T.S. Eliot famously argued that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. It doesn’t matter what the creator was trying to accomplish — all that matters is how you, the reader, responds to it.
That bit of 20th century literary criticism is worth keeping in mind when we talk about one of the most contested fictional quandaries of our time: the true nature of the Bert-Ernie relationship.
Bert and Ernie, of course, are Muppets who became beloved characters on “Sesame Street.” Despite their different dispositions — Ernie is active and enthusiastic, while Bert is pragmatic and sometimes grumpy — the two are best friends, and are rarely seen apart. They live together, sleeping in separate beds in the same room.
There’s always been some whispers that their friendship may have been something more — but this week, we heard about the relationship directly from the source. Well, sources.
On Monday, Queerty published an interview with Mark Saltzman, who wrote for “The Muppets” and “Sesame Street” for over 15 years. Saltzman told the publication about what it was like being a gay man in the TV world in the ’80s. By the time he started working on “Sesame Street” he was out and living with his partner, the late film editor Arnold Glassman, but his life still wasn’t easy. “Even when everybody knows, it’s not a casual discussion, discussing my boyfriend with the guys,” Saltzman says.
The whole interview is worth a read, but things get particularly juicy towards the end, when Saltzman is asked about Bert and Ernie. Were they a couple?
“I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were,” he says. “I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”
It wasn’t overt, to himself or to the show’s creators, Saltzman says: “I would never have said to the head writer, ‘Oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.'”
But he did translate parts of his relationship to the characters. “I was already with Arnie when I came to ‘Sesame Street.’ So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple…. Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert and Ernie dynamic.”
For several hours after the news surfaced on Tuesday, the Internet was ablaze with delighted Bert and Ernie truthers. But then Sesame Workshop joined the conversation.
“As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends,” the company wrote on Twitter. “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.”
Frank Oz, who played Bert, also weighed in, saying that “of course” they aren’t gay. Later, when someone challenged him, he added, “I created Bert. I know what and who he is.”
The internet, on the other hand, had an extremely convincing counter-argument to the assertion that Muppets have no sexual orientation: love-obsessed, Kermit-worshipping Miss Piggy.
Despite what Sesame Workshop says, many remained unconvinced by the denial of Bert and Ernie’s romantic relationship.
Who’s the last word on Bert and Ernie? A man who formerly brought them to life by writing their lines, or the man who lent Bert his voice ?
Before this eventful Bert-Ernie news cycle, there were lots of conversations about their relationship. Some were mean-spirited, under-the-breath jokes. But others were supportive, like this July 2013 New Yorker cover showing Bert and Ernie cuddling and watching TV as the U.S. Supreme Court made its landmark decision acknowledging same-sex marriage. “It’s amazing to witness how attitudes on gay rights have evolved in my lifetime,” the artist, Jack Hunter, told the magazine.
So when it comes to possibly-gay puppets, maybe T.S. Eliot’s lead is a good one to follow. There might never be an objective truth, but you can experience Bert and Ernie however you want.