Sesame Street has always been a judgment free zone for young viewers, where everyone — humans and Muppets alike — is respected and liked equally. That’s totally fine for kids, but as grown-ups, it’s hard not to judge the various residents of public television’s best-known address. That’s why, in advance of the show’s 46th season premiere on Jan. 16 on HBO, we’ve ranked Sesame Street’s Top 20 past and present puppet characters. Remember, these are featured players, not part-time renters. (Sorry Captain Breakfast. And you too, Farley. Also Kermit the Frog, who has made a number of appearances on Sesame Street over the years, but remains more closely identified as the head of The Muppet Show crew.)
The red-furred bane of virtually every parent’s existence, Elmo has long since seized control of Sesame Street, ruling over the Muppets who once looked down upon him as a mere baby monster. To be fair, the 4-and-under set genuinely loves Elmo and respond to his squeaky-voiced naiveté. Then again, that demo also frequently considers crayons to be a food group.
19) Abby Cadabby
Between the fairy wings, magic wand and pink fur, Abby is a marketers’ dream of an instantly merchandisable Muppet. But she’s never been a particularly great character, squandering much of her potential charm on annoying catchphrases like “Gotta poof!” and “That’s so magical.” No, it really isn’t.
18) Roosevelt Franklin
He hasn’t been seen much on the block since the early ‘70s, but streetwise Roosevelt is a significant part of the show’s legacy, reflecting creator Jim Henson’s wish to reflect big city diversity in his own Muppet cast… and the way those wishes sometimes fell short. While his brash behavior made him popular with kids (he even got to cut his own record), it came across as stereotypical to adult viewers, and he was eventually retired from the roster. Looking back, Roosevelt is very much a product (or, if you prefer, relic) of his particular era, which makes him both an interesting and problematic character.
17) Herry Monster
Frequently overshadowed by his fellow blue-furred monster brethren, Grover and Cookie Monster, Herry’s most memorably personality trait is his gruff voice, provided by Jerry Nelson. Without a guiding gimmick, Herry has generally been relegated to utility player status, and paired with other more popular Muppets. He’s steady as a rock, so we’re showing him some love.
16) Sherlock Hemlock
Before Benedict Cumberbatch, there was Sherlock Hemlock, the Muppet version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal detective. As Sesame Street’s top investigator, Hemlock solved such pressing mysteries as who ate half of Ernie’s sandwich and The Case of the Missing Toast. The fact that he’s often the culprit as well as the detective, though, calls his sleuthing skills into serious question.
Created to be the resident Spanish-language voice on Sesame Street, Rosita has since emerged as one of the show’s leading songstresses, duetting with Little Richard and Gloria Estefan, and picking up her trusty guitar to lead her own sing-a-longs as well. Music is such an integral part of the show’s DNA, it’s good to have a character that dances to her own distinct rhythm, even if she’s less memorable when the singing stops.
What he lacks in size, this little orange bookworm makes up for in personality. He’s had a pretty illustrious career for an invertebrate as well, even venturing to outer space. And, not for nothing, but he’s one of the only things in the world that can bring a smile to his owner Oscar’s perpetually grouchy face.
13) Mr. Johnson
Pity poor Mr. Johnson (the most famous character fashioned out of the Anything Muppet also known as “Fat Blue”): in sketch after sketch, the poor guy just wants to chow down on a hearty meal only to be thwarted by Grover’s terrible table service. Over the years, he’s had to fend with tiny burgers not fit for a flea, J-less alphabet soup and an unwelcome “tomato surprise.” To be fair, Mr. Johnson isn’t always the kindest guy, but Grover really ought to remember the rule that the customer is always right.
12) Murray Monster
Never content to spend all his time on Sesame Street, the show’s resident word-master always gets out and about in the Big Apple, visiting different locations and neighborhoods. Truth be told, he’s probably a little too much on the go — it’s hard to warm up to someone that’s constantly dashing off on the next adventure. You seem like a solid dude, Murray! Let us get to know you.
