April 9, 2002 -- -- Just like Tom Cruise, Muppet stars Ernie and Bert are threatening to sue to prove that they're not gay.
Rumors have long dogged those two felt legends. They're roommates. They tend to sing a lot of silly songs. One of them has a curious obsession with his rubber ducky. But all that doesn't mean anything. Not that there's anything wrong with being a gay Muppet, but the Children's Television Workshop has threatened to take legal action against Peter Spears, the director of Ernest and Bertram, a documentary spoof of two male puppets who become heated lovers. The 8-minute movie ends with a distraught Ernie shooting himself in the head. At Sundance several weeks ago, Ernest and Bertram generated some buzz and seemed destined to play at similar film festivals. But with lawyers threatening, Spears says that's in serious jeopardy. Rumor-Mongering on Sesame Street
Hoping to negotiate one more showing of the film, Spears hesitated to be interviewed and lawyers for Ernie and Bert would do no more than acknowledge that they've targeted Spears.
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, who once joked that "Bert and Ernie conduct themselves in the same loving, discreet way that millions of gay men, women and hand puppets do. They do their jobs well and live a splendidly settled life together in an impeccably decorated cabinet." The situation grew so unpleasant that the Children's Television Workshop had to issue this 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
The Muppet duo have other image problems. Just last year, only weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, anti-American demonstrators in Bangladesh brandished a poster of Osama bin Laden with a sneering Bert — who had seemingly lost his conical little mind and joined the Taliban. Images of Bert and Osama side by side flashed across TV, Internet all across the world.
How did the protesters get their hands on such a vile image? They downloaded it from the Internet, of course. It was doctored photo, created by Brad Fitzgerald, for "Bert Is Evil" — a now-defunct Web humor site that linked Bert as the sinister force behind every dark moment of the 20th century. At the JFK assassination, Bert is shown standing near the president's motorcade just before the shooting. The Muppet is also pictured marching with Hitler, smoking dope at Woodstock, and making passionate love to Pamela Anderson. Fitzgerald claimed that Bert and Lee Harvey Oswald plotted JFK's demise after they met in North Korea. As for Bert's involvement in the KKK, Fitzgerald reported that Bert was a founding member. "The Klan's pointed cowl was actually patterned after Bert's head," according to the Web site. The site also pictured Bert with Osama, tying the Muppet to various acts of terrorism. A Bangladeshi poster shop didn't realize the image was a joke when they printed up 2,000 posters for Anti-American protesters.
'It's OK to Be a Gay Muppet'
Fitzgerald's site had actually been closed several months before the protests, after lawyers for the Children's Television Workshop threatened to sue him. However, Bertisevil.com was so popular that images had been 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, so I stopped." 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 ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.