Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.

I still remember when I visited New York City my sophomore year of high school and kept thinking, Man, this place looks like Sesame Street.

Of course, there was a reason for that. I was a suburban kid from Nebraska, and Sesame Street wasn’t really intended for kids like me—at least when it was created in the 1960s—despite the fact that I’d grown up watching it. The show’s sets looked like New York City because it was designed for inner city kids who had busy or absent parents and few early educational opportunities—it was a free hour of preschool for kids who couldn’t afford the real thing. 

Unfortunately, such quixotic intent rarely pays the bills, which is how the show became the hottest toy for upper-middle-class kids in the Christmas season of 1996.

I’m talking, of course, about the venerable Tickle Me Elmo, which began life as the brainchild of freelance toy designer Ron Dubren. Dubren saw some kids tickling each other in a New York City park in the early nineties and thought, I wonder if there might be a toy idea in there. Fortunately for him, this was back when a grown man could sit in a park watching kids tickle each other without getting arrested, and so he set to work. 

Dubren’s original idea was to create a toy that would tickle the user; this strongly suggests that he probably should have been arrested, but fortunately, early-nineties tech wasn’t up to the task of creating such a Lovecraftian horror. Instead, Dubren collaborated with Florida inventor Greg Hyman to create a prototype called Tickles the Chimp, a stuffed ape that would laugh when you poked him in the ribs. Sound chip technology was still prohibitively expensive at the time, so Tickles had to be wired to a computer to function, but they figured people would get it. The first dozen or so toy companies turned them down, but Tyco’s inventor liaison took one look at Tickles and said, “Hey, this would be great as an Elmo”—which would have been perfect if Tyco had had the rights to make Sesame Street plushes at the time.

They didn’t, so instead they slapped together a prototype for a Tickle Me Taz. (Remember “Taz”? The Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes? There was a brief window of time in the nineties when Warner Bros. started calling him “Taz” and that somehow convinced everyone he was cool. It was…a different time.) Sadly, no one was interested in tickling Taz, not least of all because his baffling anatomy made no sense as a target for tickles. But before Tickle Me Taz could be dumped on the market and immediately forgotten, Tyco managed to land the Sesame Street license and put together the Elmo toy they’d all been itching to poke and prod.

It was obviously a touch ironic that Sesame Street, as a show created for poor inner-city kids, was inspiring such rabid suburban consumerism…

It wasn’t until the final stages of development that Tickle Me Elmo received a motor that made him shake along with his laughs, which proved to be the missing ingredient (as Dubren put it, “The vibration is what makes people start laughing along with it”). The Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) was skeptical, thinking people would assume Elmo was having a seizure, which really makes you wonder what sort of dark things are going on in the minds of the people we trust to make TV shows for children, but their concerns proved to be unfounded: everyone who encountered the giggling, shaking Elmo proved instantly smitten. Tyco sent a few of them out to TV hosts, and soon found them—even self-serious types like Today Show host Bryant Gumbel—giggling right along with it. The real breakthrough, though, was sending some to Rosie O’Donnell (remember Rosie O’Donnell? she was relevant for about five minutes in the nineties?)—after she mentioned the toy and gave some away to her audience members, Tyco’s sales projections suddenly soared from 100,000 to a million.

Unfortunately, there’s not always a way to meet that kind of demand, especially with a hard deadline of Christmas Day looming on the horizon. The factories in China could up production on the plush pieces, but vibrating sound chips were still difficult to crank out in the mid-nineties. Tyco chartered flights to deliver them to the United States faster, but because the nineties were a very stupid time with no real problems, people just couldn’t wait to tickle them some Elmos.

So yeah, that was when all hell broke loose.

In New York, people mobbed delivery trucks; in New Brunswick, a Walmart employee suffered a concussion, a broken rib, and several other injuries after making the mistake of standing between a crowd and their Elmos. Arrests over Elmo fights were common. Conspiracy theorists (because there are always conspiracy theorists) insisted Tyco actually had warehouses full of the things and were keeping them hidden to inflate demand and generate publicity (which makes no sense, since it’s pretty hard to make money by not selling things), and began peppering Tyco offices with bomb threats, which was definitely a totally reasonable thing to do.

It was obviously a touch ironic that Sesame Street, as a show created for poor inner-city kids, was inspiring such rabid suburban consumerism, but at the time, it was actually exactly what Sesame Street needed: some free publicity and a new source of revenue. By the mid-nineties, public broadcasting had already suffered deep budget cuts, and that—along with competition from lower-budget (and far more nightmare-inducing) productions like Barney and Friendshad put the future of Sesame Street severely in question. The Children’s Television Workshop needed some cash and attention fast, and they got it—but only at the cost of becoming the poster child for soccer moms beating the snot out of each other.

The gentrification of Sesame Street would only continue, of course—arguably culminating four years ago when the first-run rights to the series were sold to HBO. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that big a deal, but it’s emblematic of the larger pattern in this country of the poorest having even what little they have taken from them and given to people who don’t particularly need it. The enriching of the top at the expense of the people at the bottom isn’t the only reason the United States is descending into chaos right now, but it’s clearly a factor in the equation. And if you’re mad at me for “getting political,” maybe consider that King Solomon himself had some pretty harsh words for this sort of thing:

Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth,
or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty. (Proverbs 22:16)

What’s happening around us has been gestating for a while, and its seeds were immortalized in that giggling red toy that your mom punched an old lady to get. 

Which I’m guessing is in a landfill right now.