Confession: I have never liked Fred Rogers. Not as an old dude looking back at his life, not as a dad raising kids of his own, and certainly not as a three year old in 1971 who was Mr. Rogers’s prime audience. What I never spent a lot of pondering was why I disliked Fred Rogers so much. But the overwhelming nostalgia and goodwill being showered on his memory – from the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? to the planned feature film You Are My Friend starring Tom Hanks (!!!) – has made this bit of soul searching all but unavoidable.
So here we go.
I think I was among the first wave of kids that came of age to “educational television.” The Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) was founded in 1968, the year I was born. Sesame Street followed in 1969 (finding a wider audience on PBS in 1970), The Electric Company hit the tubes in ’71, and a long-forgotten personal favorite of mine, the New Zoo Revue debuted in 1972. Bert and Ernie, Letterman, and Freddie the Frog kept me company, made me laugh, and made me feel safe (especially the quirky, hippy-dippy Doug and Emmy Jo of NZR).
You know who did not make me feel safe? Fred Rogers. And yes, I know that sounds weird to a lot of you who have such fond memories of him. I know that says far more about me than it does about him. And I’m sure it would have been horrifying to Mr. Rogers, because – by all accounts – this wasn’t a mask for him. He really was the kind, sensitive soul that he presented himself to be.
But the fact is that I did not like Mr. Rogers because I did not trust Mr. Rogers. Even at three years old, there was something in me that said: no. No one is this nice. No one is this kind. This person cannot possibly be this … this good.
He wants something from me.
Maybe it was the soft, rhythmic voice that bordered on hypnotic. Maybe it was the fact that, for all the smiling he did, he was never actually funny. Or maybe it was just the nature of the show, just him and the audience – me – and the relentless eye contact that came with that format. It was all just one big nope from pre-school me.
I wish I could say I’ve outgrown the cynicism, the difficulty in trusting people. But some of us are wired differently.
As I grew older, one of my favorite SNL sketches was Eddie Murphy’s setup Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood. It mercilessly made fun of the oh-so-kind Mr. Rogers. I’m now kind of ashamed of that. I do take solace in the fact that Fred Rogers, while he didn’t find Mr. Robinson to be funny, took it in stride, and went out of his way tweak Murphy about it in the most Mr. Rogers way imaginable: by showing up at Murphy’s dressing room door and being Fred Rogers.
I don’t know where I’m going with this, or what lesson to pull from it. Maybe: “Don’t assume your experience is universal.” Maybe: “Trust is hard for some of us.” Or maybe nothing at all.
From everything I have learned about Fred Rogers over the years, I want to admire him. But even now, fifty years later, despite all evidence to the contrary, I still do not trust him.
What do you do with that?