You should know a couple of things before we embark on a recap of Sesame Street’s surprisingly vicious takedowns of Donald Trump, which span three decades leading up to his political rise.
First: Trump is most often depicted as a grouch – unpleasant monsters who base their culture and economy around garbage. So when “Donald Grump” appears in a 2005 episode as a badly toupeed muppet “whose name equals trash” that’s not necessarily an insult.
The other thing is that Trump, as president of the United States, wants to end public television funding that created Sesame Street, more often known for lessons on counting and sharing than biting satire.
There are only three known episodes in which the character “Grump” appears, each time playing the villain in a moral allegory.
Whenever Grump visits Sesame Street, chaos is not far behind.
We know of nothing to suggest any link between these skits and Trump’s budget proposal.
He is not the first president to desire the elimination of public broadcasting funds. And because the show now airs on HBO, Trump’s plan is unlikely to destroy Sesame Street, as Grump tried so hard to do.
Like Trump, Grump’s ambitions started out big and got huge. He first appears in an episode in the late 1980s, a grouch in a tacky fedora, knocking on Oscar’s iconic trash can to offer a deal.
“Grump’s the name. Ronald Grump,” he says. “I’m a builder.”
That was Trump’s fame too, then. The original Trump Tower in New York had opened a few years earlier.
Grump shows Oscar a colour rendering of six trash cans stacked on top of each other.
“Grump Tower,” he says, giving the “u” a faux-European pronunciation. “It’s a duplex can-dominium.”
Oscar is intrigued. His friend, Maria, is horrified.
But Grump entices Oscar to sign a contract, essentially bribing him with a free room in the tower and three bags of trash.
In the next scene, the dented trash can that generations of children had grown up watching is gone. A shabby stack of Grump cans stands in place of Oscar’s old home.
“Isn’t it tony?” Oscar brags from the top of the tower.
But then Grump notices the grouch’s worm and elephant friends living below.
“Get ’em out!” he snaps. No pets in the contract.
Trump, too, had his tenant issues. In the 1970s, the New York Times notes, the Justice Department sued him and his father for allegedly refusing to rent to black people. The developers settled with the Government, admitting no guilt.
Back on Sesame Street, Oscar was only saved when his friends cobbled together their own trash bags to pay off Grump and get rid of his tower.
But Grump would be back.
“Real estate tycoon Ronald Grump has announced plans to demolish Sesame Street and create a lavish new Grump Tower,” a dire Barbara Walters announced in 1994, at the beginning of the show’s 25th anniversary special.
It had been years since Grump last showed his face on the block. Now he was played by Joe Pesci, trying to pitch a crowd on his plan to build a combination tower, restaurant and theme park. Historic Sesame Street would be turned into a luxury boutique in the lobby.
“Trust me, you won’t miss all this,” Grump says, then flies into a rage at the first sign of dissent.
Over the course of the special, Grump physically intimidates Benny Rabbit and sort of hits on a reporter played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
The muppets try to win him over. With clip montages. (This is an anniversary show from the mid-90s, after all.) But the memory of a little girl kissing Kermit the Frog after being taught to count leaves the Grump “deeply and profoundly disgusted”.
“If there’s one thing I despise, it’s cheap sentiment,” he says.
Finally, Big Bird recalls Sesame Street’s greatness and leads all the residents in a march down Sesame St to stop Grump. They find him once again trying to con Oscar into moving out of his trash can. Grump Tower’s would-be tenants refuse to mingle with grouches.
In a deus-ex-machina twist that baffled at least one critic, Oscar reveals that his can is government property, and so Trump can’t force him out.
“This neighbourhood does not deserve a Grump Tower anyway,” Grumps says. Then he joins all the muppets in a celebratory song to end the episode, because that’s just how children’s TV sometimes works.
More than 10 years went by after the special. In the real world, Trump made his first flirtations with politics and began honing his public image as the severe host of Celebrity Apprentice.
In 2005, his likeness returned to Sesame Street as “Donald Grump”: a grouch again, but now in an orange wig and famous among muppets for his reality show and spectacular wealth.
With a great rumble, Grump popped out of a can atop a table strewn with Grump-branded trash.
The muppets chanted: “Grump! Grump! Grump!”
“I’m the trashiest, I’m the grouchiest Grump,” he sang.
And then, as he always did, Grump sowed division on Sesame Street.
He enlisted the muppets into a contest to become his helper, making them compete with each other to perform menial tasks, like sorting his old sneakers.
The contest narrowed to a match-up between Elmo, Oscar and his girlfriend, Grundgetta. But the latter two spent all their time arguing with each other about the prize. Elmo worked the hardest and won all the events. Grump cut him anyway.
He chose as his apprentices the two other grouches. Because, he explained, they were caustic and ineffective at their jobs.
Sesame Street‘s parent company has not yet responded to questions about Grump’s origins, and whether he might return during the Trump administration.