An ode to Elmo: Why we turn to our furry friend when the world is a dumpster fire

When Elmo decided to check the emotional pulse of the internet on Monday and ask, “How is everybody doing?” the fiery-colored Muppet couldn’t have anticipated the seismic response he’d receive. Elmo’s tweet garnered more than 200 million views and thousands of bleak replies. “Elmo we are tired,” one X user wrote. “Elmo I’m suffering from existential dread over here,” tweeted another. Still others vented to the monster about the impending presidential election, wars, personal grief, a rickety economy and dogs rolling around in goose poop. Why? Well, because even though it’s “Elmo’s World,” as his theme song goes, we’re all the ones living in it. And sometimes it takes talking to a furry figure from the days of yore for us to admit that the kids, now adults, are not alright. 

The burned-out, cog-in-a-machine lifestyle that many of Elmo’s responders described feels pretty on par with the Elmo on fire meme. While there’s no denying that our world has, in many ways, become somewhat of a dumpster fire, there’s something to be said for the sheer volume of feedback Elmo’s question received. As one expert told the New York Times, Elmo is a “beloved childhood character that we associate with a simpler time in our lives,” so it makes sense that we would want to tell him just how much our lives have evolved over the years. 

Elmo, in a very real sense, is a Muppet microcosm of our shared hope that the world has the capacity to bloom into something like it was back then.

As much as the generations tend to operate like warring factions, we can all agree on the immense nostalgia of Elmo. We all know and love “Sesame Street’s” canonical names: Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Rosita, Grover, Cookie Monster. But there is something decidedly special about Elmo’s cherry-colored charm. His power is not merely confined to his toddling whimsy or our longstanding friendship with him. Elmo’s influence extends beyond happy aesthetics; it lies is in his ability to make us feel. Elmo is able to elicit the massive response that he did because he represents the unadulterated part of our younger selves that we still cling to, despite all the bad. Elmo, in a very real sense, is a Muppet microcosm of our shared hope that the world has the capacity to bloom into something like it was back then. 

He is blowing dandelions puffs and the stillness of summertime. He is my siblings’ laughter, running laps around the tide pools we’d wade in as children along the Jersey shore. He is the minty smell of my mother’s clothes and the bounce of woodchips underfoot at the playground. He is broken crayons and petting zoos and plastic jack-o’-lanterns stuffed with candy. 

Today, this version of life often is distant and quivering, like a beautiful mirage that never disappears from our minds but refuses to manifest in our collective reality. 

Though “Sesame Street” has been known for its initiatives that raise awareness about childhood mental health and emotional well-being, something about Elmo feels even more accessible. He pushed Sesame Street’s shimmering cityscape mysticism a few steps further, serving as a rudimentary cognitive framework for lighthearted innocence, kindness and love. At only three and a half years old, Elmo is exceptionally emotionally intelligent. He often asks his friends and guests questions about themselves, offering hugs and advice when he senses they are dealing with something difficult and always greeting viewers with a resounding, “Elmo is so happy to see you!” As Sesame Workshop’s biography of Elmo observes, he “always maintains an optimistic view of himself and life. Elmo tries to do the right thing in every situation, and encourages his friends to do the same.”

Unlike Santa — though they bear some pigment parallels — we’ve always been able to talk to, hug and hear Elmo whenever we want. His signature laugh, shrill falsetto and self-referential style of speaking have cemented him as an enduring confidant we can continue to relate to, despite the fact that our sandbox days are long behind us. It’s no surprise that his most iconic stint in consumerism, the “Tickle Me Elmo” doll, capitalized on his pealing giggle. 

In 2022, an early aughts clip of Elmo embroiled in a feud with Rocco, the pet rock of fellow Sesame Street character Zoe, went viral. Zoe is known for anthropomorphizing Rocco, who is simply an inanimate geological object. When Zoe tells Elmo he can’t eat Rocco’s oatmeal raisin cookie because the rock wants it, the typically buoyant puppet erupts. “Rocco?!” Elmo says. “Rocco’s a rock, Zoe! Rocco won’t know the difference!

“How is Rocco going to eat that cookie, Zoe?” Elmo presses, in a tone the New York Times dubbed “unhinged.” “Tell Elmo. Rocco doesn’t even have a mouth. Rocco’s just a rock! Rocco’s not alive!”

We see some guileless part of ourselves within him — a half-formed reflection in his goldfish Dorothy’s fishbowl.

But aren’t we all a little unhinged in these trying times? And though the droll exchange between Zoe and Elmo may at the surface seem like nothing more than a funny viral video, isn’t watching the “Sesame Street” star blow off some of that steam kind of cathartic? Maybe we can think of him not only as a Muppet to confide in, but as a conduit for conveying our anxieties and frustrations in a way that feels palatable and secure. Though we might assume Elmo is unencumbered by society’s scourges in the same way we are, it’s worth reminding ourselves that he’s partly assuming some of that baggage for us. As his tweet shows, he’s always been there, not only as an example of how we can carry his jaunty spirit in our hearts, but as a friend who will listen.  

Maybe this connection and indentification is why we are also so quick to defend Elmo. We see some guileless part of ourselves within him — a half-formed reflection in his goldfish Dorothy’s fishbowl that’s been crusted over by the steady gnawing of time. 

Take a recent interaction between Elmo and comedian Larry David, for example. During a sit-down interview between Elmo and the hosts of NBC’s “Today” morning show, the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” creator abruptly grabbed hold of the little monster’s face, gratuitously attacking him. “Oh my god!” yelled host Savannah Guthrie, adding, “Larry, you’ve gone too far this time!”

“Let’s get back on the couch and talk about how you’re feeling,” the ever-caring Elmo told David, seemingly alluding to his social media check-in a few days prior. David later offered an apology to Elmo during his own interview, which was readily accepted. Social media was less forgiving, calling for swift “Justice for Elmo.” 

“Not Elmo, we won’t stand for this,” one X user wrote. “So he’s out here pushing @elmo around?” asked another. “Naaaaa…..”

If there’s one thing to take away from David’s interaction with America’s most beloved monster it’s this: No one puts Elmo in a corner. 

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His resilience goes further than bouncing back from being manhandled by comedians. In 2012, Elmo faced serious trouble after his puppeteer of 28 years, Kevin Clash, parted from the PBS series after a 23-year-old man claimed that starting when he was underage, he had a sexual relationship with Clash. When Clash took a leave of absence from the show, “Sesame Street” responded by saying, “Elmo is bigger than any one person.”

And it’s true. He is all of us. 

The situation could have been a PR nightmare for a character who is supposed to project the pure, unadulterated essence of a preschooler. But somehow, unlike the rest of Hollywood, Elmo is a pop culture icon who can’t be canceled. “Sesame Street” knew his worth and chose to stick by him amid the controversy, eventually casting then-high school senior Ryan Dillon as Elmo’s new performer in 2013.

Come hell or high water (and come it has) Elmo is there for us. And we are for him, if only to indulge our own fears that he, along with all that is good and adorable in the world might someday depart from our lives altogether. 

The reality is that we all need Elmo right now. We’ve never stopped needing him. How can we get to “Sesame Street” — the idyllic, kind world of our past and hopefully our future? We can be like Elmo.

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