In an exclusive interview by reporter David Reddish on Queerty, writer and creator of Sesame Streets’ Bert & Ernie, Mark Saltzman revealed that the iconic puppet duo are in fact modelled on his relationship with his life partner the late Arnold Glassman – the two were partners for over 20 years before Glassman’s passing in 2003.
In the interview, Saltzman talks about joining the Sesame Street team in the mid-80’s. Saltzman said that he was not ‘professionally out’ at the time, with only close friends in the know about his relationship with Arnold Glassman who he described as the love of his life.
Saltzman tells Reddish, “I think I was cautiously out. I remember not inviting Arnie to the first Christmas parties, you know. But then I have memories of bringing him to beach house parties with everybody. I think during Sesame Street was when I came completely out.”
On whether he tried he pitch ideas of exploring the subject of homophobia or even AIDS (Saltzman joined the Sesame Street gang in the midst of the AIDS epidemic), he said that it didn’t seem like something they could talk about on air, especially to pre-schoolers. Adding he didn't want to denounce what Sesame Street was already doing in terms of challenging racial boundaries but would have liked to be involved in the show's first episode about a same-sex couple.
This brings up the New Yorker cover in 2013 celebrating the US Supreme Court ruling that legalised same-sex marriage nationwide – the cover shows Ernie with his arms around Bert who is resting his head on Ernie’s shoulders as they watch the 9 supreme court judges on TV.
When asked whether Bert & Ernie were consciously written to be gay, Saltzman said “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.”
So there you have it, Bert & Ernie are actually a gay couple based on Saltzman's own relationship even though he never specified their orientation in the writer’s room.
“I was Ernie. I look more Bert-ish. And Arnie as a film editor—if you thought of Bert with a job in the world, wouldn’t that be perfect? Bert with his paper clips and organization? And I was the jokester. So it was the Bert & Ernie relationship, and I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street,” said Saltzman.
Sweetly, Saltzman notes that he wrote Bert & Ernie the only way he knew how: as a loving couple. So whether they knew it or not, Sesame Street already had characters that appealed to the gay audience. And it's really nice to know now that our favourite childhood roommates are in fact a couple.