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The Best of the Electric Company (A PopEntertainment.com TV on DVD Review)

The Best of The Electric Company, Vol. 1

The Best of The Electric Company, Vol. 1

The Electric Company

The Best of the Electric Company (Shout! Factory-2006)

HEY, YOU GUYS!

Just when you thought you couldn’t recapture any more of your TV-watching childhood, The Electric Company has surprisingly and blessedly come to DVD. Nowhere near as good as you remember it – with crude graphics, cheesy synthesizers and overlong segments (it’s stuffed to the gills at 29 minutes per) – you’ll be amazed that you’re still entertained long after the lesson had worn off.

The PBS series, “getting its power from” The Children’s Television Workshop production studio, was the natural next step in the innovational new wave of programming for kids that evolved in the mind-expanding 1970s. President Nixon declared those ten years “The Right to Read Decade,” and a new sense of purpose and style swept both public television and school classrooms, breaking the tired old mold of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

Sesame Street proved its own theory that pre-schoolers can learn basic educational concepts if presented in the style of comedy skits, catchy advertising jingles and arrestingly visual TV commercials. The Electric Company was developed to appeal to slightly older kids (second and third graders), taking a cue from the musical-comedy variety venues of the day, including The Carol Burnett ShowThe Flip Wilson Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but its obvious biggest influence was the fast-moving  Laugh-In. .

Its aim was to teach “decoding,” the ability to analyze sounds and spellings so that even unfamiliar words can be tackled successfully. This was to be accomplished with the utmost respect toward children with learning issues (a tall order – easier said than done).

The mission was accomplished so successfully that even kids without learning disabilities, as well as older kids and adults, turned on to the program, assigning it double duty as an instructive vehicle and a revered pop culture staple. It was so successful in its day that when it was broadcast to many classrooms at 9 a.m., student latenesses were reported to have dropped.

The Electric Company surged for six years in its original run (a whopping 780 episodes), and then educated yet another generation in reruns. This was no low-budget wonder; it was loaded with special effects and original songs (many written by satirist Tom Lehrer), including “Golly, This Lollipop Is Following Me” and “Silent E” (“who can turn a cub into a cube?”).

Probably the most famous sketch was the sight of silhouetted profiles of two cast members forming a word together (“CH-AIR, CHAIR”). Perhaps almost as famous is the animated short “The Adventures of Letterman,” (“It’s a word, it’s a plan, it’s Letterman!”) with the unlikely narration of Joan Rivers and featuring, in voiceover, the unlikely reunion of The Producers’ Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel (who, as the villain, grumbles, “I hate happiness!”).

Even with an ensemble cast of television and theater actors (uncredited!), the series does not have a “home base,” like Sesame Street, but presents its world as an actual page that is meant to be written on or read. And the words always look beautiful.

Embodying the power, sunny confidence and funky fun of the show is young actor Morgan Freeman (yes, that Morgan Freeman), who, as the character Easy Reader, shows that reading is cool (marvel at a film of him strutting through 1970s New York City, blissfully reading signs on the mean streets).

Also on board is educationally minded Bill Cosby and the awesome Rita Moreno, who cheerfully makes herself available for the present-day commentary. It’s easily a charisma fest with Moreno, Cosby and Freeman alone, but the circle is complete with a few more unknown but equally talented character actors, including TV-commercial veteran Judy Graubart.

As Moreno states, the show was not aimed at “the little geniuses,” but the appeal to baby hipsters in training is undeniable. A pseudo-pop group called The Short Circus rocked out passionately about punctuation and featured Asian-American child-actor June Angela (also on hand for a pleasant and smart commentary visit), who managed to stay with the show for all six seasons.

If you look closely, you’ll find Denise Nickerson (who played Violet in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and Irene Cara (who eventually starred in Fame and recorded the ‘80s hit, “Flashdance – What a Feeling.”).

The DVD is a best-of collection, but it covers everything you remember, utilizing mild forms of vaudeville (everything old is new again), as well as a Broadway-musical sense of comedy mixed with can-you-dig it irreverence.

It’s not about learning how to read; it’s about the joy of reading. Good cause – good show.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 11, 2006.

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