"Good afternoon. Me Alistair Cookie." Cookie offer small muppet lady one carefully-groomed paw. "That screen name. Usually me just go by Cookie."
Small muppet lady have surprisingly firm handshake. "Sooooo pleased to meet you, Cookie--please, call me Verity." Verity is HBO executive. Privately, Cookie suspect she HBO intern until very recently. Privately, Cookie wonder if HBO even have any monster interns to promote, or if all their muppet hires like Verity, with low-nap felt skin in bubblegum pink that not even try for ethnic ambiguity.
On other hand, she and Prairie Dawn only women in room. Cookie deeply aware this highly problematic. Muppet creative world still very much old boys' club.
Which remind him to introduce Grover. Today Grover wearing propeller beanie and playing paddleball. "This me coproducer."
Grover bow deeply over Verity's hand; she come away from handshake with paddleball racquet. "I am so very pleased to meet you, Miss Verity. I am your furry friend Grover. Welcome! To Monsterpiece Theater. Oh no, keep it, I insist. Really."
Verity manage to keep hold of paddleball set while Cookie introduce Herry (in capacity as Monsters' Equity representative), Don Music, and the Monsterpiece stable of regular freelance writers. It short notice, but they have brought in Prairie Dawn, the Count, and Biff and Sully. "They all very excited to pitch to you, Miss Verity."
There more handshakes, some bows from muppets with poor hand coordination, deep bow with cape flourish from the Count. Cookie can see moment when Verity realize no one in room is human. She say nothing, but she stop craning her neck, address next words to muppet eye level. It remind him a little of old times, when calling selves all muppets together still warm and fuzzy in good way.
"Sooooo. Before we get started, I want to say just a little bit about why I'm here. As you all know, HBO has signed a deal with Sesame Street Productions, for our subscribers to get a first, exclusive look at your programming before it goes to the PBS affiliates. Wait a minute, you do all know that--why did I just say it?"
"It educational exposition," Cookie say. "It what we do here instead of small talk."
"Wow, that's weird. Okay. Soooo, we would like to offer some exclusive seasonal programming for the holidays."
There awkward silence. What HBO really want is sequel to Kermit the Frog’s Christmas Carol, but Kermit have extensive non-compete clause in Disney contract. Everybody know that, too, and everybody have seen anonymous YouTube recut of Kermit's "Froggy Went a-Courting." It all about what happen when Frog in bed with Mouse. That bit of exposition likely to come out Not Safe For Street.
"Specifically," Verity say, "we are looking for the next big Christmas ghost story."
"Oh! Oh! Miss Verity," Grover stage-whisper. It only kind of whisper he know how to do. "I do not know if you are aware of this, but ghost stories are for Halloween. Yes, that is right. Ghosts are for Halloween, and... um. I forget what is for Christmas."
"Grover! How you forget? Christmas is for COOKIES! Yes! It for gingerbread cookie, and sugar cookie, and sugar cookie with icing, and sugar cookie with sprinkles, and sugar cookie with icing and sprinkles, and spritz, and pfeffernüsse, and--"
"Cookie Monster!" Prairie Dawn turn mouth down at corners. "There's more to Christmas than cookies."
"That true," Cookie allow. "There also candy canes, and popcorn balls, and divinity--"
"Sometimes there's still some Hanukkah gelt left!" Don Music pipe up.
"Sully's mom makes fruitcake, don't she, Sully?"
"CAN WE PLEASE GET BACK TO BUSINESS!" Everyone turn to look at Verity. There bite missing from paddleball racquet. Cookie idly wonder if it any good, but he trying to cut down on balsa intake. "Thank you." Verity clear her throat and go on. "Soooo, since ghost stories for Christmas are a British tradition--no, really--one that the BBC has had some success with; and since your program is the source of so much great British drama--"
"Verity." Cookie hold up hand. "Me feel me need to correct misapprehension. Monsterpiece Theater not just for remakes of British programs. We produce much homegrown American content also. Little House on Prairie--" Prairie Dawn clear throat threateningly; she still not live down that role--"The Sun Also Rises, Fiddler on the Roof...” They all good shows, but truthfully Cookie proudest of early UK coproductions. Me, Claudius first time on television monsters do period drama in monster dialect. No one outside monster community notice, but it big deal.
