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.


  1. Man. I was right in the demographic for Electric company at the end of the run. Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader was the highlight of the show for me and was probably - at least partially - responsible for my love of comics as the narrator of "Spidey Super Stories". I hate that the show did not have the longevity of Sesame Street. To me, Electric Company continued the educational conversation "Sesame" began.

    As to the amount of people of color on the show, I was blessed to have parents that never made a big deal about race and to me "Electric Company" (and Sesame) were just normal folks doing their thing. Looking back as an adult I can see how this was important and revolutionary this was at the time.

    Somehow we have managed to really screw up children's television in the 30 years since Electric Company. The networks and cable have done a terrible dis-service to today's generations of kids. "Sesame" is the only guy still standing. Electric Company, 3,2,1 Contact, Sid and Marty Kroft, Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo, Schoolhouse Rock - all gone. The commercial ones are gone due to ratings and the other PBS shows due to budgetary concerns. These shows were a tremendous service to young people. Shame on the collective "Us".

    Great post Brian.

    1. Thanks, Geb! With the times, we have had an explosion of media. Wanna watch cartoons all day? You can! Wanna watch soap operas or game shows all day? Gotcha covered. The problem/blessing of earlier times meant that a TV station had to be everything to everyone it served. The problem was that it meant that sometimes the attempts at the kiddie audience could be ham-fisted. On the other hand, with so many people vying for a broadcast spot, there has to be a whittling down, there must be a straining out. Yes, there were those who should have gotten a shot, but didn't, and there are some that made it that deserved to do so.

      I didn't watch 3-2-1 Contact, but I certainly saw quite a bit of the others. Mr. RogersThe Krofft shows were a bit of a mixed bag for me. At the top was "Land of the Lost", cheaply done, to be sure, but with scripts by D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold, there were some good shows and pretty solid concepts for a kid's show. My issue with the Kroffts was a weird obsession with abduction:

      H.R. Pufnstuf - A boy commits the crime of having a musical instrument desired by a witch and is whisked off to a foreign land.

      Lidsville - Curiosity kills a cat AND gets you a one-way pass to a land of living hats.

      Land of the Lost - Rowing with your Dad brings you into a secret and dangerous world.

      Sakes! I wonder how I got out of bed in the morning.

      As for Mr. Rogers, this clip delineates how much I respect this man's legacy. What a blessed man.

  2. You forgot that Morgan Freeman also played the most awesome vampire ever. And Rita always getting new jobs after yelling "HEY YOU GUYS!"