|The Best of the Electric Company (1971-1977)
Starring: Luis Avalos, Jim Boyd, Lee Chamberlin, Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, Judy Graubart, Skip Hinnant, Rita Moreno, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, and Zero Mostel
If you’re under the age of 30 and someone mentions the words “Electric Company” to you, you’re well within your rights to offer little more than a blank look…or possibly be concerned that you’re on the verge of getting a lecture about how you should always turn out the lights when leaving a room. If, however, you’re between the ages of 30 and 40, not only will your eyes light up with instant recognition and legitimate fondness, but there’s a pretty damned good chance that you’ll immediately start reeling off some of your favorite memories of one of the greatest educational television series of all time.
Some of my personal favorites, which will doubtlessly start the reminiscences flowing:
• Letterman! (“Faster than a rolling 'O'! Stronger than silent 'E'! Able to leap capital 'T' in a single bound!")
• Easy Reader
• The Adventures of Spider-Man
• Fargo North, Decoder (it would take me over a decade to finally get the pun)
• J. Arthur Crank
• Soft-Shoe Silhouettes (where two shadowy figures each spell half of a word; it was famously parodied on “Family Guy”)
• Monolith (itself a parody of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it was where a rectangle-shaped piece of stone would, to the soundtrack of "Also sprach Zarathustra,” shatter and reveal various letters)
• Silent “E” / “L-Y” (the Tom Lehrer songs)
For years upon years, it was as though “The Electric Company,” a creation of the Children’s Television Workshop (they’re also the fine folks who brought you “Sesame Street”), had been swallowed up by the earth and disappeared into oblivion…which is downright incredible when you think about it. It had a six year run on PBS from 1971 to 1977, and it was deemed such an educational success that it was played in elementary schools around America throughout the majority of that time. It was a tremendous coup to get Bill Cosby and Rita Moreno to participate in the show, and, as history has since recorded, it was a significant career stepping stone for one Morgan Freeman. After the show’s run, few other primary cast members on the show went on to any significant success (hey, there were an astounding 780 episodes produced during only six years; they were probably just exhausted!), but that’s not to say the show didn’t produce some talent from its ranks. One of the original members of the Short Circus, the series’ band of singing kids, was none other than Irene Cara; she was replaced by Denise Nickerson, picking up her second 15 minutes of fame after having played Violet Beauregard in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Behind the scenes, the show’s first head writer was Paul Dooley, a.k.a. Molly Ringwald’s dad in “Sixteen Candles” (among dozens of other roles), and he was replaced in the ranks by Tom Whedon, whose greatest creative composition would prove to be his son, Joss. Yes, that Joss Whedon.
Shout! Factory had already ensured its position as one of the coolest companies EVER when they released box sets for “Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared,” “Home Movies,” and “You Bet Your Life,” but to put out a 4-disc set of “Electric Company” episodes…? This is a rare occasion to break out that old chestnut of a descriptor and unabashedly declare them to be…da bomb. It’s awesome that Rita Moreno made herself readily available to participate in the special features (she offers a personal introduction to each episode), and that a few other members of the cast did the same, but it’s mildly depressing that Cosby and Freeman are nowhere to be found. Still, this is a minor complaint which in no way detracts from the overall awesomeness of simply being able to see these episodes again. If you grew up watching the show, you will find yourself experiencing the most profound déjà vu of your life as you gradually realize that you’re remembering lines and lyrics from songs, even though you haven’t heard them in nigh on 30 years. You might’ve outgrown “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street,” but you’ll quickly find that you never outgrow “The Electric Company.”
In closing, all we have to say is: with 760 more episodes still gathering dust, can we go ahead and set up a release schedule for Volumes 2 – 39?