When the "Sesame Street" muppets show up on late night television, the Internet pays attention. Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and the gang appeared on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" Wednesday night – well, technically Thursday morning – to sing their theme song with Fallon and the show's house band The Roots. They did so with the orchestration of classroom instruments, as part of a show gimmick that Fallon has also done with Robin Thicke, Mariah Carey, and Carly Rae Jepsen. By morning, the video was posted on Gawker, Vulture and Huffington Post – blogs not always known for their warm and fuzzy side.
Airing at 12:30 am weekday nights, "Late Night" is way past the bedtime of the "Sesame Street" core audience – children as young as infants and up – and there are countless other reasons toddlers should not be watching the show. Yet the spot fits in with the slew of other publicity appearances the muppets have been making to kick off the new "Sesame Street" season, the show's 44th. In recent weeks, show characters have appeared on E! News, Good Morning America and video chat website Spreecast. "Sesame Street" also maintains an active social media presence, with Twitter, Tumblr, Vine and Instagram accounts – all media landscapes populated (we hope) primarily by adults.
Of course, any publicity is good publicity. But for The Sesame Workshop, the organization behind "Sesame Street," the reasoning for all this grown-up outreach extends beyond that.
"If you're engaging a parent that thinks, 'That was fun,' it's a way to remind them that there's content there to share with their kids," says Carol-Lynn Parente, "Sesame Street" executive producer.
From its beginning, "Sesame Street" has used celebrity cameos to attract parents' attention – and not just so they'll turn on the television for their young'ins. The Sesame Workshop's top priority is educating its children viewers, and studies show that kids who watch with their parents will retain even more.
"As the show has evolved, the way you draw in co-viewing has just widened to all the platforms people are viewing content on," Parente says. As has always been the case, show producers try to design content with its own appeal to parents as it entertains their children. For instance, this season features a spoof of the hit (and very adult) show "Homeland" called "Homelamb" that involves sheep agents trying to figure out if another sheep named Brody is actually the Big Bad Wolf.
But some of these appearances and media platforms are actually geared towards a demographic younger than those rearing "Sesame"-age children. After all, how many toddler parents do you know who can make it up past midnight?
According to Dan Lewis, Sesame Workshop's director of new media, "Sesame Street" wants to reach out to the next generation of parents, those who grew up on the show, but are in-between the time when they'll be turning it on for their kids.
"We want them to be lifelong fans of 'Sesame Street' and the characters and the show," Lewis says. "They're not going to engage with us by watching the broadcast everyone morning."
"We're very careful that the content that we do is 'Sesame'-friendly, even though the content is geared for adults," Parente says. So when Cookie Monster appears on Saturday Night Live, his bit will be OK for children, even if the other 90 percent of the show is not.
As a nonprofit, the Sesame Workshop has limited marketing budget, so these free publicity spots are crucial to its promotional campaigns. But even competing against media behemoths like Disney or Nickelodeon (part of Viacom) for children's' attention, "Sesame Street" has an advantage of its decades-long legacy and the fountain of nostalgia it invokes. Celebrities usually reach out to "Sesame Street" for appearance opportunities (recent cameos include Jon Hamm and Peter Dinklage, stars of the very adult shows "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones," respectively) and the show has even had to turn celebrities away due to overwhelming interest.
Of course, the viral marketing is just one aspect of the show that continues to evolve. This season also welcomes a new Hispanic neighbor named Armando and a Cookie Monster espousing the gospel of restraint (to the tune of Icona Pop, no less). It has also initiated a new campaign for children of incarcerated parents.
Parente says that the show's inclusion of tough topics like this as well as HIV, death and divorce, are exactly why it's so important that parents and other adults are also engaged. "It's all about opening up communications," she says.