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From feminist Muppets to hilarious parodies, see how the children's program made its mark

Shaun Harrison
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1 of 27 Richard Termine/PBS

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It's been 45 years of sunny days, and despite many updates and changes, Sesame Street is still recognizable to those who originally loved it (not an easy feat — just ask Renee Zellweger). Since its first episode on Nov. 10, 1969, the groundbreaking children's program has made an impact on minds young and old worldwide. Let's take a look at the lasting legacy of Sesame Street.

2 of 27 Danny Moloshok/Reuters/Landov

A Is for Awards

By our estimate, Sesame Street needs an entire room to display all the trophies it's won. The most honored children's program ever, the innovative, educational series has received an unprecedented 159 Emmy Awards since 1970 -- including 29 for Outstanding Children's Series -- as well as 10 Grammys, three Peabodys, a Life Achievement Emmy Award and more. At this rate, we wouldn't be surprised if the series eventually EGOT-ed.

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B Is for Banishment

In May 1970, six months after the show's premiere, Mississippi -- ironically, the birthplace of Jim Henson -- banned Sesame Street, claiming that the state was not ready for the show's 'highly integrated cast.' The ban lasted for a month, and Mississippi has, of course, become a character in and of itself on the show, as the birthplace of Kermit.

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C Is for Congress

Elmo made his history when he became the first non-human to testify before Congress in 2002. Dressed in his best suit and tie, Elmo urged theEducation Appropriations Subcommittee to increase spending on music research and musical instruments for school programs. Although he tried to eat the microphone and interrupted his fellow witness several times, Elmo still managed to win over lawmakers through adorable exchanges like this one: 'Please, Congress, help Elmo's friends find the music in them. I love you, Congress,' Elmo told the assembled legislators. 'And my grandchildren love you too, Elmo,' United States Representative Ralph Regula replied. Awwww.

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D Is for Divorce

Although Sesame Street has successfully addressed many difficult subjects (See 'T Is for Tragedy'), the show hit a speed bump when it came to divorce. In 1992, an episode in which Mr. Snufflupagus' parents got a divorce was shown to young test audiences, who became upset and confused. The episode never made it to air. Since then, Sesame Street has alluded to divorce in a song called 'The Bird Family,' in which a bird's parents live in different trees; it was also sung by Abby Cadabby in the show's educational outreach video Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce.

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E Is for Elmo

Arguably the show's most popular character, the furry red monster known as Elmo was originally intended to be only a background character. But once he became a regular presence in 1984, the lovable little guy who spreads love and always refers to himself in the third person grew and grew in popularity. He became a regular on such talk shows as The Rosie O'Donnell Show, and who can forget the Tickle Me Elmo doll, the must-have gift of the 1996 Christmas season? In 1998, Elmo began starring in his own daily segment, 'Elmo's World,' which was later replaced with'Elmo: The Musical.' Despite some behind-the-scenes legal issues that led to the resignation of Elmo's primary puppeteer, Kevin Clash, the character lives on. 'Elmo is bigger than any one person and will continue to be an integral part of Sesame Street to engage, educate and inspire children around the world, as it has for 40 years,' Sesame Workshop said in a statement at the time.

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F Is for Foreign Countries

Since the show's debut in 1969, Sesame Street has been adapted for over 30 countries as well as broadcast and dubbed in more than 150 total countries. Next up, Iftah Ya Simsim, the Arab version, will launch in June 2015 in the Gulf Coast Countries. The show also made history when Big Bird traveled abroad to China for a 1983 special.

8 of 27 Richard Termine/PBS

G Is for Guest Stars

Every celebrity knows you're not really famous until Big Bird, Elmo and the gang invite you to come play. But it was none other than James Earl Jones who was the first famous face to visit Sesame Street in 1969, paving the way for the more than 600 celebrity guests who have appeared since. The man who would be Darth Vader made a very memorable first impression, performing a somber recitation of the alphabet that featured long pauses between the letters to allow young viewers time to guess which was next -- later dubbed by producers the 'James Earl Jones Effect.'

