With sound, image, and word, Chris Cerf teaches the basics.
Christopher Cerf ’63 had laughter in his blood even before he was born: New Yorker founder Harold Ross introduced his parents and comically brandished a shotgun at their wedding. Those parents would be Phyllis Fraser, a onetime Hollywood actress and later book editor, and Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House publishers, author, columnist, and TV panelist on What’s My Line?
Like his father, the jovial Cerf is a creator in several media. “I’ve found that the most interesting way to go, too,” he says. “To build on what you learn in one place and use it somewhere else.” His professional career also began in his father’s footsteps. For eight years after college, Cerf was an editor at Random House (“Don’t know how I got the job…,” he marvels), working with authors ranging from Abbie Hoffman to Theodor Seuss Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”). He was also involved with the publisher’s Beginner Books imprint (started by Seuss and his wife, Helen, along with Phyllis Cerf), which published easier-to-read Seuss titles.
Then he branched out, applying his facility at writing parodies (honed as an undergraduate on the staff of the Harvard Lampoon, where he and Michael Frith ’63 co-wrote the James Bond parody book Alligator) at the National Lampoon, which Cerf joined in 1970 as a contributing editor from its first issue (see “Funniest Pages,” November-December 2010, page 27). That same year, he signed on with a fledgling children’s television program, Sesame Street—his Beginner Books experience came in handy—and to date has composed more than 200 songs for it. “If you write four or five songs a year and the show lasts 40 years, you have a huge body of work!” he explains. That body of work has earned him three Grammys and eight Emmys, for both songwriting and producing.
Cerf’s songs include parodies of pop hits, including Beatles classics like “Let It Be” (“Letter B”) and “Hey Jude” (“Hey Food,” sung by the Cookie Monster). As “Bruce Stringbean,” Cerf belted out a send-up of The Boss’s “Born in the U.S.A.” that featured various farm animals making sundry sounds while getting along famously, a lesson in diversity called “Barn in the USA.” Sesame Street puppet-meister Jim Henson even created a stuffed character based on Cerf: the piano-banging lead singer of “Little Chrissy and the Alphabeats.” (Cerf’s rock-piano style, which owes much to Jerry Lee Lewis, is energetic enough to fracture a keyboard occasionally.)
For some years Cerf headed Sesame Street’s “non-broadcast division,” which spun off educational products like books and records from the show. “Sesame uses all the media, just like we did on both Lampoons,” he explains. (He and National Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard ’67 have collaborated on several humorous books, including The Experts Speak.) His versatility embraces a 1987 collaboration with actress/producer Marlo Thomas on Free to Be…A Family (the book/record/TV special sequel to Free to Be…You and Me) and Not the New York Times, a parody of the Grey Lady published during the 1978 strike that closed down the newspaper. Co-conspirators on the latter, among his “most enjoyable adventures,” included George Plimpton ’48, editor/writer Rusty Unger, and writer/satirist Tony Hendra. The group discovered that the Toledo Blade used the same typefaces as the Times and was willing to print the parody, and the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein agreed to write the lead story. “He had the voice down to a T,” Cerf says. “We wrote the paper just like the New York Times, only more so. The Times’s own writers were all available—they were out on strike! Nora Ephron was involved, and Frances FitzGerald [’62] did a book review. Nobody slept for four weeks; it was one of the highlights of my professional life. Our big terror was that the strike would end and the real Times would start publishing again before we went to press. Luckily it didn’t, and we sold millions of them.”
In recent years Cerf has been rolling out his own educational programs under the auspices of Sirius Thinking Ltd., the media company he launched with three partners, including Michael Frith, in 1995. Between the Lions, co-produced with WGBH-TV in Boston, a children’s literacy initiative that includes a daily television show, a website, and print and multimedia components, premiered on PBS in 2000. It stars a pair of lions who live in and run an enchanted library. Cerf co-produces and writes songs for the show, which has won six Emmys. “Sesame Street targets preschoolers, three- to five-year-olds, and early fives,” Cerf says. “Lions’ sweet spot is pre-kindergarten to first grade: four- to seven-year-olds.”
Lomax: The Hound of Music, another Sirius project, launched in 2008. It follows Lomax, a good-natured dog hooked on melodies, around the country with his human and feline companions, Amy and Delta, as they scout out folk songs and teach viewers about musicality and America’s musical heritage. The pedagogy draws on the ideas of twentieth-century Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, who advocated “using folk music to teach music,” Cerf explains. “Folk songs are a great way to teach young children—they’ve got lots of repetition, and call-and-response.”
The dog star’s namesake is, of course, Alan Lomax ’34, who unearthed and recorded much of America’s folk music, and “‘Hound of Music’ is about as bad a pun as you can do, so we just had to use it,” Cerf notes. He and his Sirius colleague Norman Stiles visited Anna Lomax, the musicologist’s daughter, to ask permission to use the family name. As they explained the show’s concept of a roaming puppet dog obsessed with tunes, “She just sat there looking blankly at us, and we thought we were in more and more trouble the more we said,” Cerf recalls. “Then she said, ‘You guys are crazy—you’re nuts! But I love it!’”
Lomax doesn’t do “kiddie music.” “We got the best bluegrass and folk musicians we could possibly find,” Cerf explains—people like two-time Grammy-winning guitarist Larry Campbell. The program has aired on about half the PBS stations in the country, but depended on a one-time grant from the Bingham Trust and, Cerf says, “in this environment, it’s kind of hard to find millions of dollars to keep making new episodes.” Should those millions turn up, we’ll not have heard the last of Lomax, but if not, it’s safe to say that Chris Cerf will find something else—or 10 other things—to do.