when you thought you couldn’t recapture any more of your TV-watching
childhood, The Electric Company has surprisingly and blessedly come
to DVD. Nowhere near as good as you remember it – with crude graphics,
cheesy synthesizers and overlong segments (it’s stuffed to the gills at 29
minutes per) – you’ll be amazed that you’re still entertained long after the
lesson had worn off.
PBS series, “getting its power from” The Children’s Television Workshop
production studio, was the natural next step in the innovational new wave of
programming for kids that evolved in the mind-expanding 1970s. President
Nixon declared those ten years “The Right to Read Decade,” and a new sense
of purpose and style swept both public television and school classrooms,
breaking the tired old mold of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.
proved its own theory that pre-schoolers can learn basic educational
concepts if presented in the style of comedy skits, catchy advertising
jingles and arrestingly visual TV commercials. The Electric Company
was developed to appeal to slightly older kids (second and third graders),
taking a cue from the musical-comedy variety venues of the day, including
The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show and Monty
Python’s Flying Circus, but its obvious biggest influence was the
fast-moving Laugh-In. .
aim was to teach “decoding,” the ability to analyze sounds and spellings so
that even unfamiliar words can be tackled successfully. This was to be
accomplished with the utmost respect toward children with learning issues (a
tall order – easier said than done).
mission was accomplished so successfully that even kids without learning
disabilities, as well as older kids and adults,
turned on to the program, assigning it double duty as an instructive vehicle
and a revered pop culture staple. It was so successful in its day that when
it was broadcast to many classrooms at 9 a.m., student latenesses were
reported to have dropped.
The Electric Company
surged for six years in its original run (a
whopping 780 episodes), and then educated yet another generation in reruns.
This was no low-budget wonder; it was loaded with special effects and
original songs (many written by satirist Tom Lehrer), including “Golly, This
Lollipop Is Following Me” and “Silent E” (“who can turn a cub into a
Probably the most famous sketch was the sight of silhouetted profiles of two
cast members forming a word together (“CH-AIR, CHAIR”). Perhaps almost as
famous is the animated short “The Adventures of Letterman,” (“It’s a word,
it’s a plan, it’s Letterman!”) with the unlikely narration of Joan Rivers
and featuring, in voiceover, the unlikely reunion of The Producers’
Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel (who, as the villain, grumbles, “I hate
with an ensemble cast of television and theater actors (uncredited!), the
series does not have a “home base,” like
but presents its world as an actual page that is
meant to be written on or read. And the words always look beautiful.
Embodying the power, sunny confidence and funky fun of the show is young
actor Morgan Freeman (yes, that Morgan Freeman), who, as the character Easy
Reader, shows that reading is cool (marvel at a film of him strutting
through 1970s New York City, blissfully reading signs on the mean streets).
on board is educationally minded Bill Cosby and the awesome Rita Moreno, who
cheerfully makes herself available for the present-day commentary. It’s
easily a charisma fest with Moreno,
Cosby and Freeman alone, but the circle is complete with a few more unknown
but equally talented character actors, including TV-commercial veteran Judy
Moreno states, the show was not aimed at “the little geniuses,” but the
appeal to baby hipsters in training is undeniable. A pseudo-pop group called
The Short Circus rocked out passionately about punctuation and featured
June Angela (also on hand for a pleasant and smart commentary visit), who
managed to stay with the show for all six seasons.
you look closely, you’ll find Denise Nickerson (who played Violet in
Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and Irene Cara (who eventually
starred in Fame and recorded the ‘80s hit, “Flashdance – What a
DVD is a best-of collection, but it covers everything you remember,
utilizing mild forms of vaudeville (everything old is new again), as well as
a Broadway-musical sense of comedy mixed with can-you-dig it
not about learning how to read; it’s about the joy of reading. Good
cause – good show.
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Posted: February 11, 2006.