During the first U.S. Presidential debate in October, 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney casually mentioned that he wants to end government funding for public broadcasting. Internet users immediately responded with hilarious Sesame Street themed photos, memes, and web videos.
Speaking to Public Broadcasting System’s own Jim Lehrer, Romney said, “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird…”
Send in the clowns
As reported by About.com U.S. Liberal Politics Guide, Deborah White, "Big Bird references were tweeted at an astonishing rate of 17,000 per minute and PBS at 10,000 tweets per minute, causing the debate to be the most tweeted U.S. political event. Ever."
That’s a lot of tweets. Building off of that remarkable social media boon, the Big Bird memes started hitting websites faster than The Count could say, "One, ah ah ah!" What followed was an internet avalanche of social media support for the beloved Sesame Street characters who have been entertaining America’s children since 1969, and now you can’t go to a news or social media website without finding an image of Sesame Street’s feathered mascot.
Release the memes!
Minutes after those infamous words left Romney’s lips, web users took to Photoshop and began frantically creating comedy gold. By the next morning, countless images of Romney killing Big Bird were splashed across Reddit and other user-generated content sites. Web users doctored photos of the Sesame characters to depict an angry Grover and the gang, humorously threatening retaliation against Romney. Protesters dressed in Sesame costumes showed up in major cities everywhere.
On a positive note, some web users saw the political remarks and ensuing web firestorm as an opportunity to do charitable work. Just three minutes after Romney voiced his intention to take away funding from PBS, two students from the University of North Carolina snapped up the url FireBigBird.com from GoDaddy and worked through the night creating “Save Big Bird” t-shirts to sell for charity. Within two days, the pair had raised over $6,000 for charity, most of which went to the Make-a-Wish foundation to benefit children with terminal illnesses.
Considering the popularity of Sesame Street, it’s not surprising that young web users would take the threat of removing funding for PBS personally. In 1996, a survey showed that 95% of American preschoolers had watched Sesame Street. Those children have reached adulthood and now comprise the bulk of internet users.
Conservatives have criticized the media for pouncing on one small aspect of Romney’s platform for the sake of humor. In fact, About.com Conservative U.S. Politics Guide, Dustin Hawkins, calls the Big Bird trend "third grade attacks," and said "What could have been a real discussion on ways to tackle real problems turned into yet another missed opportunity on the national stage."
Hawkins may have a point, but there is no denying that some of these Big Bird Sesame Street memes are downright hilarious. Jon Stewart called out the conservative attacks against the Big Bird phenomenon in this hilarious segment of his show, The Daily Show. Try not to watch that clip without snickering at "This Week with George Snuffleupagus." Just try.
Big Bird also made an appearance on Saturday Night Live’s "Weekend Update," asking Seth Meyer, "What’s a Twitter?" before admitting that he was kidding, because like any other modern street in the United States, Sesame Street has Wi-Fi. While Big Bird himself does not have a Twitter account, parody account @BIGBIRD has already gathered over 28,000 followers in the days following the debate.
It’s not just the social media sites that have gotten into the action either. The Obama campaign has even jumped on the bandwagon, creating what is possibly the weirdest political ad ever made.
If art reflects life, then web humor reflects society, as a whole. We live in a world in which everything we say and do in public has the potential to become a viral sensation; there are no idle remarks that cannot be turned into internet comedy. Just ask Big Bird.