Twenty years before Sesame Street fans learned Abby Canabby’s parents are divorced, the show tried to tackle the subject in the unaired episode, “Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce.”
Now the stuff of lore, the episode centered on the parents of Mr. Snuffleupagus, also known as Snuffy, going through a divorce. It was motivated by the 1992 census estimating 40% of children are in divorced homes.
According to Time, the episode involved the “input from the foremost researchers in the field.” Yet, when the time came to share it with a test audience of children, the episode did not work.
“It was really the first time we’d produced something, put all this money into it, tested it, and it just didn’t work,” the outlet quoted Susan Scheiner, a longtime Sesame Street researcher, who worked on the segment. “We thought we had it. We thought this was really revolutionary, and then it was just bad.”
Norman Stiles, a Sesame Street writer, spoke about the struggle with tackling such a difficult subject.
As he told the Archive of American Television, “One of the things we’re always talking about is how do you phrase something to get somebody, to get a child either to understand something that is a negative but not in a negative way?”
He went on to explain that instead of telling a child not to cross in the middle of the street, instead, you tell the child to cross at the corner. “You present the positive,” he added.
As for the divorce of Snuffy’s parents, it made the children watching worry their parents will get a divorce.
“For the kids at home, it was a little abstract,” Stiles explained. “In this case, when you say mother, father, parent are getting divorced, ‘I have a mother and father.’” So that sounds, that sounds absolutely right.
Snuffy Confided in Big Bird About His Parents’ Divorce
Time provided a glimpse at the special that never made it to air. “My dad is moving out of our cave,” the character known as Snuffy told Big Bird. He continued, “I’m not sure where; some cave across town.”
When Big Bird inquires, “But why?” Snuffy explains, “because of something called a divorce.”
While there is not easily accessed footage, an image is widely circulated from the image. As the Art of Lost and Cancelled Media tweeted, “The only known screenshot left of the lost Sesame Street episode, Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce, which was left unaired because of the mixed to negative test screenings by parents who thought the episode was too heavy and complicated for younger children to understand.”
’Sesame Street’ Tackled Divorce in 2012
In 2012, Sesame Street decided to once again address divorce in their online toolkit Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce. In the special, Abby reveals to Elmo and Rosita that her parents are no longer married.
While drawing her home, she draws two pictures. “This one is where I live with my mommy,” said Abby. “And this one is where I live with daddy.” As she explains, her parents had adult problems they could not overcome, but they both love her.
“We want kids to understand that they’re not alone and that it’s not their fault,” Lynn Chwatsky, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of outreach initiatives, told Time. “These kids love and adore Abby. So to know that she’s going through something similar to them, something challenging, it’s like, Wow. It makes it O.K. to have a whole range of feelings.”
According to Time, it was accompanied by “a storybook (Two Hug Day), a guide for parents and an app, funded as part of a larger initiative geared toward military families.”