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Sal Perez, the show's new executive producer, says Jackson's presence is as much for the children watching as it is for their parents, who know the iconic actor from Pulp Fiction, Snakes on a Plane and the many more popular movies he's made over the years.
"We look for people that are gonna connect with our kid audience, you know," Perez tells Yahoo Entertainment. "Because obviously a lot of kids aren't gonna necessarily know who Samuel L. Jackson is, but, as soon as they see him on screen, they're gonna totally connect with him. And the caregiver that might be watching with them is gonna love watching Samuel L. Jackson in that sort of environment."
Jackson will be featured on the Dec. 9 episode of the TV staple. Celebrities appearing earlier this season will include country music singer Mickey Guyton; comedian and TV host Amber Ruffin; Atlanta actress Zazie Beetz; and the first lady, Jill Biden. After Jackson, Ted Lasso actor Brett Goldstein, sister rockers Haim and Ava DuVernay join Big Bird and the gang.
Besides the connection factor, the show makers look for people whose values are aligned with the famed children's show; people who are either "very iconic" or rising stars who would be "really exciting" for viewers.
Perez, who's Mexican American and grew up watching Sesame Street and its Latin American edition, Plaza Sésamo, now watches episodes with his 3-year-old daughter. He had been with one of the two productions for 14 years, before he took on his current role in January.
His favorite character is Grover, "because he's so sure of himself." At the moment, his daughter is enamored with Abby, though she really loved seeing a new episode early — the perks of having a dad who works on Sesame Street — in which bilingual character Rosita wants to be a superhero and not known solely as the Muppet who speaks Spanish. Perez's daughter is also growing up bilingual, so she really connected with the story.
Behind the scenes this year, the show has created a new role, an advocate for diversity and inclusion, that's being filled by Bryce-Loren Walker. Perez thinks it's been so successful that shows industry-wide should follow suit.
"We have an especially diverse group of puppeteers and of cast and crew, etc., and we wanted to create a role that could be a conduit to some difficult conversations that could happen on set. Or, you know, somebody that might want to be able to, if we're showing a story about an Asian American character, something that gets written and a performer has notes and comments, something like that, that they would want to raise to the group," Perez says. "Sometimes it can be daunting to raise that to the full producing team and, you know, executives and things like that. So we wanted to create a role that would be a conduit on set and for our talent and for our crews, to be able to have that go-between of communication, to kinda understand perspectives that our talent was having or our writers were having or our crew were having on all the different stories that we were telling. We wanted to be as authentic as possible within our stories."
What will stay exactly the same is Sesame's good energy, even though not all viewers are on the same page these days.
"Self-identity and belonging is such an important theme for all kids in the country, and I think something that all families would be able to get behind," Perez says. "So that's how we look at it. We're not necessarily there to say one thing or another. We're just trying to, as much as anything, be there for our child audience and [thinking], will it be relevant? And entertaining for them, but also, like, what's something that they're gonna learn out of the content that they see from us?"
Those are questions the show has tackled, to much acclaim — and the awards to prove it — since 1969. Perez is well aware of that legacy.
"I think, to a degree, you kinda have to set that aside, or else it would all be too scary and daunting to do anything," he says. "The show keeps evolving."
The new season of Sesame Street premieres Thursday, Nov. 3 on HBO Max.