"Of course, of course. We're interested in whatever you have to offer, not just British drama."
The Count adjust monocle. "I am very pleased to hear that, Miss Verity. I confess, I have a distinctly American script in vhich I had hoped to interest you." He chuckles. "I have prepared some handouts, if you're ready to hear pitches?"
"Pitch away, Mr. Von Count." The Count wince a bit, but he take it in stride. "Heh heh heh. It is true, I gave up my title vhen I became a citizen. I don't know if you can tell, since I've lost so much of my accent, but I am actually an immigrant to this country."
"Wow, I had no idea."
"I am; and this first script is my interpretation of a story about the immigrant experience, vun that spoke to me deeply. Here is vun handout, two handouts, three handouts..." He start at other end of table so he can give pages to Verity as thunder hit. For all his ego, the Count is good showman. As writer, this Count's biggest flaw--he always give biggest part to himself. Cookie page through start of script to big finish:
HAMILTON: Forty-five Federalist Papers, forty-six Federalist Papers, forty-seven Federalist Papers. (Now writing so quickly that steam is pouring from his quill.) Forty-eight Federalist Papers, forty-nine Federalist Papers, fifty Federalist Papers. FIFTY-ONE. FIFTY-ONE WONDERFUL FEDERALIST PAPERS, ah-hah-hah-hah.
(SF/X: Thunder, lightening)
How do you count things that pile up to the sky?
Count while the tens and the hundreds zoom on by?
How do you count when the numbers get so high, when the numbers get so high, when the numbers get so high?
Don Music tap on table and murmur lyrics; Sully nod along. But Herry frowning. "Count. You know the numbers above forty are outside our remit." Cookie glad Herry say it so he not have to.
"According to a contract ve negotiated when Sqvare Vun vas still on the air!"
"That doesn't give us license to start teaching New Math! If you introduce kids to the hundreds place, the next thing you know, they're asking their parents about decimals!"
"And you vould rather they learned it on the street? Oh, I forgot--ve are the Street! Ve have vun, vun unique educational mission--"
Cookie take advantage of thunderclap to interrupt before either of them can mention Common Core. "Please! Monsters and gentlemen. And ladies. Perhaps we should move on to next pitch."
Verity nods. "It's a great script, Mr. Von Count, but I think we did want something with a little more spooky content. That's actually coming from Sesame as well as my bosses--with the nine-month delay between when we get the content and when PBS gets it, if we can premiere a Christmas ghost story, it's topical again for Halloween. Sooooo, unless you have something a little more spooky...?"
In old days, Cookie think, just having monsters on television was spooky. Monsters doing classy drama was transgressive. Transgressive mean it a thing that people not expect you to do, and they think you strange when you do it. It special kind of surprise.
"Hmm." The Count rummage through notebook. "Vun Hundred Years of Solitude? Fahrenheit 451? Tventy Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? Fifty Shades of Gray?"
Herry cock head. "Well, I'm not sure about that last one..."
"One these things not like others," Cookie agree. "So.... Prairie. What you have for us today?" Cookie know he can count on Prairie Dawn to change subject. Prairie always prepared.
"Thank you, Cookie Monster. I have two proposals today, both for stories based on the works of the great Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. What I'm handing out now are my treatments for North and South and Wives and Daughters. North and South is the better-known work, of course." She saying more about book; Cookie tune it out when he open script:
(Exterior: railway platform. In the background is a winter cityscape, with black smokestacks and dark clouds of smoke against a gray-white sky. Snow is falling. A large map covers the wall of the ticket office.
MARGARET HALE: Oh, why did I ever come to the North? (She indicates North on the map. North is toward the top of the map.) I'm going back to my home in the South. (She indicates South. South is toward the bottom of the map.) It was warm in the South, so much warmer than here in the North!
MR. THORNTON: We Northerners like it well enough here in the North. (He indicates North on the map.) We don't appreciate people from the South coming and telling us how to run our business.
(SF/X: Train whistle, wind)
It good story--two star-crossed lovers, strong conflict, lots of geography. He like role of John Thornton very much. It been long time since he took lead role on this show--he been saving his time for own projects with Crumby Pictures, but maybe he need to get back to roots.
