The Best of the Electric Company
March 10, 2006
The 1970s were a great time to be a kid. You had the holy quartet of kids’ shows: Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Zoom and The Electric Company. Anyone who remembers watching the Electric Company knows the show’s catchy theme song that starts off with those immortal lyrics, “We’re gonna turn it on. We’re gonna bring you the power.” The show worked so well because it was hip to the times and yet educational as well. It cleverly blended comedy sketches, animation and trippy special effects all to a funky soundtrack to great effect. It was proof that you could have fun learning.
The fine folks at Shout! have collected 20 of what they feel are the best episodes. They provide a fine snap shot of what made the show so great and is also a wonderful trip down memory lane for those of us who grew up with it. The Electric Company was originally conceived of as a reading show to help struggling readers in second grade but they didn’t want to be an imitation of Sesame Street. One of its creators, Joan Ganz Cooney, suggested making it like “Laugh-In for kids,” or The Carol Burnett Show in that it would consist of series of sketches that mixed live action with animation, comedy sketches and song and dance numbers.
A young Morgan Freeman got his start on the Electric Company, playing a variety of characters, including DJ Mel Mounds who sported a huge afro while rapping about sounds. Around the time of Blacula (1972), Freeman did his own take on Dracula by helping a nervous commentator form words. Rita Moreno played a female Tarzan named Jennifer of the Jungle and was helped out by Paul the Gorilla with whom she would teach words to and he would act out what they meant. Throw in Bill Cosby and the show had a formidable celebrity cast with others providing the occasional voiceover or cameo (including Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder). Over the years, a versatile cast of actors played a variety of roles. They were able to do broad comedy, sing, dance and teach without being too obvious about it.
Another memorable sketch featured two silhouetted people forming a word together, often starting with the same letter while episode 391 marked the first appearance of fan favourite Spider-Man who went up against the Spoiler in this show. The webslinger would move in actual panels like a literal comic book.
The show worked because it not only was bright and loud, appealing to kids, but it was also peppered with sly references that only adults would get. For example, in one episode they parody 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in an animated segment where an astronaut kicks a huge monolith that resembles the one from the movie while uttering the word, “Ow.” The monolith shatters forming the word. This made the Electric Company a rare program that parents could watch it with their kids and not get bored.
On the first disc “Rita Moreno Remembers,” recalling how she got on the show and how some of her fellow actors tried to dissuade her from doing it because of the stigma of a kids show. She gives her impressions of working with Cosby and Freeman.
Also included is an “Outtakes” reel, a funny collection of props not working, Cosby improvising an inappropriate word, people forgetting their lines and basically showing how much fun it was to make.
Disc two features “Joan Ganz Clooney Then and Now.” She also created Sesame Street and we see vintage footage of her previewing the Electric Company which also includes her mission statement for it. She is also interviewed now and talks about how she got the show started and got federal funding.
On the third disc is “Silent E Karaoke” and it allows you to sing along with one of the famous songs from the show.
“Creative Team Remembers” features executive producer Sam Gibbon and head writer Tom Whedon recalling their experiences working on the show. They talk about all the research they did and meeting with educational experts that was done in order to figure out their target audience and the content of the show.
The fourth and last disc has a featurette entitled, “June Angela Remembers.” She was the only child actor (and member of the Short Circus) to be in the entire run of the show. She talks about how she got on the show and her impressions of working on it.