Lefty is a shady-looking salesman in a trench coat who appears on Sesame Street. He speaks in a whispery voice, and usually tries to sell Ernie such esoteric items as a letter O, a snowman, or an invisible ice cream cone. His sales pitches are rarely successful.
"The Salesman" appeared in several sketches in Sesame Street's first season, trying to sell Ernie the number 8, an empty box and a bottle of air.
Beginning in the second season, Lefty had his own "sneaky" musical theme at the beginning of each sketch. By this point, the opening exchange between the Salesman and Ernie had become a ritual. The Salesman signals to Ernie with a furtive whisper: "Hey, bud! C'mere." Ernie shouts, "Who, me?" and the Salesman shushes him excitedly. Ernie whispers, "Who, me?" The Salesman answers with an elongated "Riiiiiight," and then begins his sales pitch: "How would ya like to buy..."
Lefty's most well-known appearance was a song, "Would You Like to Buy an O?", which was recorded for the 1971 record The Muppet Alphabet Album, and later used on the show. (EKA: Episode 0751) The Salesman approaches Ernie, and makes him a tempting offer: "When ya buy this O, ya get two sounds for the price of one. Ya get one sound that ya can use for words like olive, ostrich and ox -- and for no extra money, ya get another sound for words like ocean, over, old and opening."
Lefty's boss is the only character who refers to him as "Lefty". Until recently, Children's Television Workshop production materials, storybooks and record albums have referred to the character simply as "The Salesman."
A 2008 book, Storybook ABCs, is the first use of Lefty's name in print. Grover is dressed as Jack (of "Beanstalk" fame), and the Salesman approaches from behind a tree with an offer: "Care for some candy beans for that cow?" Jack replies, "Thanks, Lefty! And do you also have a candlestick?" Lefty apparently has one in stock -- a few pages later, Jack (of "Jack Be Nimble" fame) jumps over the candlestick. At the end of the book, Lefty returns to feed four and twenty blackbirds with birdseed that fills his carry-all bag.
Several of Lefty's vocal mannerisms (outside of his elongated "Riiiight") derive from two different 1940s old-time radio characters, both of whom were a bit shady and had labels rather than names. One was "The Tout" from The Jack Benny Program, introduced in 1945 and played by Sheldon Leonard. Greeting Jack Benny in a breathy, gangster-style undertone, the tout would say "Hey, bud... c'mere a minute," to which Jack would usually respond "Who, me?" He would then attempt to "tout" Jack into changing trains, elevators, tables, whatever, but always in horse racing parlance.
The other influence was an even earlier character known only as "The Salesman," played by Eddie Marr on Jack Carson's The Camel Comedy Caravan in 1943. (Marr, who specialized in huckster and barker roles, used elements of the character on other series, including Benny's.) The Salesman would show up and try to sell anything to Jack Carson (even a gun to commit suicide) and his catchphrase was "Tell ya what I'm gonna do," which he turned into a novelty song that same year. The Lefty/Ernie story "Ernie Buys a 12" in the 1975 Big Bird's Busy Book includes examples of these radio elements.
|Picture||Summary / EKA||Description|
| 8 |
| Lefty wants to sell a number 8 to Ernie, who ran out of money buying some number 9s. Ernie then offers to sell Lefty his number 9s.
| Empty box |
| Lefty wants to sell Ernie an empty box, explaining that he can fill the box with things, such as a pet mouse (if Ernie had one) and jellybeans (if they rained from the sky). Ernie wants an empty box, but doesn't have any money. However, Bert brings a box of cookies. Ernie dumps the cookies so he can catch jellybeans from the sky.
| Air |
| Lefty sells Ernie some air, but when Ernie waves to Bert, wanting to show it to him, he drops it. According to Bert (who didn't know what Ernie had), "It couldn't have vanished into thin air." But Ernie sobs, "Yes, it could, Bert! It could!"
| U |
| Lefty tries to sell a letter U, which he claims to have had in his family for years. The U is actually a string tied to two poles. However, Ernie already has a U, but when he says that yesterday he could have used a V, Lefty stretches out the U's bottom to turn it into a V. |
Caroll Spinney (instead of Frank Oz) performed Lefty in this skit.
| P and R |
| Lefty holds a letter R, and Ernie holds a letter P. |
Spinney plays Lefty in this sketch.
| Stop Sign |
| Lefty tries to sell Ernie a stop sign.
| ME Sign |
|Lefty attempts to sell a "ME" sign to Ernie.|
| Picture of Four Elephants |
| Lefty wants to sell Ernie a picture of a tree, which he says is actually a picture of four elephants. Ernie doesn't see the four elephants, so Lefty offers to show him the elephants if Ernie will buy the picture for a nickel. Lefty points out the elephants, which are actually spaces in the tree's branches. Ernie then pays for the picture. Ernie wants to pull the same trick on Bert, but Bert notices the elephants right away.
| Scale |
| Lefty wants to sell Ernie a scale. He uses two pounds of bananas and two pounds of apples to demonstrate how the scale works. Ernie is impressed, but he already has a scale at home. However, he wants to buy the apples and bananas.
| "Would You Like to Buy an O?" |
| In song, the Salesman offers Ernie the chance to buy a letter O. He promises, "When ya buy this O, ya get two sounds for the price of one. Ya get one sound that ya can use for words like olive, ostrich and ox -- and for no extra money, ya get another sound for words like ocean, over, old and opening."
| Invisible Ice Cream Cone |
| Lefty sells Ernie an invisible ice cream cone. Ernie pays for it with an invisible nickel.
|Snowman|| Lefty wants to sell Ernie a snowman, but it keeps melting.
|Alphabet||Lefty enters and exits the frame, each time revealing a letter of the alphabet from inside his coat.|
- In some of his early appeareances, the Salesman had slightly hidden angry eyebrows, thus giving him a mean look, but the eyebrows were removed in later sketches.
- Although the character was primarily performed by Frank Oz, Caroll Spinney played the Salesman in at least two segments from Season 1.
- The Sesame Street Storybook, frontispiece only (1971)
- Sesame Street Finger Puppets (1971)
- The Sesame Street ABC Storybook (1974)
- Big Bird's Busy Book (1975)
- Grover's Little Red Riding Hood (1976)
- The Sesame Street Dictionary (1980)
- The Sesame Street Storybook Alphabet (1980)
- In & Out, Up & Down (1982)
- Storybook ABCs (2008)