"Prairie. What your thoughts on casting?"
"Well. Margaret I sort of wrote for myself. Thornton just needs to be very severe, almost gruff." Cookie wait for it. "Oh! In fact it might be an excellent part for Herry! Or," she add, seeing Cookie's face, "another monster type."
"Oh, I'd love the part!" Herry oblivious.
"I mean," Verity agrees, "HBO is very committed to fiber-blind casting. We just want to find the right muppet for the role, you know?"
Cookie not roll eyes at that, not even a little bit, just glance with slight circular motion in Grover's direction. Grover playing paddleball and not listening. But Prairie sit up primly and frown. It not very helpful, but Cookie still moderately gratified.
"Moving on to Wives and Daughters," Prairie say, but Verity cut her off.
"Prairie--I love that name, it's so unique!--Prairie, I love these, I really do. They're so educational! You've got directions, you've got names for family relationships, you've got some great stuff--but I don't see any ghosts. What have you got here that's scary?"
"Well. There's patriarchy," Prairie begin. "Class stratification. Ignorance, religious discrimination, and dire poverty. I don't know what we can show on a children's show that's any scarier than that."
"Oh, I know a thing that's scarier." Biff, at end of table, have been nearly silent as Sully all afternoon. "Sully and me--well, mostly Sully--have been working on a treatment of the ghost stories of M. R. James. And they. Are. Spooky." He settle back in chair, hoist feet onto table; Sully pass out copies of script. "This one is called Number 13. We kinda had the Count in mind when we wrote it. It's about this guy who goes to stay in a hotel that has no Room 13. Our guy's in Room 12. His buddy's next door in Room 14. And then one night, they both hear singing-- Don, you're gonna have a blast scoring this--creepy, crazy singing--coming from next door."
Cookie flip through pages. It not bad story; good vehicle for the Count, not that he need the opportunity.
JENSEN: But, if you weren't singing, and I wasn't singing, then where was the singing coming from? At the end of the hall there are only our two rooms, Room 12 and Room 14.
ANDERSON: But, wait a moment. Room 12 is next to Room 14. But I feel like there should be something between them, no? Something we are both forgetting, between twelve and fourteen.
JENSEN: I know! Let's count the rooms!
(They enter the hallway and begin to count.)
Cookie think he can guess what come next. He skip ahead. The counting very atmospheric. Sully have good appreciation for Count's range as performer.
ANDERSON: Room 11. Room 12. Room 13!
JENSEN: We were right! There is something between 12 and 14.
ANDERSON: And someone inside that room is singing. Someone scary!
(They look at each other for courage. ANDERSON takes a deep breath and, with a great effort of will, knocks on the door. The singing stops.
SF/X: Footsteps from inside the room. They come closer, ringing heavily on the floor. A floorboard creaks. The footsteps stop. Slowly, with a great groaning of ancient hinges and a puff of white dust, the door begins to open. ANDERSON and JENSEN cling to each other in fright. When the dust clears, there in the doorway stands a MONSTER! The MONSTER wears a bathrobe and shower cap and carries a towel.)
MONSTER: Oh goodness, you startled me! I was taking a bath, and you knocked so loudly. What is the matter?
Down table, Grover listening to Biff read, but he looking at bouncing paddleball like it whole box of Thin Mints.
"Biff." Cookie interrupt reading. "It a good start, but you lost me at climax. Take it back to workshop."
"Biff, keep reading," Verity say. Ball go thwack on paddle. "I'm interested. I think my network is. This is exactly the sort of thing Monsterpiece Theater is known for."
"It exactly sort of thing we known for thirty years ago. Me refuse--” Verity look up at that, because Cookie still have script approval, but they all know Verity hold purse strings. Cookie say it again for good measure. “Me refuse to do one more story where it shocking twist ending that monster not eat people."
Verity silent. So everyone else. She turn to Grover. "It's a great part for you. Don’t you think"
Grover shrug. "I have been thinking I need to stretch myself more, to build up my artistic range." He grab ankle and hoist it into air to demonstrate. "My uncle Gunther has great artistic range. He can tie himself into knots."