11) Prairie Dawn
Essentially the Leslie Knope of Sesame Street, Prairie’s hyper-efficiency often puts her at odds with the rest of her community, who could give the citizens of Pawnee a run for their money in the “resistance to direction” department. Call her bossy at your peril — we prefer to think of her as self-reliant. And we’d totally vote for a Knope/Dawn ticket when Prairie comes of age.
10) Telly Monster
Telly’s come a long way since his debut as a television-addicted Muppet who “plugs in” at Mr. Hooper’s store. The antennae and glazed-over eyes are long gone, and he engages with other people now, instead of just figures on a TV screen. One thing that hasn’t changed is his nervous disposition. He’s still a big ol’ worrywart, who gets super-frustrated — but endearingly so — when things don’t work they way they’re supposed to. At least he’s getting nervous about something besides missing his favorite shows.
9) Guy Smiley
They just don’t make game show hosts like Guy Smiley anymore. One of the most undersung characters in Jim Henson’s repertoire — and unlike Kermit the Frog, Guy sat on the shelf for years following his creator’s death, only recently returning to the rotation — Guy is a consummate television professional who keeps every game on track even when his contestants try to skirt the rules. Just watch the way he comfortably shares the stage with an oversized nose on this edition of “What’s My Part?” Let’s see Steve Harvey try and top that!
46 years old in show years, but eternally youthful in spirit, Ernie’s childlike eagerness about everything from rubber duckies to making fish calls has delighted countless generations of tykes. At the same time, he also has a tendency to be more than a little self-centered, as he pursues his own whims and desires no matter how those in his closest orbit — usually Bert — might feel. News flash: it’s not always all about you, Ernie.
7) Big Bird
Sesame Street’s gentle feathered giant has been the show’s mascot and goodwill ambassador since 1969. (He was also the first character to get his own movie, at least until Elmo visited Grouchland.) But he’s never let his towering public profile go to his head; to this day, Big Bird remains a wonderfully subdued present that stands out amidst some of Sesame Street’s more excitable characters. In fact, he’s sometimes too subdued. It would be nice to see him lose his temper (on-camera, for a change) just so we know he’s human, as well as an oversized bird.
6) Count von Count
The Count may only do one thing, but he does it very, very well. Seizing on the well-known vampiric trait of having to obsessively count loose items like grains of rice — until sunrise, if necessary — the Jerry Nelson-created character has long been an ideal gateway for young viewers into the magical world of mathematics. We can’t count the number of ways we’ve enjoyed his numeric nattering over the years.
Never has a Muppet failed so repeatedly upwards into our hearts. Grover may stumble and bumble his way though life, but his can-do energy always entertains, even when it ends with can-don’t results. Admit it: who amongst us hasn’t strapped on a red cape and a knight’s helmet and leaped into some derring-do as Super Grover?
4) Mr. Snuffleupagus
A great pal that, for years, only Big Bird — and us — knew about, Snuffy is the platonic ideal of an imaginary friend. He’s funny (and funny-looking), comforting and always shows up when you need companionship. It was truly a great day on Sesame Street when everyone else finally got the chance to meet this loveable, lumbering lug.
3) Oscar the Grouch
Ernie, Elmo and Grover may be the characters kids tend to identify with the most, but as adults, the Grouch is our Guru. Oscar’s supreme cantankerousness is always a glorious thing to witness, adding an acid-rained tinged cloud to the usual sunny street. But it also makes his random acts of kindness and generosity that much more satisfying. Over and over again, Oscar proves why grouchiness is something to embrace, rather than flee from.
2) Cookie Monster
Our inner glutton is satisfied whenever Cookie Monster gives into his urge to consume mass quantities of cookies. He represents everyone’s culinary Id—the side of us that just wants to say, “Screw you” to salads and chow down on bacon-wrapped truffles three meals a day. He’s not just the Muppet we love…he’s the Muppet we need.
He merits the top spot purely for putting up with roommate Ernie for the past four decades. But Bert is a stand-up gent on his own terms, and deserves to be celebrated for knowing the value of a good book, a healthy breakfast and general peace and quiet. He’s more of an adult than any of the flesh-and-blood adults on Sesame Street. No wonder we prize him so highly.
Sesame Street premieres Jan. 16 at 9 a.m. on HBO.