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Hey, You Guuuuuuuuuuuuuys! Check out how Gen X-ers learned how to read years ago by watching television

DVD Review: The Best of The Electric Company

Created by the producers of Sesame Street, The Electric Company ran on PBS from 1971 to 1977 and continued airing in reruns until 1985. Its purpose was to serve as a tool helping children learn to read. The series, whose style owes a debt to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show, focused on letters, sound clusters, words, and punctuation. Lessons were made fun by presenting them in a combination of live-action comedy sketches, musical numbers and animation. To help capture children’s interest, the show was made visually interesting by using the full palette of video effects.

The cast was a group of talented actors who sang, danced, and performed comedy. They included such notables as Bill Cosby, who appeared in the first season, Rita Moreno, and in his first credited role, Morgan Freeman. Recurring characters appeared throughout the series, Easy Reader, the cool cat who loved reading, Fargo North, Decoder, who helped people solve word puzzles, J. Arthur Crank, whose names speaks for itself, Jennifer of the Jungle and her friend Paul the Gorilla, and Millie, whose primal scream became the show’s catchphrase, “Hey, You Guuuuuuuuuuuuuys!” They were later joined by Spider-Man in season four.

The show had a number recurring sketches as well: “The Adventures of Letterman,” which featured the voices of Joan Rivers as the Narrator, Gene Wilder as our hero, and Zero Mostel as the villain Spellbinder, who would cause mayhem by changing letters in words, such as changing a car into a jar on the freeway, trapping a family inside; “Silhouettes,” where two people facing each other said parts of a word, which were shown graphically, and then they said the word; and the “Monolith” cartoons, an homage to Kubrick’s 2001, where the monolith would break apart, revealing a letter, all set to Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

The four-disc set contains 20 episodes over the course of its run, including the first episode and the last. Moreno introduces each episode, and after the credits roll, there is trivia. Special features on the discs are comprised of Moreno and June, a member of The Short Circus, the kid musical group, relating their show experiences; outtakes that aren’t all for the kids; Children’s Television Workshop founder Joan Ganz Cooney talking about the show; karaoke featuring Tom Lehrer’s “Silent E;” and a discussion with Executive Producer Sam Gibbons and head writer Tom Whedon. A single disc containing five episodes is also available.

While the video holds up well, there is a slight problem with the audio. There is some bleed-through, so during quieter moments you can hear sounds from later parts of an episode.

Since he fit the show’s demographic, I tried to get Sobrino Poco Loco, my nephew who is turning seven in May, to watch the show. First thing, he wanted to know was if it was rated R. He loves going to R-rated movies, a discussion for another post. Luckily, the letter R was one of the lessons for the episode I selected, so when an “r” appeared on the screen, I was able to convince him it was the show’s rating. He sat still for a little bit and I got him to read some words off the screen; however, during one of the musical numbers he became bored and disinterested. Gen X-ers who grew up on the show will enjoy looking back, and they will have fun sharing it with their children, but don’t be surprised if the kids walk out of the room or ask to play X-Box instead.

A scientist should use these DVDs to study the brain because there were things I had not thought of in almost 30 years that sprang to the forefront of my mind as vivid memories. I remembered the endings of the “It’s The Plumber!” and the “As Is” cartoons as if I had watched them yesterday. There’s no telling what’s locked away in my mind like a forgotten computer file, waiting to be accessed. I might be unaware that I know the answer to life, the universe, and everything, although it’s more likely a recollection of a Saturday morning show, like Lancelot Link, just taking up space.

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS

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