking hilarious. Decided to upload it. And now we’re here. If that’s not true, I’m sorry, Chelsea, but also the poor copying the original video really makes me think that I’m right.

S3: All right. Rachel is taking off her tinfoil conspiracy hat, and we’re moving a little bit forward in time to about five days later on December 18th, where a Twitter user at Grim Girlfriend tweets the same clip, presumably after seeing it on Tok and downloading it to tweet. Who among us with the caption, This has been making me lose my shit for days? Why does he say paper towel roll like that? All caps?

S2: That video currently has two point two million views and over a hundred 60k likes. This clip prompted a very funny kind of collective remembering of all the wild shit that Elmo has ever said, and I think it’s because most of the people who are sharing these clips haven’t watched Sesame Street in years. And when we think about Sesame Street, we’re like, Wow, Pure Q teaching me about letters. But Elmo was shady as shit and also funny as hell. OK, tell me more because I really

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S3: only remembered the letters and the count.

S2: OK, so another thing that has gone viral Elmo long running feud with Zoe’s pet rock named Rocco

S3: in case you like me are perhaps a little rusty on your Sesame Street cinematic universe. Zoe is an orange muppet who was introduced in the early 90s thus.

S1: Read 400 Gaby can be a raisin cookie. It’s. G Elmo. That was my last one. That’s OK. I don’t want just this one. No, no, no. Wait, wait. Elmo Rocko says that he watched the oatmeal raisin cookie blocker. Gerry McCann will know the difference. Yes, he will. You can’t have that cookie Elmo Rocco wants to eat it.

S5: I’m going to eat that cookie, Gerry. I know. Markers, just a black rock.

S3: OK. Almost a bully. I’m sorry if

S2: I’m screaming, Rocco is not alive.

S3: Give me just to recap briefly. I know this is a show for children. Elmo is yelling at his friend Zoe because Zoe has given a cookie to her pet rock and Elmo wants the cookie.

S2: There are multiple videos of Elmo feuding with Rocco to the point that the official Elmo account. There’s a verified Elmo account on Twitter has to get in on this and tweet. Don’t worry, everybody Elmo and Zoe practice sharing and are still best buds forever. Elmo loves you. Zoe Elmo doesn’t want to talk about Rocco. And then follows up with has anybody ever seen Iraq eat a cookie? Elmo is just curious, savage.

S3: Like I said, Elmo is a bully.

S2: Elmo is savage, which I personally love. Another thing I love is the way that this puppet says balsamic vinegar

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S1: because it’s gross stuff. But I put out to Jack. OK, good. Onions, garlic, minced garlic, celery, bosonic vinegar, tomato paste. A big we’re found.

S3: That’s Elmo doing a cooking segment with Jimmy Fallon.

S2: And this importantly, this is actually the first part of the Elmo trend that I saw organically. As in, it came across my flip on TikTok because a lot of people, specifically black people and specifically black people from New York, have salads they identified with the way Elmo, says Vinegar. After the break, we’re going to get into how Black TikTok and Twitter have claimed Elmo for themselves and answer the incredibly important question of whether Elmo owns a black puffer jacket.

S3: Hi. Just wanted to take a quick moment to shout out any new listeners who may have joined us here in the year twenty twenty two, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling great that you’re here. I love Taylor Swift. This is my my welcome, not Rachel. So I get to do what I want. In case this is your first episode, we come out twice a week, so be sure to check us out on Wednesdays, too. On if you want to listen back a little. Last Wednesday we interviewed Vax Daddy, if you know, you know, and if you don’t know, come listen

S5: and you’ll know.

S3: All righty, I’m back, I got my various ingredients, including, you know what, Rachel explained.

S2: So I think the Balsamic Vinegar Audio is where the Elmo train fully diverged between black and white internet spaces. If you go to the audio and TikTok right now, it’s being used in two very different ways. And in fact, I think most of the videos before I’m going to say before January 3rd were mostly black people, and now it’s come become more multiracial and less funny. White people are mostly just using it to lip sync, which, you know, that’s TikTok is what everyone does. Black people have are using with captions like when you flip up code switching at work and when he says balsamic vinegar going from like your cute little work fit to like your street clothes or just captioning Elmo is a Bronx bitch. Argue with your mama or Elmo got his black puffer on which unfortunately, I have to explain the joke. I think every black New York native has a black puffer jacket, which is just like the the puffy jacket, where when it’s cold outside and people have glommed on to this because Elmo is very clearly and canonically black, a fact that has been noticed not just because his accent, but I mean, look at him, look at his mother, even John Oliver, notice that she has 4C curls and John Oliver is a white man from the U.K. So if he knows, then all y’all should know.