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H Is for Healthy Habits for Life

Even Cookie Monster has developed a love for veggies! In 2005, Sesame Street kicked off an initiative to combat childhood obesity by adding healthy tips from guests, a segment about fruits and veggies, and even a 'Healthy Foods Name Game.' More recently, First Lady Michelle Obama was joined by Elmo and Rosita to announce that Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association have joined the Partnership for a Healthier America in a two-year agreement to help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids. As of mid-2014, growers, suppliers and retailers can utilize the Sesame Street brand without a licensing fee, using characters like Big Bird, Elmo, Rosita and Abby Cadabby to help deliver messages about fresh fruits and vegetables.

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I Is for Inclusiveness

The characters of Sesame Street come in various sizes, colors and species including everything from humans to animals to monsters. As early as its second season, Sesame Street also began to incorporate a bilingual aspect, adding in a few words and phrases from Spanish, French and American Sign Language. Producers have since carried this message of diversity into their casting, adding the bilingual muppet Rosita, a deaf performer named Linda, multiple performers in wheelchairs and Jason, a performer with Down Syndrome.

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J Is for Jim Henson

After he became known for his puppeteer work on variety series like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jimmy Dean Show, the Children's Television Council asked the man behind the Muppets to work on Sesame Street's first season. Henson performed the characters of Ernie, TV host Guy Smiley and Kermit the Frog, who appeared as a TV news reporter. He also contributed a wide variety of inserts for the show's famous counting segments, as well as the original 'C is for Cookie' segment. Henson was humble about his contribution to the show, but PBS applauded him as 'the spark that ignited our fledgling broadcast service.'

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K Is for Kami

Always willing to teach children about real-world issues, the Sesame Workshop introduced Kami, the first HIV-positive muppet, in 2002. A 5-year-old monster who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, Kami made her debut on Takalani Sesame, a South African co-production of Sesame Street, in order to spread awareness of the AIDS epidemic in Africa and to help erase the stigma associated with the disease. (She also appears on Sesame Square, a Nigerian co-production.) Although Kami has made appearances in the U.S. at UNICEF events and at the United Nations' World AIDS Day, she does not regularly appear on the American version of Sesame Street. UNICEF named the character a 'Champion for Children' in 2003.

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L Is for Literacy and Numeracy

Reading Rainbow shouldn't get all the credit for educating children through television. Sesame Street has been helping improve childhood literacy and numeracy for decades, and the effect can be seen all over the globe. According to a study, Bangladeshi 4-year-olds who watch the local Sesame Street score 67 percent higher on literacy tests than those who don't watch. And the positive effects of Sesame Street are long-lasting. American children who grew up watching the series as pre-schoolers actually achieve grade point averages in high school that are 16 percent higher than their peers who didn't.

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M Is for Music

Some of the biggest names in music -- from One Direction to Ray Charles to Billy Joel to Katy Perry -- have performed on Sesame Street, often using their own tunes to create parodies for the kids watching at home. It's become a badge of honor to sing alongside Sesame characters.

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N Is for Nonpartisan

Big Bird & Co. flipped the bird, so to speak, at Barack Obama in 2012 when his campaign used Big Bird to mock Mitt Romney in an ad. The Sesame Workshop asked Obama to stop using the ad because it is a 'nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns.' (The ad, however, is still on YouTube.) Big Bird also became the star of the rivals' first presidential debate, when Romney declared that he 'loved Big Bird' while discussing PBS' funding.

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O Is for Oscar the Grouch

Everyone's favorite green garbage-can dweller (who was originally orange) was introduced in Sesame Street's first season to demonstrate racial and ethnic diversity, because his tastes and mannerisms differed from those of the other muppets. He also represented an urban character with whom inner-city kids could identify. Additional Grouches were introduced in the 1999 movie The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.

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P Is for Parodies

In recent years, Sesame Street has introduced segments inspired by more adult programming that teach kids lessons while also appealing to parents' prime-time tastes. Parodies have included Homelamb, A's Anatomy, Desperate Houseplants and Upside Downton Abbey. Even the violent bikers of Sons of Anarchy have received the Sesame Street treatment with Sons of Poetry, about a group of motorcyclists who love to rhyme.

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Q Is for Queens

Kids in the theme song sing, 'Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?' and the answer to that question has eluded the public for years. On the official Sesame Workshop website, an interactive behind-the-scenes map tells visitors: 'You get there by going to Times Square, Manhattan, or anywhere you can pick up the local R train. Then hop on the subway and head east to Queens.' So there you have it. In Queens you shall find Oscar in his can and a wife for Eddie Murphy.

