Thursday, September 7, 2023

Wanted: The Electric Company

Years ago if you had asked me what TV show not on DVD I’d most like to own, I would have answered The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. But before this month is over I will have all 14 seasons sitting on my shelf thanks to Sam Nelson, Time-Life and MPI.


I also managed to put together a full run of Family, by finally finding uncut episodes of its final three seasons through unofficial sources. 


The next show on my list may surprise you: It’s The Electric Company, the children’s educational series that aired from 1971 to 1977 on PBS. There were more than 750 episodes, and I want to own them all.


Indulging my second childhood? I don’t think that’s it. Besides, I’m already up to my third childhood now. And I certainly don’t need the remedial education as I’ve already learned all the sounds of words and letters – in fact even six year-old me knew all that stuff by the time the series debuted, and I was a fan back then as well.

I want this series for the same reason I wanted Mission: Impossible and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hogan’s Heroes and so many others - it brings back happy memories, and all these years later it is still a very entertaining show. There were two “Best of” sets issued by Shout Factory many years ago, and watching any of their combined 40 episodes there isn’t one that doesn’t still make me laugh out loud at least once.



Tell me this isn’t funnier than anything from the last few seasons of Saturday Night Live:


The cast is superb. Bill Cosby and Rita Moreno already had stellar careers when they joined, and Morgan Freeman and Irene Cara had wonderful careers ahead of them. Skip Hinnant played Schroeder on stage in the original cast of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Denise Nickerson was in Dark Shadows and played the girl who turned into a blueberry in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. If the remaining cast members never posted equally memorable credits, it was certainly not for lack of talent. 



The series also featured animated sequences with the voices of Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, among others. Music was provided by composers like the brilliant Tom Lehrer and Joe Raposo. And some episodes contain cameos from such Comfort TV favorites as Barbara Eden, Dean Martin, Carol Burnett, and the cast of Bonanza.

Surprisingly, for being 50 years old the show rarely seems dated. Granted, current generations won’t know that Skip Hinnant’s portrayal of “Early Gibbons,” who lives in the forest and eats tree stumps, is a reference to the 1970s Grape Nuts cereal commercials featuring author Euell Gibbons, but the skit still works on its own. Likewise, Judy Graubart’s “Here’s Cooking At You” segments as Julia Grownup won’t be any less entertaining if someone has never heard of Julia Child. Graubart, a Second City alum, delightfully peppers her spelling lessons with non-scripted asides while preparing such dishes as “Grilled Dill Pickles with Chilled Vanilla Filling.”


Before the DVD releases, there was for me a gap of at least 20 years between episode views, but when I picked up a bootleg VHS tape so much of what was on it came back instantly.

“The Super is having his supper”


“My name is Kathy…Kathy is my name”


“Hey you guys!”


“And…what about Naomi?”

I love the opening credits to the final seasons, where every cast member’s most popular recurring character morphs into the actor – Skip Hinnant as Fargo North, Decoder, Judy Graubart as Jennifer of the Jungle, Hattie Winston as librarian Valerie, Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader, Rita Moreno as Pandora, Jim Boyd as J. Arthur Crank, and Luis Avalos as Dr. Doolots. It’s like the cast taking a pre-emptive  and well-deserved curtain call before the learning starts. 




I know it’s a children’s show. But like the best children’s shows it offers fun for adults as well. And there are segments in there where grammar takes a backseat to other life lessons that resonate more with parents than kids, like when Vi, owner of Vi’s Diner (Lee Chamberlin), dreams about a day that doesn’t have to be spent serving up the day’s specials behind the counter, or when Jim Boyd plays an old man reminiscing about his life in the poignant song “I Was Young Once Too.”


Ah, yes, the songs. As someone commented on the YouTube posting of the “Punctuation” song, “Haven't heard this in a half-century, yet I remember every single word.” I did as well. Neither Cole Porter nor Lennon and McCartney could have written a more clever way to explain how to use a period, question mark, exclamation point, and comma. 



