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The Electric Company: When Television Taught Us To Read

Entertainment | September 26, 2021

The cast. Source: (IMDb).

On May 20, 1968, the Children’s Television Workshop was created, with the goal of using television to reach needy kids and provide them with an educational resource. Shortly after its creation, it released its first show, Sesame Street. After 18 months of research, on October 25, 1971, they released The Electric Company which was geared towards elementary school children who had moved on from Sesame Street. Because its audience was elementary children, the humor was more mature, as were the skills the show focused on: reading and grammar. As increased literacy had become a goal for the U.S., it was funded in part by the United States Department of Education Office of Health, Education and Welfare.

Source: (Reddit).

Look Closely, You'll See Some Familiar Faces

The cast included Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby, Judy Graubart, Lee Chamberlain, and Skip Hinnant, many of whom had already done stage, repertory, and improvisational work. By the time they were cast on the show, Cosby and Moreno had already established their careers in film and television. Both Cosby and Chamberlain left the show early on, although they were billed as cast members for the rest of the show’s run because their segments were reused repeatedly. At the age of 9, Irene Cara, who later sang and wrote the song “Flashdance…What a Feeling” for the film Flashdance, appeared on the show for one season, as a member of the five-person band, Short Circus, who used music to teach reading comprehension. At the beginning of season three (1973-1974), Hattie Winston, an actor and singer, joined the cast and in season four (1974-1975), Danny Seagren, a dancer and puppeteer from Sesame Street appeared as Spider-Man in character, though he never spoke or unmasked himself; his dialogue appeared in speech bubbles, similar to a cartoon. The show also had guest appearances by some pretty big names, including Woody Allen, Victor Borge, Carol Burnett, Barbara Eden, Diane Keaton, Michael Landon, Dean Martin, and Joe Namath, as well as Big Bird, Grover, and Oscar the Grouch. 

Bill Cosby and Rita Moreno in the skit that started the catchphrase. Source: (Pinterest).

"Hey You Guys!"

The show was comprised of sketch comedy and other devices to educate children, including songs, some of which were written by Tom Lehrer. It also used computer-generated imagery, including Scanimate. At times, cast members would interact with or appear alongside word animations. After the first season, the show found a catchphrase: “Hey you guys!” called out by Rita Moreno at the beginning of most episodes.

Source: (IMDb).

An Innovative Product Of Its Time 

The show was comprised of sketch comedy and other devices to educate children, including songs, some of which were written by Tom Lehrer. It also used computer-generated imagery, including Scanimate. At times, cast members would interact with or appear alongside word animations. After the first season, the show found a catchphrase: “Hey you guys!” called out by Rita Moreno at the beginning of most episodes.

Fargo North, Decoder. Source: (IMDb).

It Included Humor Adults Could Appreciate

The show often referenced pop culture. One segment, “Here’s Cooking at You” was a parody of Julia Child’s cooking shows, with Judy Gaubart as Julia Grown-Up. “Jennifer of the Jungle” was a play on George of the Jungle. In “Love of Chair,” a spoof of the CBS soap opera Love of Life, the announcer, Ken Roberts (who, incidentally was also the announcer for Love of Life), read a story about a boy and a chair, doing simple things, in a style similar to Dick and Jane stories. Roberts read questions in a dramatic fashion and ended the segment with “For the answer to these and other questions, tune in tomorrow to ‘Love of Chair.’”

The focus of the majority of the sketches was reading, and they were quite memorable because they made learning “hip.” In “The Adventures of Letterman,” a sketch which made its appearance in season two, Letterman, who was a flying superhero wearing a varsity sweater and football helmet worked to foil the Spell Binder, the villain who changed words into new words. The Spell Binder had a simple motive: “he hates words, and he hates people who use them!” The segment featured the voices of Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel, and Joan Rivers. Halfway through the show, in the segment, “Five Seconds,” the audience was challenged to read a word within five to ten seconds. The word self-destructed after the time expired in episodes from seasons three and four. In seasons five and six, viewers competed with a cast member or a group of children.

The Silhouette shadow box. Source: (YouTube).

Wile E. Coyote Had A Role

There were also some segments which were not sketches. The Silhouette shadowbox segment featured two silhouettes facing each other, sounding out parts of the word, moving closer together to say the word in its entirety. And there were cartoons. Chuck Jones produced and directed new Looney Tunes cartoons featuring the Road Runner and his nemesis, Wile E. Coyote. In these segments, reading skills were reinforced as the characters encountered words on signs. Mel Brooks provided the voice for a recurring character, the Blond-Haired Cartoon Man, who read words on the screen which were often in the wrong order or made no sense, and then he had to correct them.

Morgan Freeman as a vegetable loving vampire. Source: (Reddit).

Morgan Freeman Took A Bath In A Casket

The characters also made the show memorable. Dr. Doolots, played by Luis Ávalos, used words to cure patients. Morgan Freeman played Easy Reader, a character who loved to read. Among his other characters, was a vampire, who sang about taking a bath in a casket, and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire, who was obsessed with vegetables. Another recurring character was Fargo North, Decoder, played by Skip Hinnant, who decoded scrambled word messages for clients.

The final sketch for some episodes was “A Very Short Book.” In the sketch, a cast member read a book which had the words accompanied by film footage on each page. Typically, the story had an ending, often humorous, which differed from the original. 

Source: (Pinterest).

The End Of The Show

In 1973, the show won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming—Entertainment/Fictional. They also won a Grammy for the original soundtrack album. Production of the original show ended in 1977, with the last original episode being aired on April 15, but reruns continued until October 4, 1985.  

Tags: Bill Cosby | Morgan Freeman | Rita Moreno | The Electric Company

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