Filipino American Muppet on ‘Sesame Street’ makes debut
June 30, 2023
There’s a new Muppet on Sesame Street and for the first time, the cute, cuddly character is of Filipino descent.
The character, 4-year-old TJ, made his first appearance on “Sesame Street” this week alongside actor Kal Penn and fellow Muppets Grover and Ji-Young as they learned about confidence.
In the scene, Grover enthusiastically announces he will jump the Sesame Street sign on his unicycle.
Penn says Grover has lots of confidence, prompting TJ to ask “Confidence? Mr. Kal, what’s that?”
Penn explains that confidence is believing in yourself and others. TJ later tells Penn that he shows his own confidence by learning Tagalog.
“It’s a language my Filipino family speaks,” he says.
TJ also says he has confidence because he can always ask his lola – Tagalog for grandma – for help when he doesn’t know a word.
“Sesame Street’s” latest muppet is a second generation Filipino-American boy and his parents are from California. He has a baby sister who loves to watch him speak in funny voices, sing or dance, Sesame Workshop said in an email to USA TODAY.
His grandparents live on the ground floor of their building and he enjoys helping his grandparents in their garden. His grandparents are helping him learn Tagalog, which comes in handy when his family visits from California, Sesame Workshop said.
Actor who plays new ‘Sesame Street’ character has bout with imposter syndrome
Chinese actor Yinan Shentu plays TJ and posted a heartfelt message about the character on Instagram Sunday.
“Well, it’s finally official… Everyone, I’d like you to meet one of the newest visitors to @sesamestreet,” he wrote. “This is his first ever appearance, where he learns about about confidence with Kal Penn, Grover, and Ji-Young!”
In his post, Shentu thanked everyone along the way who helped bring TJ to the show and helped him, including other performers on the show and Sesame Workshop’s director of talent outreach, inclusion and content development, Rosemary Palacios.
Shentu’s also thanked puppeteer, voice actor and writer Kathleen Kim, who plays Ji-Young and other “Sesame Street” characters, calling her his “instant Asian friend on first sight.”
Shentu ended his post by saying he was “drowning in imposter syndrome,” or what happens when people make achievements and feel they don’t deserve them.
His admission about suffering from imposter syndrome led Kim, the Asian actress who voices Ji-Young, to chime in on it.
“Someone over the weekend told me imposter syndrome is a sign that you’re growing by pushing yourself out or being aspirational beyond your comfort zone,” she wrote. “Keep pushing, growing and learning! You got this!”
Shentu also shared thoughts on Facebook after seeing responses from people about his character. Screenshots he shared show enthusiasm from social media users about what TJ’s appearance means for Asian people.
“It’s the tan Moreno skin and hair for me,” wrote one social media user. “They got it right. We are finally being represented.”
Shentu recalled how there were hardly any Asian people in Hollywood when he was younger. If there were Asian actors, they “were mostly playing cheap stereotypes,” he wrote in his post.
When he did start to see more actors and actresses who look like him, he was ecstatic.
“Finally I could look up at the screen and see so many people who looked just like me, in stories that were told RIGHT,” he said.
Playing TJ allows him to be part of that, he said.
“That’s a dream that even the little kid from all those years ago would have never even imagined to have.”