Recommended Reading: Melissa McCarthy, Caroll Spinney, and Dolly Parton

The sharpest, funniest, and most thoughtful writing of the week.

Modern online media is all about the signal boost, so every Friday here at Flavorwire, we take a moment to spotlight some of the best stuff we’ve read online this week. Today, profiles of a comedy superstar and a children’s entertainment legend, a look at a retailing giant’s surprisingly important place in the history of civil rights, and an examination of a cultural icon. 

Dave Itzkoff on Caroll Spinney.

Spinney, the legendary puppeteer who created Sesame Street‘s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and played them for 50 years, is retiring from that show and handing the characters off to new performers. The New York Times‘ Itzkoff talks to Spinney about what playing them for all these years has meant to him, and why he chose this moment to let them go.

The other was Big Bird, who was performed in a full body costume and who, Spinney said, he was originally asked to play as “a funny, dumb country yokel.”

After a few episodes, Spinney made a suggestion to the show’s producers. “I said, I think I should play him like he’s a child, a surrogate,” he recalled. “He can be all the things that children are. He can learn with the kids.”

That had a lasting effect on Big Bird and on “Sesame Street,” where the character came to embody the tender, nurturing soul of the show.

“Big Bird has always had the biggest heart on ‘Sesame Street,’ and that’s Caroll’s gift to us,” said Jeffrey Dunn, the president and chief executive of Sesame Workshop. “I think it’s fair to say that Caroll’s view of the world and how we should treat each other has shaped and defined our organization.”

Taffy Brodesser-Akner profiles Melissa McCarthy.

In the Times magazine, Brodesser-Akner tiptoes into the world of comic superstar McCarthy, who is getting (deserved) raves for her dramatic work in Can You Ever Forgive Me?,  but the focus is on her comedy, on her attempts to allow people to simply have a great time and have a good laugh in a world where that seems impossible, if not irresponsible.

Comedy changes. Comedy has changed. I finally watched the comedy special people keep recommending to me, “Nanette,” and it’s O.K.-funny, sure, but it’s so relevant and so about the problems of the world that it feels more like a humorous TED Talk than a comedy special. “The Daily Show” and “Colbert” and “Samantha Bee” are the open-concept homes of efficiency where you can get your comedy, your information and your outrage all from one source — things that used to be sold separately. The only time I laughed this week was during the day when my favorite Twitter feed, @_FloridaMan, tweeted out video of some idiot jet skiing down a highway that’s an actual news clip from real life. I can barely make it through the cold open of “S.N.L.,” it’s so depressing.

McCarthy has created her own world time and again — at home and on set and in her childhood. And yes, bubbles don’t just keep things in; they keep things out, too. They keep out input and challenges, and sometimes they even keep out change. But what if it’s valid to not want to change? What if it’s valid to keep misery at bay?

Antonia Noori Farzan on Sears’ “radical” past.

Sears is closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy, yet another casualty of an era when people would rather order their goods online than traipse down to a brick-and-mortar retailer. But in the Washington Post, Farzan details how the earliest iteration of shopping from home — catalogue orders — made the company a godsend for African-American customers. In the pre-civil rights era, she writes, “purchasing everyday household goods was often an exercise in humiliation for African Americans in the South.” The 1894 introduction of Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s illustrated catalogue changed that.

[T]he catalogue format allowed for anonymity, ensuring that black and white customers would be treated the same way.

“This gives African Americans in the Southeast some degree of autonomy, some degree of secrecy,” unofficial Sears historian Jerry Hancock told the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast in December 2016. “Now they can buy the same thing that anybody else can buy. And all they have to do is order it from this catalogue. They don’t have to deal with racist merchants in town and those types of things.”

Jessica Wilkerson on growing up in the world of Dolly Parton.

At Longreads, Wilkerson explains how, where she comes from, “to question one’s devotion to Dolly Parton is to turn the world upside-down.” But her thoughtful, searching essay asks those questions, examining how Parton’s influence and ethos prompt inquiries into “one’s investment in, and rehearsals of, mythologies of whiteness, which are rarely spoken, rarely noted as white.”

As we chatted, he asked me where I grew up. I told him East Tennessee, and he promptly asked, “Who do you prefer: Dolly or Loretta?” I laughed and told him that I loved the music of both country singers, but that my loyalties were with Dolly. She represented home to me. He told me his answer: hands down, Loretta. “She is pro-union and Dolly is anti-union,” he informed me. “Really?” I gasped…

I never spoke to Ed again, left wondering if, in some parts of Appalachia, answering “Dolly” when asked “Dolly or Loretta?” was the wrong answer. I have not been able to figure out Dolly Parton’s stance on unions, and I don’t know why Ed thought she was anti-union, mostly because she seems to have never stated a position. Parton is a genius at carefully moderating her speech so that she rarely makes an explicit political statement that might alienate a wing of her fan base.

I have thought about this exchange in recent years as the legend of Dolly has grown and her fan base has spread, especially among educated white women who care about class inequality and identify by their own working-class or rural backgrounds, or who proclaim feminist values. White feminists swoon over Dolly Parton’s concerts, which they declare “girl power” and gender-bending extravaganzas, and the heart rates of class-conscious fans speed up when she sings about her rural, working-class roots in Appalachian Tennessee. I am one of those white, class-conscious feminists who has uncritically pointed to Parton’s creative work as evidence of her progressive politics. I avoided an obvious question: What does she take from and expect of the workers tasked with building and maintaining Dollywood?