A staple of most Gen X childhoods, The electricity company ended its six-season original run on April 15, 1977, after airing a staggering 780 episodes. The show would continue to rerun on PBS until the end of 1985, creating a lasting impact both on its audience and on children’s television as a whole.
Created by then relatively unknown actor Paul Dooley (sixteen candles, popeye, Come off), The electricity company was produced by the Children’s Television Workshop, the company that also provided sesame street on TV. Before it ends, The electricity company would air on 250 stations nationwide, win two Emmys, and be used as a teaching tool in classrooms across the country.
The electricity company also helped launch the careers of actors like Morgan Freeman, who was then best known for his work on Broadway. He appeared in the series’ first cast, alongside Rita Moreno, Judy Graubart, Lee Chamberlin, Skip Hinnant, and the now-disgraced Bill Cosby, who would only occasionally appear in season two. Later, the cast would pick up actors like Fame‘s Irene Cara, who went on to win an Oscar for her performance of “Flashdance…What a Feeling.”
It should also be noted that breaking Bad and You better call Saul star Giancarlo Esposito sang The electricity companythe theme song, although he never appeared on the show.
Watch an episode of “The Electric Company”
A wacky mix of live sketches, animation and the occasional puppet show, The electricity company has been praised for its focus on children’s literacy. While sesame street aimed at preschoolers, The electricity company was aimed at children aged 6 to 9 and aimed to supplement what they were already learning at school. The show attempted to teach children to read by focusing on the sounds of letters and letter combinations, teaching viewers the value of a good “ck” or “br”.
To create his sketches, The electricity company enlisted a veritable cavalcade of legendary stars. Mel Brooks appeared occasionally as the blond-haired Cartoon Man, who was often faced with a series of disorganized words that he had to rearrange. Joan Rivers narrated “The Adventures of Letterman,” an animated segment featuring the voice of Gene Wilder as the titular hero. (Zero Mostel voiced the villain, the Spell Binder, who has since been cited as perpetuating a negative racial stereotype of Arab people.)
The show often sent popular Hollywood tropes and properties with segments like “Five Seconds,” which was a spin on Impossible mission, and “Here’s Cooking at You”, which featured Graubart as little Julia Grown-Up. Graubart also starred alongside Jim Boyd in “Jennifer of the Jungle,” which was a kind of Catskills comedy. George of the Jungle. Other animated sketches, such as “Monolith”, taught phonics in a more engaging way, often to the tune of Richard Strass’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”.
Recurring characters also abounded in the series: Freeman played several roles, including the sweet Easy Reader, the talkative DJ Mel Mounds, and Vincent the Plant Vampire, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Moreno starred as the hot-tempered Otto the director and the enthusiastic Millie the assistant, whose catchphrase “Hey, guys!” was eventually incorporated into the show’s opening credits. (It’s also one of those phrases you’ve probably heard or imitated, but never knew where it came from – and now you do!)
Watch Morgan Freeman in “The Electric Company”
Interestingly, the show also featured two popular existing characters from elsewhere in the entertainment world. Beginning in season four, Danny Seagren played Spider-Man in a series of sketches called “Spidey Super Stories”. He never spoke or appeared out of costume, his words only appearing in bubbles above his head for the audience to read. (A spin-off series from Marvel Comics, Spidey Superstorieswas released around the same time.) The show also featured new Road Runner cartoons written and directed by Chuck Jones, which used words and sounds to detail the fate of its title character and dogged pursuer, Wile E.Coyote.
A part of The electricity companyThe songs live on to this day, thanks in part to its excellent musical staff.
For the first three seasons, the show’s musical director was sesame street‘s Joe Raposo, who was an absolute creative powerhouse and is best known for writing songs like “Bein’ Green”, “C Is for Cookie” and “Sing”, as well as the themes for both sesame street and company of three. Satirist Tom Lehrer wrote 10 songs for the series, including “LY” and “Silent E”, while Broadway icon Gary William Friedman worked on season four, composing the material for approximately 260 episodes and writing about forty songs, including the popular Spider Man theme song.
Listen to the theme song “Spider-Man” from “The Electric Company”
Unfortunately, The electricity company ended at the height of its popularity, in part due to a lack of licensed products. While sesame street was expensive to produce for PBS, it also generated revenue through books, games, and toys. The electricity company, on the other hand, only ever spawned a comic book series and a Milton Bradley board game based on the “Fargo North, Decoder” sketches. (Two Intellivision video games were produced after the show’s cancellation.)
Feeling the show’s demise and feeling pressure from local PBS stations, the Children’s Television Workshop produced two final seasons of The electricity company, thinking that they could be repeated and thus give the show four more years of life. In reality, the show continued to air for about eight more years, eventually running out of juice in early October 1985.
Reruns reappeared on Noggin from 1995, and Sesame Workshop launched an ill-fated reboot of the series, starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, in 2009. The series lives on in the hearts and minds of its fans today. nostalgic and old viewers, all of whom have hopefully been made better readers by its very existence.
Watch highlights from ‘The Electric Company’
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