Big Bird and the Truly Pathetic Fistfight

You haven't seen comedy until you've watched two out-of-shape tax lawyers throw five punches, miss four, and then wrestle to the ground. Also, how Big Bird fits in, and 7 other things worth a click.

We now begin the 2020 presidential election season in earnest—a season that feels like it might be most divisive, angry, combative election since perhaps the Civil War.

I hope that's an exaggeration. I fear it's not. So, two quick stories.

  1. The first is about Big Bird.

  2. The second is about a truly pathetic fistfight.

Actually, let’s do the fistfight first.

The fistfight

The fight happened in early December 2000. Looking at the demographics of this newsletter, I think most of you are er… seasoned enough (like me!) to remember what was going on in presidential politics then.

I was a very green attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, Tax Division at the time, and my enduring memory is of two lawyers I worked with—nice guys usually, not super-excitable—who came to blows over the Florida recount.

You haven't seen comedy until you've watched two out-of-shape tax lawyers throw five wild punches at each other, miss four, and then wrestle to the ground over whether a hanging chad, 1,000 miles away, should be counted in an election.

Normally we all got along in that office. We'd help each other with our cases, grab a beer after work now and again, ask “how was the weekend?” and “how’re the kids?” That kind of thing.

But one of these guys was a diehard liberal; the other was a passionate conservative. And, while it seems almost quaint now, the recount brought it out in us. The fistfight was the worst of it, but there were arguments and angry words in that office for weeks.

It wasn’t just: "You're wrong."

Quickly it became: "You're a liar."

It wasn't just: "I'm upset."

Very soon it devolved into: "You’re a traitor and you’re betraying America."

It was all pretty bad. But I'm afraid 2020 could be a lot worse.

Which brings us to Big Bird.

Big Bird

Carol Spinney, who played Big Bird on Sesame Street for nearly 50 years, passed away in December. His death prompted me to read his short memoir, The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch).

Spinney revealed a minor technological feat in the book that let him develop an unusually empathetic character, despite being “virtually blind” in his bulky, eight-foot costume.

“I could only peek between the feathers. I'd often stumble over things, bump into walls and parts of the set, and walk off camera in the wrong direction,” he wrote. So, the crew rigged a small television receiver inside the costume, so he could see what the cameras were filing in real time.

  • Result #1: Spinney stopped bumping into things.

  • Result #2: Arguably more important: “I see the same picture the viewer sees, not the world form the Bird's point of view.”

We hear so much about emotional intelligence and empathy these days, and about trying to see how other people perceive your actions and words, not just seeing them from your own perspective.

Born out of necessity, it turns out Spinney quite literally did that: He connected with young viewers in part because he literally could only see the character from their point of view.

And we all learned a very important lesson

You see where I’m going with this, right?

I hate to wrap it all up with some kind of ABC Afterschool Special message.

(See? I've been looking at the demographics. Most of my audience has been around long enough to get that reference.)

But politics or not, developing empathy, and trying to think about how your words and actions will prompt other people to react, isn't just about being kind or supportive.

It's also about increasing the chances that you'll develop rapport, and maybe even convince other people to try to look at things from your point of view.

Maybe even avoiding a pointless argument (even a fistfight) over something that you can’t possibly change, and that really doesn’t matter.

By the way, I don't necessarily think that any of the people who read Understandably each day need this kind of reminder. Going by your comments and emails, it's a very empathetic group.

But, I like the Big Bird thing as a metaphor.

Feel free to use it as this insane election season gets underway. I have a feeling it might come in handy.

7 other things worth a click

  1. TBD won the Iowa caucuses! I wrote this last night/early this morning, but as of 12:48 a.m. Eastern there were technical problems and no results released. Maybe there will be an update here, by the time you read this. (Associated Press)

  2. Cards Against Humanity bought Clickhole. (Buzzfeed News)

  3. Rush Limbaugh announced he has lung cancer. (

  4. Steven King says he’s done with Facebook, where he had 5 million followers, because of a “‘flood of false information’ and privacy concerns.” (The Washington Post)

  5. Disney paid $75 million to acquire the film version of Hamilton. (Deadline)

  6. A performance artist played havoc with Google Maps by walking around with a red wagon full of 99 smartphones, all running the app. (The Verge)

  7. The U.S. military is putting soldiers who traveled from China to Korea into 14-day quarantine because of the coronavirus. (Military Times)

Photo credit: Evelyn Giggles on Flickr. Ideas and feedback actively solicited. I wrote a bit about Big Bird for when Carol Spinney died. If you haven’t subscribed, please do so! (You can also just send an email to

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