Muppet Sex Rumor: Ernie and Bert Just Ducky

Just like Tom Cruise, Muppet stars Ernie and Bert have, at times, threatened to sue over persistent rumors about their sexuality, to prove that they're not gay.

With reports Thursday that Christian conservatives were issuing a gay alert warning over a children's video featuring SpongeBob, it's interesting to note how some puppet and cartoon characters have had their personal lives examined, as if they were real celebrities.

Whispers have dogged the "Sesame Street" legends. They live together. They sing silly songs. They bicker like husband and wife. One has a curious obsession with his rubber ducky.

Not that there's anything wrong with being a gay Muppet, but the Children's Television Workshop insists that it's simply untrue -- and they're not kidding.

In April 2002, "Sesame Street" threatened to take legal action against Peter Spears, the director of "Ernest and Bertram," an 8-minute spoof on hot puppet love. It ends with a distraught Ernest taking his own life.

At the Sundance Film Festival that year, "Ernest and Bertram" generated some buzz and seemed destined to play at similar film festivals. But with CTW lawyers threatening, the movie was forced back in the closet.

Rumor-Mongering and Puppet Love

Even before this incident, Ernie and Bert have been under constant attack. In 1993, TV Guide received dozens of letters railing against "Sesame Street" for condoning a homosexual relationship. Shortly after, a North Carolina preacher began a campaign on his radio show to ban them for their immorality.

In "Hollywood Urban Legends," critic Richard Roeper traces the rumors of Ernie and Bert's sexuality to "Spy" magazine founder Kurt Anderson.

"Bert and Ernie conduct themselves in the same loving, discreet way that millions of gay men, women and hand puppets do," Anderson wrote. "They do their jobs well and live a splendidly settled life together in an impeccably decorated cabinet."

Of course, some people didn't get the joke. The situation grew so unpleasant that the Children's Television Workshop had to issue this infamous 1993 press release:

"Bert and Ernie, who've been on Sesame Street for 25 years, do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans. Like all the Muppets created for Sesame Street, they were designed to help educate preschoolers. Bert and Ernie are characters who help demonstrate to children that despite their differences, they can be good friends."

Bert's Taliban Connection

Sex rumors aren't Ernie and Bert's only PR crises. Just after the Sept. 11 bombing, Osama bin Laden's supporters marched through the streets of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, waving posters of Bin Laden side-by-side with a sneering Bert -- who seemingly lost his little felt head and joined the Al Qaeda.

Burt was still a loyal American puppet. As it turns out, a Bin Laden supporter downloaded a manipulated photo posted on the Internet as a joke.

The "Bert Is Evil" Web site ties the Sesame Street legend to the great crimes of the 20th century, mocking various conspiracy theories -- showing pictures of the mysterious, uni-browed Muppet marching with Hitler, smoking dope with Charles Manson, and plotting to kill John F. Kennedy.

Site manager Brad Fitzgerald, a college student with apparently lots of time on his hands, offers reports that Bert was a founding member of the KKK. "The Klan's pointed cowl was actually patterned after Bert's head," the site claims.

Fitzgerald's site had actually been closed several months before Sept. 11, after lawyers for the Children's Television Workshop threatened to sue him. However, the twisted pictures of Bert are still floating around the Internet.

"I still think I had the right to do what I did. It was all in fun, just parody," he said. "But I'm just one guy and I can't take on a multi-million-dollar corporation."

Fitzgerald says he's not surprised that the Children's Television Workshop is after a filmmaker who wants to take on Ernie and Bert's sexuality. But he thinks the Muppet should be free to choose his own lifestyle.

"There's no doubt Bert had a role in JFK's assassination," Fitzgerald said. "But I don't think Bert did it because he's gay. He had deeper, darker motivations and the folks at Sesame Street can't keep this conspiracy covered up forever."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays.