The Bootleg Files: Ernest and Bertram Image

BOOTLEG FILES 545: “Ernest and Bertram” (2002 short comedy by Peter Spears).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube and other video sites.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A major copyright violation is keeping it out of release.


The 1969 saw two landmark events that changed American culture: the Stonewall riot in New York that marked the launch of the modern gay rights movement and the premiere of “Sesame Street.” At first, one might assume that these two events have absolutely nothing in common. Ah, but it appears that Sesame Street was not that far removed from Christopher Street.

For more than 30 years, pop culture mischief makers have insisted – sometimes facetiously, sometimes seriously – that the “Sesame Street” Muppets Bert and Ernie are gay lovers. According to the Muppet Wiki, this theory can be traced back to Kurt Andersen’s 1980 book “The Real Thing.”

“Bert and Ernie conduct themselves in the same loving, discreet way that millions of gay men, women and hand puppets do,” Andersen wrote. “They do their jobs well and live a splendidly settled life together in an impeccably decorated cabinet.”

For some years, the Jim Henson Company and the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) actively ignored making any comment on Bert and Ernie’s sexual orientation. But by 1993, it became obvious that some kind of a statement was need about these Muppets’ preferences.

“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,” said the CTW in a press statement. “They are puppets, not humans.” Steve Whitmire, who played Ernie, echoed the company line in a 1997 exchange with Carnegie-Mellon University students. “They’re puppets,” he proclaimed. “They don’t exist below the waist!”

Alas, the temptation of making Bert and Ernie into lovers was too much for actor/filmmaker Peter Spears to resist. In 2002, he unleashed “Ernest and Bertram” on the unsuspecting film festival circuit – and the reaction caught many people by surprise.

Borrowing rather loosely from Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” Spears’ film found the beloved Muppets trapped within the popular antagonism against the love that dare not speak its name.  In this film, Bert and Ernie live in a luxurious Hollywood home – the Muppets are portrayed by actors in Muppet costumes similar to those used in the live stage shows featuring Henson’s creations. Ernie is home alone, drinking a martini, when Bert arrives in a furor – it seems the Hollywood tabloids were not fooled by his very public relationship with Miss Piggy and printed the story of a gay love between Bert and Ernie.

“Holy s**t!” reacts Ernie, concerned about Miss Piggy’s hurt feelings. “Didn’t you tell her it wasn’t true?”

Ernie, it seems, is a bit too naïve for his own good. Indeed, Ernie is surprised to learn about Rosie O’Donnell’s sexual appetite. “I thought Rosie was seeing Elmo,” he says, innocently. But Bert is cynical. “Elmo – that fuzzy red beard!” he sneers.

So who outed Bert and Ernie? “One day, the religious right gets bored and tells a lie,” Ernie sighs. “They found the line with an ounce of truth. I guess they always do.”

Yes, Ernie admits that his love for Bert is more than traditional Muppet love. But Bert does not acknowledge any reciprocal feelings. “Take a bath, Ernie,” he says to his Muppet partner. “I’ll bring your rubber ducky.”

But Ernie doesn’t want his cherished rubber ducky. He goes to the bathroom and closes the door. A minute later, Bert responds to the sound of a gunshot. But he is too late – Ernie is dead on the floor.

Suddenly, a hitherto unknown narrator cheerfully offers the observation that this film is being brought to us by the letter “Y” – at which point Bert wails “Why? Why?” over Ernie’s dead body – and the number “1” – followed by a cover of the old Three Dog Night tune “One (Is the Loneliest Number).”

“Ernest and Bertram” is a one-joke comedy – and it is not a very funny joke. (Oddly, the Sundance Institute, citing its premiere at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, lists the film as a “dramatic short.”) Once you get over the concept of Lillian Hellman shoehorned into a “Sesame Street” setting, there is really nothing to grasp here. The bickering between the characters has no comic value, and Ernie’s resignation to the cruel reality that his love could never be reciprocated is nasty rather than funny. The tragic ending, with Bert’s melodramatic sobbing over Ernie’s self-destroyed body, is tasteless. And anyone who has discovered a loved one’s suicide-wrecked body will not find this kind of humor even vaguely amusing.

Incredibly, “Ernest and Bertram” began to get bookings on the festival circuit before the CTW issued a cease and desist order against filmmaker Spear, who failed to ask for permission to use the Henson characters for his film. (Of course, he never expected to receive the permission.) While Spear may have argued that he was protected for creating a parody, he opted not to fight the order and voluntarily pulled “Ernest and Bertram” from release. However, the film has since turned up on the Internet, and viewers can easily access the film and thumb their noses at the Henson-CTW legal eagles. And since it appears extremely unlikely that this film will ever turn up on commercial DVD or Blu-ray, it appears the bootlegged online posting is the only way that you can experience this film.

At this point, I would like to abuse your good graces for a minute and ramble on about the value of life. “Ernest and Bertram” has its plot linked to suicide, which is used for laughs. Earlier this week, a very prominent man who gave the world a surplus amount of laughter used suicide to exit from a life that could not afford him the happiness he gave others – or so he thought. And some years ago, a very dear friend of mine abruptly used self-inflicted violence to end his life, leaving behind friends and family that still grieve his absence. I know that I find it impossible to think of my late friend without becoming a mess of anguish.

Many people choose to leave this fine world because they believe that they have failed, in one way or another. But, people, there is no such thing as failure that demands the ending of one’s life. Yes, there are mistakes made on wide scales – and, Lord knows, here at Film Threat we point out the cinematic variety. But, ultimately, we need to stop and ask whether a mistake is a defining point in one’s life or a stepping stone to go on to the proverbial bigger and better.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” If anything that I have written in my 14 years at Film Threat can be remembered, it would be this: mistakes offer us a chance to learn and grow, and they are not a reason to abruptly and cruelly withdraw from this wacky carousel we call the human experience. And despite your mistakes, both real and perceived, you will not be loved any less than if you scored endless victories. Stay alive and enjoy what life can and will offer you.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Michael O'Neal says:

    I know where you’re coming from. A good friend of mine took his life a few months ago. The pain stays with you…

  2. John Weber says:

    Well said, Phil. I cannot imagine a scenario in life where the solution is to take your own. I pray I never have such feelings. And this must have been a very difficult week for you. I am sorry for your loss which resonates to this day.

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