The Not Too Late Show with Elmo is pure Sesame Street gold
This review of The Not Too Late Show with Elmo is brought to you by the letter A. As in: awesome, amusing, achievement. As in: age, anybody, even adults.
It's also brought to you by the letter A because it is a beginning, the start of something new. Though of course, there is nothing novel about Elmo himself: The perpetually three-year-old red puppet has been addressing himself in the third person on Sesame Street since the 1970s, when the show was still in the early stages of revolutionizing children's television. With the launch of HBO Max today, though, Elmo has been promoted to his own spin-off talk show that adheres closely to the tried-and-true techniques of the classic Sesame Street program — not least among them, the dedication to trying out something delightfully and refreshingly new.
The premise of The Not Too Late Show is exactly what it sounds like, so deceptively simple that you can't help but wonder why no one had thought of it before: What if there was a late-night TV show for kids? Obviously it couldn't be too late — hence the title, but also the straight-to-streaming format, which makes it customizable for bedtimes. Would such a show have a studio audience? (Yes, a mix of Muppets and people, à la Sesame Street, and clearly shot before quarantine). Would there be musical guests? (Yes, among them Kacey Musgraves, the Jonas Brothers, and Lil Nas X — all spot-on choices, give that booker a raise). How long would an episode be? (A blessed 15 minutes each). Even farther flung questions like "what might cue cards look like for a preliterate puppet host?" get answered by the show (scribbles, naturally).
For the Sesame Street team, adapting a children's show's themes to fit a more traditionally adult television format is practically old hat. The original series has been doing parodies of grown-ups' favorites since it began in 1969: Game of Thrones, Star Trek, Lost, Stranger Things (brilliantly retitled "Sharing Things"), and Law and Order (Special Letters Unit) have all been Muppetized over the years. Of course, the content is always tweaked to be kindergarten-friendly: the violent Sons of Anarchy became Sons of Poetry in a 2013 episode, for example, complete with a rhyming motorcycle gang. So too is the typically rambunctious and bawdy late-night TV genre tweaked to be suitable for its audience: Elmo even has a bedtime he has to stick to, and he doesn't seem to quite understand what being a television host entails.
One of the biggest staples of traditional late-night TV is the celebrity guest interview segments. Again, Sesame Street has no lack of experience in that department, having brought on outside stars like Ray Charles, Robin Williams, and Maya Angelou over the years. In the three episodes of The Not Too Late Show made available to critics, the talk show trends toward being a little less diverse than its original; all the interview guests are white men in the premiere episodes, while Musgraves and Lil Nas X are the only woman and person of color respectively. (The trailer teases future guests like Ciara, Hoda Kotb, and Kwame Alexander, as well as Blake Lively, John Oliver, and ... Batman). Still, the initial inclusion of Jimmy Fallon giving Elmo tips on running a talk show seems like a no-brainer, as does comedian John Mulaney, who is fresh off his own quasi-children's show on Netflix, The Sack Lunch Bunch.
Toddlers, admittedly, won't know who any of the guests are, or get why dunking on Kevin Jonas is so funny, but it's no matter — The Not Too Late Show also falls back on other Sesame Street mainstays. Cookie Monster makes an appearance as the show's announcer, Rosita is the harried stagehand, Bert and Ernie are running things in the control room to varying degrees of success, Mama Bear leads the house band, and Oscar the Grouch even has a celebrity segment called "Trash Talk," which gets axed due to a lack of time (#ReleaseTheTrashTalkCut). The production design, too, rarely succumbs to the CGI animation so common (and often so hideous) on other children's programs; these are still the puppets you know and love, strings and all.
For Sesame Street, this collectively amounts to being a tested recipe for success: a blend of elements that appeal to kids, but also to the adults who are ultimately picking what to put on. Still, even those not in the demographic of "small child" or "parent/guardian of a small child" can find much to enjoy. Reminiscing nostalgically about my adolescent love of the "Rubber Ducky" song while watching the pilot, it was with a childlike excitement that I watched Musgraves perform a twangy cover of the song later in the show. Likewise, seeing John Mulaney get semi-tortured — Elmo makes him suck on a lemon while jumping on one foot (???), then ride a tricycle for which the six-foot comedian is far too large — is practically slapstick once you start imagining what it must have been like on the set. Universally the guests seem to be having a blast, which makes it a blast to watch, too.
Audacious, adroit, acclaimed. The Not Too Late Show with Elmo, anyway, is certainly an accomplishment. Sesame Street superfans might grumble about yet another Elmo production, but the show never strays far from the elements that made the initial series so influential: the parodies, the guest spots, even the reliance on music makes it all recognizably Sesame Street fare. But Not Too Late's charmingly original concept will inevitably inspire imitators, as the classic series did all those decades ago — a late show for kids is just too much fun to pass up. So for the time being, don't.
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