Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Of 2 princes and kings of 8: Counting to 12 with 12 Sesame Street counting songs

1. “Don’t Bring Your Ones To Town,” Johnny Cash (1992)

Music is inherently numerical: A song’s time signature represents a brief, repeating exercise in algebra; chords are arranged in intervals of thirds and sevenths (and ninths and elevenths if you want to get really tricky with it). Nothing on TV has harnessed this truth quite like Sesame Street, whose mission to entertain while educating and educate while entertaining has always carried a catchy tune. Staff songwriters like Joe Raposo, Jeff Moss, and Christopher Cerf kept the Sesame songbook well stocked with originals (and at least one chart hit), but the show’s musical guests have never been shy about sharing their compositions with the cast. One such guest was the late Johnny Cash, who in his inaugural visit to public TV’s most famous address performed a song from his own back catalog (“Five Feet High And Rising,” with visual accompaniment from Biff the construction worker) and one by Moss (“Nasty Dan,” a duet with Oscar The Grouch). Returning to the show a few years shy of his American Recordings-aided comeback, Cash split the musical difference, altering his cautionary cowboy tale “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” to tell the story of a proud cowpoke named Birdie Big who takes his rudimentary counting skills from the nest to the city. Like most of Cash’s tragic protagonists, Bird quickly gets in over his head—but fortunately he finds two experts (Two! Two experts! Ah ah ah! [Thunder clap.]) in the counting field who promise to show him the path to two (and beyond). [Erik Adams]


2. “Two Princes,” Spin Doctors (1995)

While style parody is still Sesame Street’s preferred method of musical imitation, there are plenty of examples of more direct song spoofs from the show, many of which involve the musicians being imitated. In the mid-1990s, the Spin Doctors were still in the midst of their 15 minutes of fame, so the band brought its hit “Two Princes” to Sesame Street. The lyrics were changed so that the song was no longer about a poor man trying to convince a woman to choose him over his wealthier nemesis; this version depicts two literal princes vying for the princess to join them for a playdate. The original leaves listeners on a cliffhanger, wondering whom the lady ends up choosing. In Sesame Street’s take, the royal trio learns a lesson about cooperation, thus providing some much needed closure. (Featured in both versions of the song: a needlessly long guitar solo and the Spin Doctors slowly fading into oblivion, never to be seen or heard from again.) [Joe Hennes]

3. “Three” (1988)

Jeff Moss was named Sesame Street’s first head writer in 1969, a job that would ultimately net him 11 Emmys for Outstanding Writing In A Children’s Series. But Moss was also a talented composer and lyricist, talents that, in his extracurricular activities, lead to the Oscar-nominated song score for The Muppets Take Manhattan and the Broadway musical Double Feature. That flair for theatrical songwriting crops up in “Three,” in which the trio of Elmo, Herry Monster, and Prairie Dawn count up (and down) “the lucky number” they are. Performed in the chipper Sesame Street house style (plenty of flute and staccato mallet percussion), the song is something of a tallying-centric sequel to Moss and Emily Perl Kingsley’s “High, Middle, Low,” with Prairie and the monsters using the size of their singing group to give a brief demonstration of vocal harmonies. [Erik Adams]


4. “1234,” Feist (2008)

Back in 2008, when Apple’s iPod ads still determined which songs lodged themselves in the heads of TV viewers, Feist’s “1234” became the song du jour, appearing in TV commercials and movie trailers before eventually landing on Sesame Street. The jaunty melody and built-in counting structure, coupled with the original video’s bright colors and playful direction, made it a surefire Sesame Street hit. In the segment, Leslie Feist wanders through Sesame Street counting monsters and penguins and chickens (just back from the shore, naturally), gleefully inviting children to join her in counting to four (that’s one less than five and one more than three) as she sways with her Muppet backup singers. The remake may strip “1234” of its bittersweet tinge, but it retains the joy of a full heart, all while remaining the catchiest tune to ever burrow into the brain. [Libby Hill]


5. “Number Medley,” Pentatonix (2014)

When a group like the a cappella quintet Pentatonix is given its pick of songs from the Sesame Street library, how could the members possibly choose? Apparently they don’t have to, as Pentatonix went on tackle six songs in one medley in 2014. With the classic “Pinball Number Count” as its framing device, the group also sings selections from songs like “Just One Me,” “One And One Make Two,” and “Five People In My Family,” giving each of the first five numbers a chance to shine. Aside from showcasing the talents of each member of Pentatonix, the medley proves how solid Sesame Street’s classic songs are: With the exception of “Pinball Number Count,” the other selections were written by Jeff Moss, just showing the sort of talent the show tends to keep in-house. [Joe Hennes]


6. “Six (My Favorite Number Is),” Bert (1977)

Sesame Street’s Bert was the originator of normcore: His love of saddle shoes, plain oatmeal, paper clips, and everything dull and quiet was seen as lame for decades. But trends, as they so often do, come back around, and everything Bert represents is suddenly cool. In this song, Bert admits that his favorite number is six, which Ernie can’t possibly comprehend. Why not three or seven, like all the other cool kids? Nope, Bert enjoys the unassuming nature of six. He loves the unloved. He appreciates the mundaneness of the overlooked. Bert has become the Sesame Street version of Robin Hood, a crusader for the downtrodden, singing the praises of the most ignored single-digit numeral. What else would you expect from the guy who started the National Association Of W Lovers? [Joe Hennes]


7. “The Alligator King” (1971)

