A raunchy comedy puppet plot called ‘The Happytime Murders’ is everything you would not expect to see from Sesame Workshops, the company behind Sesame Street. Gone is the mission to teach children to read. Instead the film follows two Los Angeles detectives Melissa McCarthy and puppet Phil Phillips as they work together to solve the brutal murders of the former cast of the show. The just released trailer uses explicit and profane language and there is also violence and drug use. What has upset Sesame Street owners is the use of the tag line No Sesame – All Street. The argument is that it deliberately confuses consumers into mistakenly believing that The Happytime Murders is associated with Sesame Street and that Sesame Street has endorsed or produced a movie and that these facts tarnish their name.
Clearly the use of colourful language is not an attempt to stretch the vocabulary of current Sesame Street devotees. The film is R rated so you need to be 17 and attend a screening with a parent or guardian to even see it. The film is directed by Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson, who helped develop Sesame Street characters for its launch in 1969 and later went on to create the Muppet Show.
STX the production company behind The Happytime Murders doesn’t appear to be taking the claim too seriously as yet. It has issued a response not through a law firm but through a character from the film, a lawyer puppet called Fred Esq, saying the movie was “the untold story of the active lives of Henson puppets when they’re not performing in front of children”. The response then expressed regret that Sesame Workshops did not share in the fun and confidence in STX’s legal position.
The legal action filed asks for a jury trial and punitive damages. The US legal machinery is going to have to move quickly on this one as The HappyTime Murder is set to hit cinemas in the US on 17th August. The outcome is anyone’s guess for the time being. Sesame Workshops will need evidence as to the confusion, belief in endorsement and tarnishment. That may not be that easy to find. Those familiar with the children’s version may not be so shocked by what they see. In some ways this film is a way of keeping up interest in these loveable characters for a generation of us who are OK with the reading now and would enjoy seeing these puppets in a whole new light.