I have so many favorites that I did a piece earlier in this blog on the top 20 songs from the show (for which I need to go back and re-upload some of the missing videos). From “The Sweet, Sweet Sway” to “N-apostrophe-T” to the hilarious “Ly Song” written and sung by Tom Lehrer, I can’t think of another series for children or adults that contained so many wonderful original compositions. 



Another life lesson was subtly slipped in as well, when the multiracial cast performed in sketches as spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, with no acknowledgment of their diversity. In the 1970s such couplings weren't unknown to television, but most would focus on the interracial pairing with all the righteous fervor that a 'very special episode' demands. Here Morgan Freeman could play a guy married to Judy Graubart or Rita Moreno, and it was a non-issue because it was treated as such. Isn’t that the way it should be?


I think there’s another reason why I find The Electric Company so special. I’ve worked with words my whole life. I don’t usually think of it in those terms, but words are the tools of a writer. And when I watch this show I see how our language’s words are formed, something I obviously know, yet it instills a deeper appreciation for them, and something like fascination for how they came to be.


There’s a scene in Avengers: Infinity War where Thor announces his intention to go to a place called “Knowhere.” “That’s a made-up word,” someone tells him. “All words are made up,” he replies, and he’s right. A chair wasn’t a chair until we in the English speaking realms decided that’s what it should be called. 



How did we decide what to name stuff? The show doesn’t answer that, but it does call attention to the innumerable quirks of our language. Why do ‘heat’ and ‘feet’ rhyme, though one uses ‘ea’ and one ‘ee’? Boyd’s character of J. Arthur Crank is often heard in an angry phone call, to represent the voice of the frustrated elementary school student also trying to figure that out. “Well, just because” is the show’s answer via kindly Judy Graubart. “I get a lot of ‘just because’ from you, girly” he protests.


But yeah, that’s about the best answer anyone can provide. Most of our words are derivations from other languages but you can’t tell that to a five year-old still working out why putting a 'p' and an 'h' together sounds like an 'f'. At some point all of this just clicks in for us and we accept it. The show acknowledges that, yeah, it won’t make sense to us now (or maybe ever) but sometimes life is like that.


When you look at the plummeting reading levels in public education, you wonder why it wouldn’t be a public service to make this show available, as there are certainly thousands (millions?) who still don’t know these basics before they get to junior high.


I know DVDs are a long shot. But so was Ozzie and Harriet a few years ago. Come on, somebody, as the theme song says, it’s time to light up the dark of night like the brightest day in a whole new way. I want The Electric Company on my shelf before my time on earth is through (pronounced like “threw”). Just because.


  1. In regards to having the entire series on DVD, it boils down to segments in the seasons from 4 through 6 that featured the Roadrunner (Warner Brothers), and Spiderman (Marvel and Disney). Also Sesame Workshop, which has cast the show aside like yesterday's trash.

  2. What, no love for "Spidey Super Stories", second only to the "syllable silhouettes" as the most iconic segment of the series (which didn't rate a mention, either). Sh. Ame. Shame.

    And Rita Moreno is still a cutie at 91--God bless her.

    1. Love the silhouettes - the Spidey segments were fun but never stood out as much for me as they did for other fans, then and now.

  3. I remember seeing Judy Graubert in a few commercials back in the 1970s, most memorably in a Listerine ad, and I got to see Hattie Winston in person once at a taping of BECKER. When I started seeing Morgan Freeman in movies in the late 1980s, I could fondly remember seeing him on this show.
    I remember thinking I'd outgrown MISTEROGERS (by 1st grade) and SESAME STREET, but TEC was always cool for me and still is.

    1. Very early Sesame Street can also be pleasant viewing - once Elmo arrives it's all downhill.

  4. Our 5th grade teacher would wheel in a TV occasionally just in time to catch a portion of "The Electric Company", usually a "Letterman" segment which was always a big hit with the class.