Verity slam paddleball down onto table. Elastic snap; ball go bouncing away. "Well, that's great for you, but the network doesn't give a hoot about your artistic range. We want a story, and that's what I'm here for." She smile very sweetly at Cookie. “Soooooo. What else have you got for us, Cookie Monster?”
That the problem. Cookie look all around table at other writers. “Tvelfth Night,” the Count suggest. “Tvelve is less than forty. Though there is a problem vith that.”
“Well, let’s see the script!” Herry say.
“That’s the problem; I haven’t written it yet.”
“Sully’s working on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s gonna be real special, ain’t it, Sully?” Sully shake head. “Aw, come on, I bet if you showed it to everyone, they could help you get over your writer’s block.” Sully cross arms. “Well. Next season, Sully’s gonna have a great script for you.”
“Next season, we don’t even know if this program will be on the air,” Verity say.
Don Music drop head to table. "I knew it! We'll never find a script, never, never, never--"
"Vell, I like Number 13," The Count offer. "Especially the part vith counting the doors, it reminds me of a sketch I did vith Miss Susan Sarandon. And I am not so concerned vith stretching my artistic range as to turn down a good role. I'd be happy to vork on it." He look at Grover. “I try to be a team player.”
“Count,” Prairie Dawn say, “that’s not fair to Grover. I think--I don’t want to speak for Grover and Cookie Monster, but I think their objections are more political than personal.” Everyone, even Herry, suddenly looking at her. “About… issues of representation.”
“Political!” Biff throw hands in air. “What’s political about our script? We didn’t say anything against monsters--Cookie, you know we wouldn’t do that. Our monster’s a good guy. He ain’t even really scary after all.”
Sully suddenly clutch forehead. He lean over and whisper in Biff’s ear. Biff’s eyebrows go up. “Aw, Sully-- do you mean that, by having the other characters expect a monster to be all scary, we could be normalizing that expectation and reinforcing implicit bias against monsters?”
“Me no want to be one to say it,” Cookie say.
“Aw, gee, I’m sorry. We didn’t mean it. We’ll do better next time, won’t we, Sully?”
“Soooo, I don’t know if you’ve all noticed, but THIS MEETING IS NOT ABOUT NEXT TIME! This meeting,” Verity wail, “is about what we’re going to do now! It is about making a good show, in time for Christmas, so that we can all keep our jobs!” Everyone else get very quiet. “Please. Any ideas?”
Don Music clears throat. “I know that Monsterpiece Theater doesn’t usually hire--” he visibly elide word human-- “guest stars.” This true. The last time was for Elmo and Mel Gibson's Hamlet; today show could not afford one or risk controversy of hiring other. Actually that true both ways. "But I do know some Broadway performers who might be interested."
“Oh--do you know Lea Salonga?" Herry say. "Could you get me her autograph?"
Guest stars wrong approach, Cookie think. If he be honest, felt-faces wrong approach. In old days, this show just him and Grover and whoever they else they could get. Two monsters, writing for monsters. That was important. Important mean that it matter; that other monsters counting on them.
“I don’t think that’s in budget,” Verity say. “Look, if the problem with Number 13 is that it’s a stereotypical role for a monster, maybe we can do some nontraditional casting? Soooooo, like, make the Count’s friend the monster and have the spooky singing be coming from, like, a bird? Or a sheep, or a pig or something?”
Nontraditional casting; it step in right direction, but not in way Verity mean it, taking away part from monster. There should be more parts for monsters--new parts. Make everyone monster. Make. Monster. Wait. “Count. What you say a moment ago about Biff and Sully’s script?”
“Ah, it vas good?”
“Ah, doors? Counting? Susan Sarandon!”
“YES! That it!”
“I thought we just agreed no guest stars,” Prairie Dawn say.
“No. Not actress. Her part. Grover. How you like play Janet? Ingenue role with big surprise. There singing, there dancing--”
“I like it already!”
“Herry. How you like be big and strong and wear tiny gold shorts?”
“Well, gee, that’s not much of a stretch--”
“And also sing and dance?”
“I’d love to!”