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S7: Quick shout out to Elmo’s mom that she’s going through some shit, but she still managed to get a hair up in two strand twists before she went to bed the night before she’s taking care of herself and protecting those edges. Drop the routine may post the selfie on the ground. What are you? Holy Grail products? Patent beauty, shea moisture. We still rocking an old school with a bottle of pink all and a jar of jam. I see you, Elmo’s mom.

S3: Look, whoever wrote this? Reveal yourself.

S2: Oh, all of those are black hair care brands. Importantly, but also shout out to whatever black woman is writing on John Oliver right now. I love

S3: you. It’s canon, simply canon.

S2: And while this canon is mostly at this point, conjecture and deep feeling, there’s actual evidence to support the fact that Elmo is a member of the African Diaspora. Correct? Madison.

S3: Yes, because while you finish the highbrow series, I moved on and launched a new documentary on HBO Max. Thank you mom for the in called Street Gang. How we got to Sesame Street. Did it make me cry? Yes, yes. Like a little baby. Interestingly enough, and perhaps not surprisingly, for reasons we’ll get into in a little bit, Elmo actually isn’t in this documentary. Sesame Street started in 1969, and Elmo wasn’t introduced until the 80s. So this doc really focuses on like early days getting Sesame Street off the ground. This is the point where I start crying because Sesame Street was really revolutionary television, which seems like very silly to say now, but educational television for kids back then did not exist. Like you don’t get today’s TV without the groundwork that Sesame Street laid like. You don’t get backyard against bops without Kermit the Frog singing about how it’s not that easy being green.

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S1: It’s not easy being green, having to spend each day the color of the leaves.

S2: Here’s where I cried some more. Tell me more as you cry.

S3: And of course, that song was never actually about literally being green. Sesame Street made a bunch of very conscious choices to try to attract an audience of city kids, especially black kids. The cast of human actors and puppets they put in the Sesame Street gang and on that screen really reflect the audience that they were trying to target and attract to the show.

S1: We weren’t so worried about reaching middle class children, but we really, really wanted to reach inner city kids badly. It was hardly worth doing if we didn’t reach them. We hope that every child in the country will it, but we do make a particular effort to be sure that children from minority communities in low income communities once again get. So everyone worked to try to reach every parent caretaker.

S2: Wow, I’m emotional just at that clip. But I mean, that’s why it’s a city street, right? Instead of a suburban neighborhood like in Chaohu, where the backyard begins?

S3: Yeah, exactly. So I believe the woman speaking there is Joan Ganz Cooney, who was one of the founding creators of Sesame Street. But I do want to point out she name checks a woman named Evelyn P. Davis, who founded the New York Coalition of 100 Black women and did like work on the ground of actually getting the target audience. Those black families in cities to watch Sesame Street would watch a whole documentary about her, and frankly, this was one of the frustrations I had watching the Sesame Street talk is they don’t, they don’t ever really grapple with. We made all of these really intentional choices on what we put on screen and who we put on screen. But behind the scenes, everyone in charge is white

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S2: except for Elmo,

S3: except for Elmo and plenty of other people in the cast. The short of it is I learned a lot watching this documentary I wanted, similar to my high past complaint. I wanted a little more interrogation of the system itself. But you know, what can you expect? Because do you know who owns Sesame Street now?

S2: Oh, yeah, I remember when this came out, I was so upset. It’s HBO, isn’t it? Oh, and they did.

S3: So, yeah. So Sesame Street documentary is brought to you by the people who bring you Sesame Street.

S2: OK, yeah. So this this is very important context. But going back to Elmo fast forward to the 80s is around when Elmo appears on the block and he was originally voiced

S3: Pop Pop Pop It portrayed by a puppeteer.

