Thursday, January 22, 2009


PBS this week trotted out a show called The Electric Company. Here are two clips.

Pretty standard fare for current "educational" kid's shows. Bland, freshly-scrubbed multi-culti cast, dull flash animation, a level of professionalism but not a trace of wit or invention. There are songs, too, mostly hip-hop lite, the kind of thing designed to be as inoffensive (oh, and instructional, of course) as possible.

Which is fine, I guess, but why call the show The Electric Company? Why claim it as an updated version of the coolest kid's show ever? Produced in the early to mid-seventies, but shown in reruns until the eighties, the original was designed to teach kids simple language and grammar concepts, but what it really did was showcase a variety of comedy styles, a wide range of animation design and a whole lot of ultra-cool music.

Like its Children's Television Workshop partner Sesame Street, The Electric Company was ostensibly designed for inner city kids, children research claimed lacked basic English skills. Many aspects of the show seem designed specifically to an "urban" audience. Yet those very same elements blew the mind of at least one Iowa farm kid, who had no conception of the wider world beyond his own small area and the white, white kids he knew. So, sitting in his first grade class, watching Morgan Freeman's unbelievably funky Easy Rider strut onto the scene and duet with Rita Moreno--my mind was officially blown.

Leaving aside the retro-cool vibe ("Is that heavy? IS THAT HEAVY?") and slight salaciousness ("He can't seem to get enough"--even as a six-year-old, I understood these two must have had some kind of, uh, history), this is just a kick-ass song. And by the way--Morgan Freeman! Rita Moreno! What an awesome cast The Electric Company had, and not just in front of the camera. Satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer was lured out of retirement to pen a number of tunes, including this absolute classic.

Much of the animation was produced by the great John Hubley and was very individualized. Notice how precise the movement is in this sequence, something that would be impossible with the flash cartoons used in the new show.

Here are a few more brief animated sequences showing the astonishing range of visual and musical styles this show routinely deployed.

Hard to know if other kids were as struck by this wide range of visuals, by the sophisticated wordplay, by the way it combined a funky urban vibe with Borscht Belt shtick. (Did I mention Mel Brooks was an occasional contributor?) Me, I was transported by this show, taken to places I'd never been. It seemed designed to be different, to introduce viewers to new ways of looking at the world. The new Electric Company is clearly intended to educational show. Kids may learn basic grammar from it, but they won't learn anything else, if you know what I mean.