“Verity. Idea for you. This best idea all day: The Rocky Horror Monster Show. It have dark castle, it have mad scientist-- it even have horror right in title.”
“A castle and a mad scientist. Huh,” Verity say. “Tell us it about it, Cookie.”
“Imagine young monster name Janet. She not grow up around many monsters. Not familiar with heritage. Late one night, she take refuge from thunderstorm in castle of Doctor Frank N. Cookie, famous monster scientist. He having party for monster friends. Just monsters.”
“Just monsters?” Don Music incredulous.
“Just monsters. Dr. Cookie introduce Janet to Rocky Monster: new monster that he make in laboratory out of cookies. (That you, Herry.)”
“Hey, now. You don’t get muscles like mine just from cookies! You need lots of other stuff-- like kale, and quinoa, and nutritious, high-protein--”
“Out of cookies and--some other stuff. And he teach Janet and Rocky all about eating cookies, and songs in monster dialect, and how to dance monster dances with all other monsters. And then at end of party, guess who show up?”
“Is it their neighbors?” Prairie Dawn ask. “Coming to have a moment of cross-cultural exchange and learn about monster society?”
“Even better. It their mommies, coming to take them back to monster planet for supper.”
“Sooooo, let me get this straight-- their mommies are also monsters?”
“Yes. Everyone is monster.”
“Soooo, where’s the guest role for the Count?”
“Not in this show. (Sorry, Count.)”
“So--” Biff scratches his head. “You’re saying everyone is a monster?”
“Yes. All-monster cast! By monsters, for monsters.”
“Doesn’t that seem a little… oh, what’s the word?” Don Music say.
“Unfair?” Biff suggest. “Even mean?”
“Almost, almost-- it’s--oh, I’ll never get it--” He rear back and his head fall forward--
“Exclusive?” say Prairie Dawn. “Or even exclusionary.”
“---yes.” Don’s nose stop inches from table. He sit up. “Yes, that’s it. Isn’t that a bit exclusionary?”
“No. No it not. It like---” Cookie look around room, at all the colorful acrylic faces and button eyes. “It like, when we out on Sesame Street, or at Hooper’s Store with Maria and Chris and Bob, we all just people together. But when we all in here, just us--we not only people. We muppets. That also who we are. That important.”
Everyone nod, fast or slow--Biff look around like he not notice before--but they all get it.
“And when it just me, and Grover, and Herry--we not just muppets together. We monsters. We monsters all the time. But it different, when we not also being something else.”
“Wow,” say Verity. “That’s, like, deep.”
“Don, me think for this show we find monster composer. No offense.”
“Just so long as you don’t do Hamilton without me.”
“We talk later.”
“An All-Monster Production,” Verity say. There capital letters in it. “The first All-Monster Production of a Major Musical. I think I can get the network behind that. I hope. I’ll have to find another way to explain about--what you said. Being two things at once.” She tuck all the handouts into her messenger bag; everyone else take that as cue to stand up.
“I might be able to help you with that, Verity.” Prairie Dawn say. “Let’s go to Hooper’s Store. I’ll see if Zoe and Ingrid and Ruby and Lulu and Rosita can join us. I need to text them all anyway, tell them they’ll want to brush up their singing for this audition.” She look at Cookie. “You don’t even remember who all of them are, do you?”
“Um, no.” Cookie hang head.
“Don’t worry,” Prairie say. “You will.” She steer Verity out door. Other writers follow, Count telling Don Music about Hamilton, and then it just Grover and Herry and Cookie.
Herry take out his phone. “Well, if she’s texting the girl monsters, I should call Telly and Maurice and Frazzle. Even Elmo might want to get in on this one.”
“And I have brought my tablet, and my external keyboard, and my Moleskine, and also a box of crayons, so we,” Grover say “are all set to start writing!” He scoot his chair over next to Cookie. “Where is the white crayon? I want Janet’s costume to be something white; it shows up better in night shots.”
By monsters, for monsters. Grover still diva. Cookie still have addictive personality. This partnership have never lasted more than six months at one stretch since Herry start working on his codependency issues. But they still have one more good show in them--and then, who know, maybe one more. Maybe one more after that. In this one thing, maybe it good Cookie still not know how to stop.