A butler opens the door of the large Sesame Street brownstone and guides me to the parlor. Big Bird is sitting on a large couch, wearing a silk smoking jacket, holding a bourbon and enjoying a drag on what appears to be an unfiltered Camel cigarette.
Purcell: Thank you for agreeing to my interview request, Big Bird, but I am shocked to see you drinking and smoking. I thought you were only 6.
Big Bird: I’m a character actor, man. Forty years ago, I took the only role a tall, yellow lark could find. When I’m off the set, it’s party time.
Purcell: You’ve been in the news lately. Mitt Romney said he’d cut your public funding. President Obama used you in a political ad to attack Romney. What are your thoughts on this turn of events?
Big Bird: It’s regrettable, man. We’re about promoting literacy to kids through entertainment, not politics.
Purcell: But you receive taxpayer funds to air your show. The Christian Science Monitor says Sesame Workshop, the production company that produces your show, generates a whopping $130 million in annual revenue, yet still accepts $10 million in government support.
Big Bird: Perhaps we could get by fine without government money, but “Sesame Street” is small potatoes. Of the $445 million in annual public television subsidies, about half goes to small stations in rural areas that otherwise might lack the resources to stay on the air.
Purcell: Look, Big Bird, when President Johnson established public television in the ’60s, there were only three broadcast networks. Today, there are hundreds of channels to choose from on broadcast, cable, satellite and the Internet. Does it make sense for the government to be in the public television business?
Big Bird: Perhaps not, but you can’t deny that the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) has done some stellar work over the years that you haven’t seen on other channels.
Purcell: Fair enough. WQED’s news shows and documentaries do a tremendous job examining Pittsburgh’s history, culture and events. Unlike local for-profit news shows, WQED doesn’t do car wrecks and building fires every 30 seconds.
Big Bird: Nor does PBS do hit pieces on yellow-feathered public figures who have one too many at the pub.
Purcell: The truth is, Big Bird, PBS has been so successful that only 15 percent of its total funding comes from the government. Most comes from viewer donations, gifts and corporate sponsorships. It is surely doing something the public likes. So why can’t it execute its business model without taxpayer funds?
Big Bird: Look, man, if you were a business that got $445 million from the government every year, would you give it back?
Purcell: But you could get by without government funding. The Washington Examiner reports that Sesame Workshop has assets worth nearly $290 million. Your CEO earns nearly $1 million a year. Your company and PBS are now working with commercial entities to produce programming for Sprout, a 24-hour commercial channel for children. How is it right to accept $10 million annually from the government when that money is being borrowed, or created out of thin air by the Federal Reserve?
Big Bird: Hey, our $10 million is a drop in the bucket relative to the country’s $1 trillion deficit. Until everyone else on the government dole starts ponying up — big companies, politically connected bunglers and lots of government and quasi-government organizations — I got no problem accepting free government dough.
Purcell: But don’t you care about the debt and deficit challenges facing our country? Nobody likes cuts, Big Bird, but all government programs, large and small, have to put some feathers in the game. Can’t you see that our country is broke and headed for certain disaster?
Big Bird doesn’t answer. The butler returns to the parlor with a fresh bourbon. He places an unlit cigarette in Big Bird’s beak, lights it and tells Big Bird his bath has been drawn. The butler guides me to the front door. The interview is over.
Tom Purcell, author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood,” is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Email Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.