This post is mainly about the Sesame Street “Cowboy X.”
Please also note that the first of images of it posted on Youtube were abominably blurry. But a more recent one at CLASSIC SESAME STREET-COWBOY X, www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRj0oub2TLY is much sharper, but with lesser color intensity. Anyone with a source of a sharper and more colorful version of “Cowboy X” please contact me.
One never knows when or where some little Shep gem will crop up. Some people (those of a special, rare, and persistent turn of mind) have been searching for a minor project he created in the early 1970s, “Cowboy X,” a learn-the-letter animated cartoon for television’s Sesame Street. Inveterate and often frustrated researcher, I bought several of the Sesame Street video compilations of letter cartoons without success, except for my now near-perfect ability to sing along to the “Alphabet Song” as joyously rendered by Lena Horne and a mass of Muppets. See where my money goes? Then I encountered the one-minute, nine-second video in June 2007 on www.Youtube.com where it had been posted just three months earlier. Here I’ll admit that though I’d heard the audio years before, until I saw the video with audio, I’d not thought much about it. You can probably tell by the way I’m telegraphing my punch that what’s about to come holds much significance!
IN THE EARLY DAYS OF THE WEST, THE
PEACEFUL TOWN OF SNIDDLER’S GULCH
[Sniddler’s Gulch, a town like any-town
or every-town, U.S.A]
Picture the tiny Western town, hear the hoof beats. In the Old West of cowboys and Indians, Cowboy X has been riding into town branding his X everywhere.
The town’s people want him to stop. A little boy suggests that X simply be asked to cut it out. Cowboy X responds “Why, sure ah’ll stop!” The people give a collective sigh of relief and Cowboy X says, “From now on ah’ll be known as Cowboy O,” and, as he gallops out of town, he stamps his letter O everywhere. The narrator concludes the episode with, “And the citizens of Sniddler’s Gulch lived happily ever after because they really weren’t very smart.”
Cute, but why did Shepherd bother? I think I know, so read on. On a 1971 broadcast, he commented that he’d just done the cartoon: “Finally I’ve reached the peak of my professional prowess and I’m playing an animated X on Sesame Street.” We don’t know who did the script, but it’s got too much essential Shep to be mere coincidence, so I’m sure he wrote every word. And, probably only recognized by some scant few fans, that’s Shepherd’s voice in this cartoon world, embodying all its stock character types with his skillful mimicry—besides narrator he’s the three male citizens, a female citizen, the small boy, and X himself. As with nearly all he put his hand to, when closely studied, this mere children’s cartoon reveals his familiar attitudes about himself and others.
Shepherd as narrator describes himself in the person of Cowboy X as “one of the meanest desperados of all time” and we know how unpleasant he could sometimes be, but of foremost importance is the nature of X itself.
COWBOY X LEFT Xes EVERYWHERE
Shepherd claimed on that 1971 radio broadcast that he’d talked to the producer, who “looked almost exactly like the Cookie Monster.” Shepherd said he’d asked him, “How come ‘X,’ man? Now come on. Don’t give me that cookie jazz. You’ve had all the cookies I’m gonna give ya. Now tell me what it is.” Shepherd reported that after a long, pregnant pause, the producer said, “Well, it’s type-casting. You should realize you’re a perfect letter X.”
THE CITIZENS FINALLY DECIDED THAT
COWBOY X HAD TO BE STOPPED
WHAT IF WE JUST ASK COWBOY X
TO PLEASE STOP
MARKING UP OUR TOWN WITH Xes?
Another time on the air he said it was ironic that his Sesame Street character was the unknown X, and we know how much of his real self he kept from public scrutiny, but more pertinent, we know he considered himself, as he’d once put it, “widely unknown” professionally, despite his many efforts to leave his mark in many public media. In addition, as narrator, Shepherd concludes the episode by saying in effect that, by not realizing the import of what Cowboy X continues doing, the citizenry is stupid—X’s motivation and public performance being widely misunderstood/under-appreciated, just as Shepherd believed his own professional activities were. More irony: substituting for the unknown “X,” letter O is visually indistinguishable from the zilch of zero.
FROM NOW ON I’LL BE KNOWN AS COWBOY O
Very rarely in Jean Shepherd’s career had he created anything in which his performing self had not been evident right out there for all to encounter. Though this self-reflexive specimen is certainly not titled “Jean Shepherd’s Cowboy X,” it hasn’t been seen on Sesame Street in recent memory, and he apparently received no credits for it, yet he’s dominant—Ol’ Shep’s brand is present everywhere within “Cowboy X,” not only through his performance but in his very being. Superficially this cartoon might have seemed like a meaningless throwaway but it ain’t—it’s a keeper, cleverly amusing and fraught with irony, disillusion, hostility, and even a bit of despair.
LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER BECAUSE
THEY REALLY WEREN’T VERY SMART.