Years ago, a reader wrote probing for details on a mystery that had vexed him: What’s the deal with the cookies that Cookie Monster eats?
The email said nothing else. I chuckled and filed the note in the cupboard of my brain where such things go. Until I realized something: Me want cookies. And me want answers.
Cookie Monster, for those of you who skipped childhood, is a classic Muppet on “Sesame Street.” He is a scraggly, blue fellow with bulging eyeballs, who has for decades been singularly obsessed with chaotically chowing down on cookies. The crumbs end up almost everywhere except his mouth, an effect that looks like a high-speed blender without a top.
The character was created in the 1960s by Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, for a General Foods Canada commercial. Cookie eventually moved to “Sesame Street,” where he presumably found a good rent-stabilized apartment.
It turns out the cookies are real — sort of.
They are baked at the home of Lara MacLean, who has been a “puppet wrangler” for the Jim Henson Company for almost three decades. MacLean started as an intern for Sesame Workshop in 1992 and has been working for the team ever since.
The recipe, roughly: Pancake mix, puffed rice, Grape-Nuts and instant coffee, with water in the mixture. The chocolate chips are made using hot glue sticks — essentially colored gobs of glue.
The cookies do not have oils, fats or sugars. Those would stain Cookie Monster. They’re edible, but barely.
“Kind of like a dog treat,” MacLean said in an interview.
Before MacLean reinvented the recipe in the 2000s, the creative team behind “Sesame Street” used versions of rice crackers and foams to make the cookies. The challenge was that the rice crackers would make more of a mess and get stuck in Cookie’s fur. And the foams didn’t look like cookies once they broke apart.
For a given episode, depending on the script, MacLean will bake, on average, two dozen cookies. There’s no oven large enough at Sesame’s New York workplace, so MacLean does almost everything at home.
This leads to the occasional awkward interaction, such as when MacLean once had to make huge batches of cookies for a series of Cookie Monster film spoofs.
“My landlord came in my apartment at that time and I had all these cookies around and I was like, ‘I’m really sorry, I can’t offer you a cookie.’ And he probably just thought I was really mean,” she said.
On set, when Cookie is shooting, MacLean said the “best-case scenario” was for the crumbs to end up all over the place.
Sal Perez, the executive producer of “Sesame Street,” said, “You’ve got to be careful for the shrapnel that comes out when he’s munching on the cookie.”
Cookie has been portrayed since 2001 by David Rudman, who took over the role from Frank Oz. Rudman’s right hand moves the mouth, which is eating, and his left hand holds the cookies. Both work in concert to break the cookies, which means the cookies have to be soft enough to fall apart.
Jason Weber, the workshop’s creative supervisor, recalled Rudman complaining about a tough batch: “My hands are so sore. Don’t make them like this ever again.”
Rudman said soft cookies are best, adding, “The more crumbs, the funnier it is.”
“If he eats the cookie, and it only breaks into two pieces if it’s too hard, it’s just not funny,” he said. “It looks almost painful. But if he eats a cookie and it explodes into a hundred crumbs, that’s where the comedy comes from.”
MacLean has perfected a recipe that is “thin enough that it’ll explode into a hundred crumbs,” Rudman said. “But it’s not too thin that it’ll break in my hand when I’m holding it.”
Sometimes shoots don’t go as planned. Cookie appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in 2010 when Jeff Bridges was hosting. During the opening monologue, Bridges sang a duet with Cookie. The cookie that Bridges was supposed to offer Cookie broke in Bridges’s pocket, so when he took it out, he only had half the cookie. So Bridges pulled out the other piece and improvised.
“Not only a half, but a whole cookie!” Bridges said.
Rudman responded as a delighted Cookie: “Twice as good!”
Cookie doesn’t just eat the cookies. He eats the plate they are on and has recently expanded the menu to include fruits and vegetables. Occasionally he devours inanimate objects like mailboxes. There is a small gullet in his mouth, so Cookie can actually eat something the size of a small fist. Bananas, apples and small hats go down easy, but most of the cookie crumbs end up outside his mouth.
Not everyone realizes that the cookies aren’t meant to be eaten. Adam Sandler appeared on a 2009 episode of “Sesame Street” and decided to share in Cookie’s delight by spontaneously eating a cookie with him on set.
“As soon as the cameras cut, he was like, ‘Bleeeech,’” MacLean said.
Rudman said he told Sandler not to eat the cookies: “I think he got caught up in the moment.”
It’s hard not to. The 54th season of “Sesame Street” just premiered on Max. Cookie is almost 60, but the core of his character endures.
“He has sort of this base instinct that I think all of us have, even the youngest of us have,” Perez said. “One of our first instincts is like: ‘We see a cookie. We see a thing that we love and we just want it.’”