Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Quiet Revolution of the Electric Company

From 1971-1976, there was a small revolution being waged. The Children's Television Workshop was successful with Sesame Street and they created a second show for a slightly older demographic. "The Electric Company" was, by the time it came on, too "young" for me, but I enjoyed and still enjoyed the humor of the show.

"Love of Chair", the odd faux-soap,
- A prince played by Skip Hinnant finding out that a Duke had a daughter of marrying age, so he writes a letter to the Duke saying, "Dear Lord Ellington...", but, the real revolution of this show, for me was in its casting.

My favorite exchange, perhaps of the entire series, was this one between Skip Hinnant as a carnival barker and Judy Graubart as a young customer. She was guessing various words Hinnant was showing her (correctly), which prompted the following:

Hinnant: Say, little girl, that's right! You're not as dumb as you look.
Graubart: (shyly, with a smile) My Daddy says no one's as dumb as I look.

Because there were so many shows and there were so many sketches, everyone had to do a lot. Perhaps out of expediency, everyone was cast according to talent and it was a rare thing for any show of the time to have people of color in so many roles.

The show had my attention when they cast Bill Cosby, who left before the end of the run, but look how some of the roles were spread around:

- Luis Avalos played a doctor (albeit a pretty goofy one, Dr. Doolats), an infuriated orchestra conductor and a plant shop owner.
- Rita Moreno played a bratty little girl and a movie director
- Morgan Freeman played a clown, a park ranger, Marcello the put-upon cue card holder for Moreno's director and a DJ (well, that role dates a bit)
- Judy Graubart was Jennifer of the Jungle and even took a shot or two as a director.

As a little boy, the takeaway from this was that I could do anything. I wonder if other kids got the same message? It was and is astounding to me at the time to see. The times were slooowly, with extra o's moving for diversity in casting, at this time, "Room 222" featured a multiracial cast, "Temperatures Rising" fetured Cleavon Little as a doctor, Flip Wilson hosted a show, but there was still the air of novelty about people of color (you'll note the lack of Latinos and Latinas on this list).

"The Electric Company" jumped in with both feet. "Sesame Street" certainly did as well, however by dint of longevity, they've managed to address a lot more communities, but for a five-year run, TEC did quite a lot.

...and it made me laugh a lot, too. Catch it on DVD.