Bert and Ernie are two Muppets who appear together in numerous skits on the popular U.S. children's television show Sesame Street. Originated by Frank Oz and Jim Henson, the characters are currently performed by Muppeteers Eric Jacobson and Billy Barkhurst, with Oz performing Bert occasionally since 2000.
Bert and Ernie were built by Don Sahlin from a simple design scribbled by Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets. Initially, Henson performed Bert and Oz performed Ernie, but after just one day of rehearsal, they switched characters. The original idea was to show that even though two people can have totally different characteristics, they can still be good friends. According to writer Jon Stone, the relationship between Bert and Ernie reflected the real-life friendship between Henson and Oz.
According to A&E's Biography, Bert and Ernie were virtually the only Muppets to appear in the Sesame Street pilot episode, which was screen tested to a number of families in July 1969. Their brief appearance was the only part of the pilot that tested well, so it was decided that not only should Muppet characters be the "stars" of the show, but would also interact with the human characters, something that was not done in the pilot.
A typical Bert and Ernie skit has Ernie coming up with a hare brained idea, and Bert trying to talk him out of it, ending with Bert losing his temper and Ernie remaining unaware of the results of his own bad idea. For example, in one sketch, Ernie tells Bert he started to collect ice cubes the day before, and put them under the electric blanket overnight.
When he shows the ice cubes to Bert, he finds out that they have melted into water. Bert knows what happened, and tries to tell Ernie that his ice cubes melted because of the electric blanket, but Ernie takes this to mean that a fish from the ocean came into the apartment and melted his ice cubes, and vows to find the (non existent) fish that melted them.
The age of the characters is unclear. Sesame Street Live performer Taylor Morgan said in an interview that "I just kind of try to think like a 6–year–old or a 7–year–old, because that's how old Bert is."
Ernie was originally performed by Jim Henson. From 1993 to 2014, Muppeteer Steve Whitmire took on the role of Ernie (following the death of Henson in 1990). Since 2014, Billy Barkhurst has taken on the role of Ernie, so that Whitmire could focus on other projects by the The Muppets Studio.
Ernie is a "live hand puppet", meaning that while operating the head of the puppet with his right hand, the puppeteer inserts his left hand into a T shaped sleeve, capped off with a glove that matches the fabric "skin" of the puppet, thus "becoming" the left arm of the puppet. A second puppeteer usually provides the right arm.
Ernie's performance of "Rubber Duckie," wherein he sings affectionately about his squeaking toy duck and the joy it brings him during bath time, became a modest mainstream hit, reaching No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1970.
Bert was initially performed by Frank Oz. Since 2001, Muppeteer Eric Jacobson has been phased in as Bert's primary performer after Oz retired from most of his Muppet duties to focus on directing (Oz, however, does continue to perform the character occasionally). Bert is an "hand rod puppet", which means that while the puppeteer's right arm is inserted into Bert's head to control the mouth, the puppeteer's left hand uses rods to control the arms of the puppet.
In popular culture
Bert and Ernie are among a handful of Sesame Street-specific Muppets to also appear on The Muppet Show, making occasional cameo appearances, such as at the end of The Muppets Valentine Show, the 1974 pilot episode for the series. While several other Muppets featured on Sesame Street such as Kermit the Frog would crossover into the other program, Bert and Ernie were primarily confined to the occasional cameo.
Bert and Ernie live together in an apartment in the basement of 123 Sesame Street. Despite sleeping in separate beds, they share the same bedroom, which has led to some speculation that they are a representation of gay lovers. This is denied by Sesame Workshop, and some of Bert's interactions with female characters appear to show that he is attracted to women: serenading Connie Stevens in the Some Enchanted Evening segment of a first season episode of The Muppet Show, and recording a song about his girlfriend, I Want to Hold Your Ear, which was released on several albums. But the idea of Bert and Ernie as a couple is sufficiently widespread that it has been used as the basis of jokes on the shows Saturday Night Live, American Dad!, Modern Family, The Simpsons, Friends, The Middle, Family Guy, and Supernatural. Sportscaster Jim Rome has received emails and phone calls from listeners to his radio program on the subject, and has expressed disgust with them. More recently, The New Yorker magazine chose an image of Bert and Ernie by artist Jack Hunter, titled Moment of Joy, as the cover of their July 8, 2013 publication, which covers the Supreme Court decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8.
From March 30, 1997, to ca. 2002, the parody website "Bert is Evil" displayed Bert in a number of doctored photographs, implicating him in crimes ranging from the Assassination of John F. Kennedy to those of Jack the Ripper. A similar image from another source and featuring Bert conferring with Osama bin Laden was mistakenly included by a Bangladeshi print shop on a series of protest signs in October 2001 and 2002.
The German comedy sketch series Freitag Nacht News had a recurring sketch called Bernie und Ert created by Attik Kargar, who performed the puppets and supplied the voice of Bernie. Bernie and Ert are an obscene parody of Ernie and Bert, and especially re-dubbed on Sesamstrasse. The puppets had no nose, one eye each, and swapped hairstyles. Each sketch focused on such topics as crime, drug abuse and Friday the 13th.
In February 2003, Bernie and Ert were dropped from the series because of legal concerns; however, older episodes circulate on the internet. They also appeared in a Freitag Nacht News sequence called Bullzeye in a sketch called "Popo Club". Bernie & Ert wore black masks and leather jackets, disguised as Unknown No. 1 and Unknown No. 2 respectively, with another character named Winfred. This skit became popular that it resulted in more skits called "Popo Club" featuring Unknown No. 1 & 2, with occasional appearances by Winfred.
Characters named Bert and Ernie appear in the film It's a Wonderful Life as a taxi driver and a policeman, respectively, but those behind Sesame Street claim that it is merely a coincidence. Jerry Juhl, a writer on many Henson-related projects, said, "Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the police officer and the cabdriver." This is referenced in the Sesame Street special Elmo Saves Christmas, where due to Elmo's wish, Christmas repeats itself every day and "It's a Wonderful Life" plays on television continuously. The part where Bert and Ernie are referenced is toward the end, where the two (who don't speak) are walking by the television and stop short when they hear their names mentioned.
In April 2013, a pair of high energy neutrinos detected at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, possibly of extragalactic origin, have been nicknamed "Bert" and "Ernie". The British soap opera EastEnders has confirmed that characters Bert and Ernie Moon are named after the Muppets characters.