S2: Anyway, the man was black. His name was Kevin Class, and he pulled Elmo strings because I don’t I don’t like any of those verbs we just used from 1985 to 2012, which is a very long time.

S3: It is the thing we need to note is that Clash no longer voices Elmo because of sexual abuse allegations that were later dismissed, as all of the charges were filed after the statute of limitations has passed. So clash is no longer associated with Sesame Street or Elmo, but some some real darkness there.

S2: Yes. Clashes, voice and his mannerisms and his dialogues. He he made his blackness a part of the character, and he said that in interviews before that, he felt that was very important. And what that means is that for a majority of the people who are making these TikToks for people like me and Madison, we grew up with an Elmo that was for all intents and purposes, black. He’s now voiced by a white man, Ryan Dylan, but definitely still has a lot of the character that his original puppeteer infused him with. And the really interesting wrinkle.

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S3: I’m curious if you think this was the right move for Sesame Street, or if they should have cast a black man to do the same mannerisms or another black person to take on? Can you change Elmo? I guess that’s the question is like could Elmo have a new and distinct way of speaking?

S2: I don’t think so. I think Elmo is a character. Remaining static is important generally to the vibe of the show. Like Big Bird is eternally six, even though he has been around since 1969.

S3: Oh oh, there’s a scene in that documentary where Big Bird sings at Jim Henson’s funeral and

S2: oh, that’s so sad. Don’t we have the recording? Stop making me try to cry, but I do think I don’t think it’s cut and dry, and a lot of the conversations that I’ve seen around Brian Dylan voicing Elmo have been fairly nuanced in kind of raising the question of what it means for him to take over this role that is imbued with a lot of Kevin clashes characteristics. I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think it’s wrong. I think that it does add like an interesting perspective to the conversation, considering that this character is one that black people on the internet and in real life have definitely felt a kinship with and continue to based on the tweets, the song coming out. And after all this dick doc audio ran around the internet, Jamal Jordan tweeted, This is my favorite. This is my favorite tweet. I know Elmo is black because I read on Wikipedia that some people refer to him as Little Red Menace, which is definitely a racial slur on the Sesame Street cinematic universe.

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S3: Yes, I have to ask because I’m kind of surprised we haven’t talked about this yet. Did you watch Sesame Street growing up? I did, but I have to say in preparation for this episode, I texted my mom to confirm this, and she she said, Yeah, you watch Sesame Street, but honestly, we tried to get you to watch more of it. But like Barney, had an absolute death grip over me, apparently.

S2: I love you. You do love me. We’re one big family. I did watch Sesame Street. It was definitely in rotation along with like Bear in the Big Blue House and like out of the box and between the Lions. I love between the Lions. But do you remember the movie The Adventures of Elmo and Grootes land? Because I for sure where that VHS tape out, right? I watched that movie so many goddamn times. In fact, I’m pretty sure Vanessa Williams is in it, which is yet another confirmation that Elmo is back because Vanessa Williams is an icon in the black community, the black community. There are multiple.

S3: Have I seen this movie? Do you know this is in that movie? Mandy Patinkin? Of course I’ve seen this movie. Oh my god, I love him.

S2: I have one more request before we go. Please do the Elmo voice, madam. Believe me, we

S3: cannot be canceled. On the second episode of the all right oatmeal container, a wooden bowl, a plastic

S1: bottle and a pivotal role.

S3: I’m never doing that again. Yes. But all right, that’s the show we will be back on your feet on Wednesday, so please subscribe. It’s the best way to make sure that you never miss an episode or a terrible impression because who are we kidding? There will be more. Leave us a rating and review in Apple Podcasts. You can also now leave ratings on Spotify. Tell a friend about us. Tell your children about us. You can follow us on Twitter, right? I Why am I underscore pod, which is where you can dms your questions? We read them all. And our email, as always, is I Why am I at Slate.com?

S2: I see why a mass produced by Daniel Schroeder, a supervising producer there, John, were edited by Force Wickman and my girlfriend. Amber Smith is senior manager of podcast Audience Development and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcast See Online

S3: or on Sesame Street.

S2: Of whether but black Elmo Elmo. That’s what I said.