While the toy itself lacks any complexities (you touch or "tickle" it three times to send it into a vibrating laughing frenzy), this plush inexplicably became the hottest selling item of 1996. Many people view Sesame Street as consisting of two time periods: the Classic Era and the Elmo Era. This toy is what sparked the turning point.
Prior to that fateful Black Friday in 1996, Elmo had been mostly a background Muppet on the street. When Kevin Clash picked him up after another puppeteer tossed him aside, he provided the small monster with a baby-like voice and a three-year-old's speech pattern. He became very endearing and started to be used more and more. Eventually he got has much screen time as any of the other characters, but the show was still and ensemble piece with Big Bird being the undisputed "star" of the show. But, as with any work of fiction, the audience tends to have their favorite characters.
I recall a girl in my elementary school who was obsessed with Elmo. It was quite bizarre because by second grade, most of us had moved on from Sesame Street and this girl in particular was very tomboyish and forceful. But at the mention of Elmo, her knees would weaken and her heart would soften. There was no denying that the furry red monster had a powerful effect on us.
Elmo had another huge fan, though. One who had status and power and a daytime talk show with millions of viewers at her disposal. I speak, of course, of Rosie O'Donnell.
The Queen of Daytime Television?
Rosie would frequently have Elmo on as a guest and was not shy about expressing her love for the puppet. TYCO inventor Ron Dubren had spent years working on a ticklish doll using a device that would later be used to make cell phones vibrate. He had originally planned on making a Tickle Me Tasmanian Devil, but TYCO lost their arrangement with the Looney Tunes franchise and so he decided that this young monster would be a fine candidate. The toy was made in July and Rosie O'Donnell received one of the first ones. She featured in on her show constantly, and by October, her staff received hundreds to give as gifts to the audience. This was just the boost the toy needed, so, on that fateful Black Friday, history was changed.
Originally, 400,000 dolls had been expected to be sold throughout the season and they were all gone by the third hour of Black Friday. This $29 dollar toy started appearing on the black market and other sources where people were known to pay hundreds of dollars for them. The demand was so high that high-end jeweler Cartier placed one in their store window on Fifth Avenue wearing a diamond necklace and bracelet (a combined value of $1 million) and promised customers that if they purchased the displayed jewelry, Elmo would come with it for free.
It's nice, but does it come on a monster from a kids show?
In the following years, variations on the Elmo doll have been released, incorporating other characters and scenarios, but none have reached the heights of success of that original stuffed toy. What was it about Tickle Me Elmo that made the whole world crazy one year? Yes, Black Friday has evolved into a madhouse, a frenzy to satisfy our consumerism and greed, and a chance to see some bloodshed at the mall. But is it all necessary? Surely these store-goers were rational people who understand that this toy is not worth over $500. Yet that is what many people paid for it. Logic is no match for mob mentality.
Whatever the case may be, I find it fitting that the de-facto mascot of Black Friday represents what each and every one of us become during the holiday season: a self-indulgent monster.
Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! That tickles!