The Best of the Electric Company

[15 February 2006]

By Dan MacIntosh

On the surface, this old PBS program is about as retro as a Good Times episode. But sound educational and entertainment principles are clearly at its center, which makes it still worth watching today.

Wow, the characters in The Electric Company sure look and sound dated now! But then again, this show did have its initial start way back in 1971 after all. Even so, this lesser known sister show to Sesame Street is/was nevertheless both entertaining and educational at the same time. It had star power, too, with a cast that consisted of Bill Cosby, Rita Moreno, and Morgan Freeman, among others. So, to borrow the scientific electricity analogy, this pioneering program still has plenty of powerful juice.

In case you’re not familiar with this effective PBS program, its primary aim was to teach children how to read. Joan Ganz Cooney, the founder of the Children’s Television Workshop—which produced both Sesame Street and The Electric Company—explains during one of this disc’s special features how literacy was a hot topic back during the program’s genesis. In fact, the Nixon administration was especially outspoken about increasing reading skills among the young.

On the surface, The Electric Company appeared to be an awfully lot like Sesame Street. It had animated segments, children singing, and even borrowed The Grouch, Big Bird, and Grover for a few of its episodes. But unlike Sesame Street, which covers a wide variety of subject matter, The Electric Company focused intently on literacy, and nothing else. To accomplish its goal, The Electric Company mainly used sketch comedy to get its points across, but then also threw in various musical and animated segments for variety’s sake.

For adults, it’s difficult to pick up on this program’s charm at first. The subject matter is so far below grown-up intelligence levels, it is tedious upon first viewing. But once you become familiar with the various characters and sketches, and you realize that an abundance of creativity went into producing this show, you may just forget that it wasn’t really meant for you in the first place.

Morgan Freeman—who is now a cinematic elder statesman—was a young, groovy and a relative unknown quantity back then. For instance, he regularly played the jive talking Easy Reader, a man that never saw a word he didn’t like. In much the same way Sesame Street‘s The Count is with numbers, Easy Reader wanders through life seeking out new and exciting words to read. In one scene, for instance, he visits a library, which nearly puts him into word overload. There’s also a continuing sketch that finds Freeman—in full bloom afro, no less—making like a fast-talking AM radio DJ, which is always great, silly fun.

Bill Cosby was also a member of this cast for a brief while at the program’s beginning, yet he nevertheless left a lasting impression. He didn’t take on too many recurring characters, but he still brightened the screen with those unmistakable facial expressions of his. (By the way, he’d never get away with having his omnipresent cigar—which he’s almost always seen with here—in today’s politically correct times).

The other big star of this series was Rita Moreno, who says she’s recognized to this day for her catch phrase, “Hey you guys!” She introduces each of these four discs, which offers her the chance to reminisce fondly about her days on the show.

In addition to its on-screen celebrities, both Mel Brooks and Joan Rivers also lend their voice talents to numerous episodes. Rivers narrates the adventures of Letterman, for instance. Later in the series’ life, a true comic book superhero, the costumed Spider-Man, appears in a number of comic strip-inspired bits.

Some of this show’s recurring characters may be just about as famous as its stars. Familiar favorites include Fargo North, Decoder, who is a fast-talking, joking detective that is continually called upon to fill in the missing letters to sentences, in order to decode messages. There’s also a soap opera-like bit called “Love of Chair”, which is so strangely likeable, it must be seen to be truly comprehended.

The lasting value of this show became clear to me when I watched it along with my six-year-old daughter. Of course, she didn’t even notice that it was a period piece—the word “groovy”, for example, was just another new word to her. When I heard her reading along with the various words presented during the show, I realized how effective this TV approach to teaching literacy truly was and is. Yep, the power is still firmly in the “on” position there at The Electric Company.

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