“The Happytime Murders” may be dividing Sesame Street

A lawsuit by the nonprofit producer of “Sesame Street” over the raunchy puppet comedy “The Happytime Murders” may be exposing a split in the family of the late Muppet creator Jim Henson.

Court filings from Sesame Workshop and the film’s distributor, STX Productions, offer vastly differing views on how Brian and Lisa Henson felt about the “No Sesame. All Street” tagline used to promote the film that’s the focal point of the case.  

Brian Hanson directed the movie in which a detective played by Melissa McCarthy and her puppet partner solve the grisly murders of the cast of a beloved children’s TV show. He’s also chairman of Jim Henson Co., one of the movie’s producers. Lisa Hanson is CEO of Jim Henson Co. and is listed as an executive producer of “The Happytime Murders.”

According to Sesame Workshop, the Hensons weren’t pleased when they learned about the marketing plan for the movie.

“It makes me terribly sad that the marketing campaign for “Happytime Murders” has devolved to this state of affairs,” wrote Lisa Henson in a May 20 email to Jefferey Dunn, her counterpart at Sesame Workshop, that’s cited in a Sesame Workshop court filing. 

“Throughout the development of ‘Happytime Murders,’ Brian has conscientiously pushed the creative direction and design of the new characters away from Muppets (both Muppet Show and Sesame Street) because he never saw it as a parody of the Muppets,” her email said. “We resisted creative suggestions to make some characters look more like Anything Muppets or Muppet Monsters because that was exactly wrong for the movie. Therefore, trading off the famous Muppets to sell the film is exactly what we did not want to have happened.

In response, STX countered that both Brian Henson and other executives at Jim Henson Co. were consulted at every stage of the development of the film’s marketing plans and expressed no concerns about its “No Sesame. All Street”  tagline, which Sesame Workshop claims infringes on its trademark.

“Far from being upset about the tagline, disagreeing with its use, or taking “a hard position” against its use, as [Sesame] claims, Brian actually thought the tagline was funny and fine to use,” STX said in a filing.

Sesame Workshop acquired the rights to the Muppets on its show such as Elmo, Ernie and Oscar the Grouch in 2000 from Jim Henson Co. Although the nonprofit described the trailer for “Happytime Murders” as “indescribably crude,” it isn’t trying to block its use.

However, Sesame Workshop wants a court to order STX to remove the “No Sesame. All Street” tagline from promotional materials and any other intellectual property that creates the impression that it endorses the movie. STX, not surprisingly, is balking at that request.

According to STX Chairman Adam Fogelson, the company believed the tagline made it clear in a humorous way that “The Happytime Murders” has nothing to do with “Sesame Street.”

“It did not occur to us that a viewer would see and hear ‘NO SESAME’ and think ‘YES SESAME,'” Fogelson said in a written declaration filed Monday in Manhattan federal court, according to the Associated Press.

Even if Sesame Workshop’s request is granted, its effectiveness may be limited because “The Happytime Murders” trailer had racked up more than 2 million views in the first seven hours after it was released, according to STX. The film is scheduled for an Aug. 17 debut.

Spokespeople for Sesame Workshop and Jim Henson Co. declined to comment for this story. STX didn’t respond to a request for comment.

STX tried to put a positive spin on the legal battle by issuing a statement from the “puppet lawyer” it named “Fred Esq.”

“We’re incredibly pleased with the early reaction to the film and how well the trailer has been received by its intended audience,” it said. “While we’re disappointed that Sesame Street does not share in the fun, we are confident in our legal position.”

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