Writer and animator Bud Luckey, who currently works for a little production house called Pixar, made his first splash at Sesame Street, having penned and sung such classics as “The Alligator King,” “Martian Beauty,” “Candy Man,” and “Ladybugs’ Picnic.” “The Alligator King” is one of his best, not only because of the clever lyrics and catchy tune, but because it tells a full story. It’s about a monarch, bored with the tediousness of power, who commands his seven sons to cheer him up. The reward for completing this task: a chance at being next in line for the crown. Six of the seven sons have been spoiled due to a lifetime of privilege and presume that the key to happiness lies in material possessions. But the seventh and youngest son brings the gift of love, thus earning him the coveted throne. However, the lesson that wealth does not equal satisfaction reaches the new child king, as he discovers his prize is worthless. It’s a chilling tale of greed, loss, and self-fulfilling prophecy. That, or it’s just a cute song about alligators who think they’re people. [Joe Hennes]


8. “The King Of Eight” (1970)

Sesame Street brought the Muppets to greater national prominence than any TV series since Rowlf The Dog’s old sidekick gig on The Jimmy Dean Show. But the multi-faceted format of Sesame Street also allowed Jim Henson to indulge in filmmaking activities that didn’t require fuzzy monsters or versatile Anything Muppets. First appearing in 1970, the snazzy counting film “The King Of Eight” is one such departure, an animated fantasia set in the kingdom of a numerically fixated monarch. Using stylized, scale-model puppets—which even at their small size, have their features arranged according to designer Don Sahlin’s “magic triangle”—the stop-motion effects are remarkably fluid for the time, the king’s regal gliding a humorous contrast to its rat-a-tat accompaniment. Much like Henson’s Oscar-nominated short film “Time Piece,” “The King Of Eight” is pushed along by jazzy percussion, a chattering that lends the puppets a clockwork vibe, all the while giving the kids at home the proper rhythm for tallying flags, knights, windows, jewels, and princesses, all of which number eight—until the final comedic twist. [Erik Adams]


9. “Count Up To Nine,” Count Von Count (1977)

From the music-and-lyrics team of Sam Pottle and David Axlerod, “Count Up To Nine” is a swinging piece of vintage rock ’n’ roll all the way from Transylvania. After dropping a coin in his personal jukebox, Count Von Count offers a simple plea to the song’s unnamed “baby”: Prove devotion to the aristocratic Muppet by blazing past six, seven, and eight and counting all the way to nine. As the Count, Jerry Nelson gives the song his impassioned all, fronting Ftatateeta And The Bats (the same group responsible for the international dance craze “The Batty Bat”) as if he’s wearing a ’50s letterman sweater to match the character’s slicked-back greaser’s hairdo. For his part, Axlerod chose the song’s subject wisely: The Count is committing himself to one person, rather than a single number. The fact that he fits numbers one through eight into his song is proof that The Count could never be a one-numeral guy. [Erik Adams]


10. “Count It Higher,” Little Chrissy And The Alphabeats (1973)

Though the wild-haired musician Little Chrissy was performed by Jim Henson for many of the character’s most memorable appearances—as two of the hands behind Rowlf and Dr. Teeth, who better to handle another Muppet pianist?—Chrissy’s voice is that of his namesake, Christopher Cerf. Riffing off of the structure and melody of “Twist And Shout,” Cerf gave Little Chrissy And The Alphabeats a signature song in their very first Sesame Street outing, a raucous number that pays its debts to another twist on “Twist And Shout” by inspiring wave after wave of Beatlemania-esque screams. It’s an inspiring number in general, and Cerf-as-Little Chrissy proves his frontman bona fides, urging the Alphabeats to take their counting higher (and higher). He knows they can do it, and eventually they do, reaching 10 and never looking back. (Well, they would look back with regard to their mussed-up locks and the pink Alphabeat, both of which were ditched before their next Sesame Street appearance.) [Erik Adams]


11. “Eleven Cheer” (1973)

Jim Henson’s impact on Sesame Street (and, really, the entire entertainment world) have been well documented. But his talents went far beyond puppetry: Earlier in his career, Henson was much more interested in television as a whole, not just as a showcase for the Muppets. One of his attempts at making a name for himself in the TV business was as an animator. Henson mixed his love of jazz with his experimental side to create several short animations featuring cut pieces of paper, set to music with great precision. Some of these films were made strictly to entertain and show off the medium, while others were peppered through his other non-Muppet works like the short films “Time Piece” and “Youth 68.” And some were made for Sesame Street’s educational efforts, including the incredibly catchy “Eleven Cheer.” The animation in “Eleven Cheer” is fantastic, and if Kermit The Frog and company hadn’t caught on, he could’ve made a great career for himself as an animator. Henson probably would’ve been groundbreaking at any career he chose—as his late wife Jane once said, “Jim would’ve been a great plumber.” [Joe Hennes]


12. “Ladybugs’ Picnic” (1971)

It doesn’t get any more classic than “Ladybugs’ Picnic.” It’s cute, it’s catchy, it’s educational, and it’s the apex of Sesame Street animation. Written and performed by Bud Luckey, “The Ladybug’s Picnic” is like a children’s picture book gone (covertly) awry. Twelve ladybugs gather for what seems to be their annual picnic, but their jump rope breaks, they have mundane conversations about insurance, and then a fire breaks out. It’s a strange turn of events for the little critters, but it doesn’t seem to dampen their spirits. They’re just happy to be together, sharing a meal and being counted by an unseen singer. [Joe Hennes]


Share This Story