There's nothing like a scandal to raise a TV star's profile even if that star is a fuzzy red monster. The makers of Sesame Street weren't looking to incite a national debate when they invited pop star Katy Perry to sing a duet with Elmo, but after a preview clip of Perry belting out ''Hot N Cold'' in a cleavage-baring yellow dress went viral, calls and e-mails from irate parents poured into the Sesame Workshop offices. Producers quickly announced that Perry and her racy outfit would be dropped and suddenly Sesame Street, which premiered its 41st season on Sept. 27, became the most talked-about show on TV. Stars tweeted about it (''today's Sesame Street will NOT be brought to you by the number 34 or the letter D,'' joked Perry's fiancé, Russell Brand), morning-news pundits debated it, and Saturday Night Live skewered it on Sept. 25, with Perry appearing in a skit wearing an extremely low-cut top strategically emblazoned with Elmo's happy face. The media frenzy ''certainly wasn't by design,'' assures Sesame exec producer Carol-Lynn Parente. ''But it's been wonderful to hear people debate Sesame Street. It wasn't that long ago that people were surprised that we were even still making new episodes.''
Cleavagegate isn't the only thing helping to keep Big Bird & Co. relevant to the mainstream these days. Long known for churning out hilarious pop culture parodies, Sesame Street now leaks spoofs of buzzy shows like Mad Men and True Blood online before they air, so tech-savvy parents and Web-surfing kids who may not watch much traditional TV can discover and share them. (Other hits parodied this season include The Closer and Iron Man.) ''We might have parodied Gone With the Wind in the late '70s or early '80s,'' Parente explains. ''What we parody now is something that the parents would know. You want to pick shows that already have watercooler status to them. That then gets the 'Have you seen the Mad Men parody that Sesame did?''' Parent-friendly guest stars like Oprah, will.i.am, Jennifer Garner, and Amy Poehler will also make appearances this season. And while Katy Perry couldn't withstand the scrutiny of Sesame Street's censors, Parente says the singer is always welcome in their neighborhood. ''We would love to have her back, and maybe we'd make a different wardrobe decision,'' she says. ''A sweater might have solved a lot of people's problem with the piece.''