Oscar the Grouch is a Muppet character on the television program ‘Sesame Street.’ He has a green body (during the first season he was orange), has no visible nose, and lives in a trash can. His favorite thing in life is trash, as evidenced by the song ‘I Love Trash.’ A running theme is his compulsive hoarding of seemingly useless items.
‘The Grouch’ aptly describes his misanthropic interaction with the other characters, but also refers to his species. The character is performed by Caroll Spinney, and has been performed by him since the show’s first episode.
Initially, the Muppet characters on Sesame Street would not actually appear on Sesame Street itself, but were relegated to the intermediary segments. Muppets creator Jim Henson wanted them to be integrated into the series, suggesting a giant bird and creature living in the neighborhood’s trash can. The character was developed by Sesame Street head writer Jon Stone and Henson, based on the personality of a ‘magnificently rude’ waiter. Based on the character outline, puppeteer Caroll Spinney was inspired by the voice of a New York City taxi driver, hailed when going to the production studio; when he first got in, the driver asked him ‘Where to, Mac?’ and spoke with Spinney about the mayor of New York at the time (Republican John Lindsay).
His name’s source is of some debate. Most sources suggest it’s derived from the name of a restaurant, Oscar’s Tavern (a dive bar in an upscale part of Philadelphia). In recent years, however, the family of Canadian folk musician Oscar Brand has suggested he was the namesake. Brand was an early board member for the show’s non-profit production company, Children’s Television Workshop. Writers would eventually add other Grouches, an entire species explored in the film ‘The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland’ and various television episodes.
Spinney’s other lead character is Big Bird, whom Oscar often describes to children as his friend during public appearances. He especially likes to prank him every morning by putting ketchup in his alarm clock. When Big Bird and Oscar are required in a scene together, Jim Martin often operates Oscar to a vocal track by Spinney so the latter can perform Big Bird. However, occasionally, Matt Vogel will instead operate the Big Bird puppet to a vocal track by Spinney, while he performs Oscar.
According to Sesame Street’s Robert W. Morrow, Oscar was created to indirectly demonstrate racial and ethnic diversity. Since his manners and tastes were different from those of the other characters, his creators hoped to address social issues by using his differences as a metaphor for racial and ethnic differences. Some viewers, however, saw Oscar as a ‘surrogate for poor, urban Americans’ during the show’s early seasons.
Oscar can also become mobile with the help of his friend Bruno the trash man, who carries Oscar around in his can. Bruno is a full-body costume which allows Oscar’s puppeteer to manipulate Oscar while remaining hidden by the Bruno costume. (While Bruno was seen fairly regularly in Sesame Street’s early days, he hasn’t appeared on the show in over a decade.) Also, as seen in the ‘Elmo’s World’ episode ‘Dance,’ Oscar’s legs can protrude from the bottom of his trash can to allow him to walk around. Similarly, in ‘Christmas Eve on Sesame Street’ (1978), Oscar is seen ice skating. For several seasons, Oscar was frequently shown with his friend and pet Slimey, an orange worm. On occasional episodes he has mentioned leaving Sesame Street to attend ‘the annual Grouch convention in Syracuse, New York.’
Oscar openly admits that he does not like anything or anybody that is nice, except young human children (the only people that he can actually act nice to without facing ridicule from his fellow Grouches) as well as older fans of the show. However, the only person he has ever liked on-camera was Maria, which he would never admit. He once inadvertently complimented a dance that his followers, The Grouchketeers, had performed for him. Oscar has shown rare acts of kindness such as trying to replace Ernie’s rubber duckie when Ernie had lost it. He and his girlfriend Grundgetta also love each other, though their relationship is (understandably) somewhat rocky (though he does show he cares for her).
According to a recent episode, Oscar hates ‘Pox News’ (a parody of Fox News) but his mother likes it. Oscar tries to keep his Canadian identity secret, but he was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, with his father having been born on Parkhurst Drive, New Brunswick, and his mother having grown up in Nova Scotia. His favorite dessert is spinach sardine chocolate fudge sundaes. His second favorite dessert is mashed bananas with ice cubes and cold beef gravy.
While appearing to be the size of a normal trash can, Oscar’s residence is actually larger inside than the exterior would suggest, notably revealed in the film ‘The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.’ Oscar has noted through the years that it boasts such amenities as a farm, swimming pool, ice-rink, bowling alley, and a piano. Oscar could occasionally be seen rotating while descending into his trash can, implying a spiral staircase. Other items include Slimey, Oscar’s pet worm; Fluffy, Oscar’s pet elephant; Oscar’s shoes; and a dimension gate to Grouchland USA, Oscar’s hometown. It also contains, most likely, boatloads of trash.
While Oscar receives new names in international dubs, ‘Sesame Street’ international co-productions have often created their own version of the character. In their second season, Germany’s ‘Sesamstrasse’ created an antagonistic character named ‘Uli von Bödefeld.’ While not a grouch, he served the same role in plots as Oscar. When a fire destroyed the costume in 1988, a decade after he debuted, he and American segments of Oscar were both replaced by a Grouch named ‘Rumpel.’ Caterpillar ‘Gustav’ is the counterpoint to Slimey. Israeli Grouch, ‘Moishe Oofnik,’ Oscar’s cousin, is the only character to survive the first ‘Rechov Sumsum,’ appearing in its current reboot, English/Hebrew series ‘Shalom Sesame,’ and Israeli-Palestinian co-production ‘Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim.’
Other Grouches include ‘Bodoque’ on Mexico’s ‘Plaza Sésamo,’ ‘Gugu’ on Brazil’s ‘Vila Sesamo,’ ‘Kirpik’ on Turkey’s ‘Susam Sokağı,’ ‘Ferrão’ on Portugal’s ‘Rua Sésamo,’ and ‘Kewal Khadoosa’ on India’s ‘Galli Galli Sim Sim.’ Filipino adaptation ‘Sesame!’ featured ‘Kiko Matsing,’ basically a gorilla. Some Grouches differ from the mostly antagonistic mold. France’s ‘1, Rue Sésame’ featured ‘Mordicus,’ who lives in a trash can, and is slightly cynical, but is also described as lively and enthusiastic, and participated in the neighborhood band. In Pakistan, he is named ‘Akhtar’ and lives in a rusty oil barrel.
Oscar appeared in the 1981 Jim Henson movie ‘The Great Muppet Caper.’ When Miss Piggy threw a truck driver (played by Peter Ustinov) into a pile of boxes and a pile of trash cans, Oscar emerged from his trash can and demanded ‘Hey, what’s all the racket?’ The driver asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’ Oscar replied, ‘A very brief cameo.’ The driver muttered, ‘Me, too.’ Oscar also appeared in the Jim Henson holiday special, ‘A Muppet Family Christmas,’ when the Sesame Street Gang comes to the Grizzly Farm House for the holidays, in the film he befriends Rizzo the Rat (whose name parodies that of the ‘Midnight Cowboy’ character ‘Ratso Rizzo’) who asks the Grouch if he could stay in his trash can for the night. Oscar agreed saying that he’d never had a rat in his trash can before.