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R Is for Rubber Duckie

Bert's only rival for Ernie's deepest affection is his beloved Rubber Duckie. Ernie loves the little bathtub quacker so much that he even has a song for it. Released in 1970, 'Rubber Duckie' became a huge mainstream hit, peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard charts and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Recording for Children. Fun fact: The same rubber duckie has been used in all recordings of the song because the show couldn't find another one that made the same sound as the original.

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S Is for Sesame Workshop

Formerly known as the Children's Television Workshop, Sesame Workshop is the non-profit organization formed in 1968 that created Sesame Street and several other public television programs. Documentary producer Joan Ganz Cooney and educational research funder Lloyd Morrisett founded the company, with the goal of providing educational programming for children, particularly those from low-income families. The organization operated based on pioneering research that early childhood education could help children perform better in school. The CTW changed its name to Sesame Workshop in June of 2000 to reflect its expansion beyond television and into other forms of interactive media.

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T Is for Tragedy

When original cast member Will Lee, who played shopkeeper Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, Sesame Street decided to address his death in a heartbreaking but sweet episode in which Big Bird must be told why his friend isn't around anymore. This episode was shown again to kids after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Sesame Street also found a way to address the fear brought on by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by showing Elmo dealing with evacuation from a fire, and covered the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in a five-part series of episodes in which a hurricane hits the Street, leaving Big Bird's nest in ruins.

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U Is for Urban Legends

You can't be familiar with Sesame Street without being aware of the long-standing rumor that Bert and Ernie, two of the show's most recognizable muppets, are a gay couple. Some of the evidence: They live together and share a bedroom (albeit in separate beds, Lucy and Ricky style).The idea of Bert and Ernie as a couple has become so widespread over the years than when the Supreme Court shot down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, The New Yorker depicted the muppets on the cover of that week's issue. For its part, the Sesame Workshop has repeatedly stated that Bert and Ernie are not a gay couple, that they're merely best friends. But that didn't stop whoever's behind the show's official Twitter account from posting a quote from Bert that many took to be a sly reference to his homosexuality: 'Ever notice how similar my hair is to Mr. T's? The only difference is mine is a little more mo, a little less hawk.'

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V Is for Viral Video

Sesame Street has managed to stay relevant in the age of the Internet with adult-friendly videos on YouTube and other platforms. In 2010, Cookie Monster joined Jeff Bridges on an episode of Saturday Night Live, just a month after releasing an 'audition video' to host the show that went viral and earned more than 180,000 likes on Facebook. Other popular Sesame videos include parodies of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and Homeland, not to mention skits featuring a variety of celebrity guests.

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W Is for William Wegman and His Weimaraners

Many famous filmmakers and artists like Wegman have created shorts for Sesame Street. Others include Mo Willems, who did the show's Suzie Kabloozie animations; Vince Collins, who did famous Pinball animations; and even Pixar, which created a series of Sesame Street shorts featuring Luxo Jr. It's also a little-known fact that Jim Henson did some of the early animations for the show.

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X Is for XO

In 2012, Sesame Workshop created the One Laptop Per Child campaign to distribute affordable XO-branded laptops to more than 2 million disadvantaged children in Latin America and South Africa. The computers came pre-loaded with Sesame Street content to educate and inform children through previously inaccessible technology.

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Y Is for Young Talent

When the series began in 1969, one of its original producers insisted that only nonprofessional children should be hired for the unscripted and spontaneous segments. This kept the adult actors and puppeteers on their toes, but it yielded gems like this adorable Kermit the Frog interaction. Nowadays, many child stars such as Tatyana Ali and Lindsay Lohan appear on the show long before their first breakout roles.

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Z is for Zoe

While Sesame Street has always taken steps to encourage equality -- check out this 1974 feminist anthem "Women Can Be," featuring Rita Moreno -- the show has always struggled to create lead female muppets. Rosita, the bilingual muppet, became the first major female muppet in 1991, but she never quite caught on with viewers in the same way as the male characters. She was followed two years later by Zoe, a strong-willed girl who's obsessed with ballet, has glittery hair and wears a tutu, and who is often heralded as the show's first female lead. Then, in its 37th season, Sesame Street added Abby Cadabby, a confident and curious fairy-in-training. There are those who decry the series for only featuring female characters who are traditionally feminine (obsessed with ballet, pink and fairies), but any step towards legitimizing the experiences of little girls is a step in the right direction.