Hey, You Guys!: A Look Back at ‘The Electric Company’
A staple of most Gen X childhoods, The Electric Company ended its original six-season run on April 15, 1977, after airing a staggering 780 episodes. The show would continue to re-air on PBS until late 1985, creating a lasting impact on both its audience and on children’s television as a whole.
Created by the then-relatively unknown actor Paul Dooley (Sixteen Candles, Popeye, Breaking Away), The Electric Company was produced by the Children’s Television Workshop, the company that also brought Sesame Street to TV. Before it wrapped up, The Electric Company would run on 250 stations nationwide, win two Emmys, and be used as a teaching tool in classrooms across the country.
The Electric Company also helped launch the careers of actors like Morgan Freeman, who was then mostly known for his Broadway work. He appeared in the show’s first cast, alongside Rita Moreno, Judy Graubart, Lee Chamberlin, Skip Hinnant and the now-disgraced Bill Cosby, who would only appear occasionally in season two. Later, the cast would pick up actors like Fame’s Irene Cara, who later went on to win an Academy Award for her performance of “Flashdance … What a Feeling.”
Watch an Episode of 'The Electric Company'
A wacky mix of live-action sketches, animation and the occasional puppet, The Electric Company was hailed for its focus on children’s literacy. While Sesame Street was aimed at preschool kids, The Electric Company was for kids ages 6 to 9 and meant to supplement what they were already learning in school. The show tried 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 its sketches, The Electric Company enlisted a veritable cavalcade of legendary stars. Mel Brooks would pop up from time to time as the Blond-Haired Cartoon Man, who would often be faced with a series of incorrectly ordered words he’d have to reorganize. 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 up popular Hollywood tropes and properties with segments like “Five Seconds,” which was a spin on Mission: Impossible, and “Here’s Cooking at You,” which cast Graubart as the punny Julia Grown-Up. Graubart also starred alongside Jim Boyd in “Jennifer of the Jungle,” which was a sort of Catskills comedy take on George of the Jungle. Other animated sketches, like “Monolith,” taught phonics in a headier way, often to the tune of Richard Strass' "Also Sprach Zarathustra."
Recurring characters also abounded on the show: Freeman took on several roles, including the smooth Easy Reader, chatty DJ Mel Mounds and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Moreno hammed it up as the short-tempered Otto the Director and the enthusiastic Millie the Helper, whose catchphrase, "Hey, you guys!," was eventually incorporated into the show’s opening credits. (It’s also one of those phrases that you’ve probably heard aped or mimicked, but never knew where it came from – and now you do!)
Watch Morgan Freeman on 'The Electric Company'
Interestingly, the show also featured two popular existing characters from elsewhere in the world of entertainment. Starting 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, with his words only appearing in speech bubbles above his head for the audience to read. (A spin-off series of Marvel Comics, Spidey Super-Stories, came out around the same time.) The show also contained new Road Runner cartoons written and directed by Chuck Jones, which used words and sounds to detail the plight of its title character and his dogged pursuer, Wile E. Coyote.
Some of The Electric Company’s songs endure 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 powerhouse of creation and is best known for penning songs like “Bein’ Green,” “C Is for Cookie” and “Sing,” as well as the themes to both Sesame Street and Three’s Company. Satirist Tom Lehrer wrote 10 songs for the series, including “L-Y” and “Silent E,” while Broadway icon Gary William Friedman worked on season four, composing material for about 260 episodes and penning 40-odd songs, including the popular Spider-Man theme song.
Listen to the 'Spider-Man' Theme Song From 'The Electric Company'
Unfortunately, The Electric Company ended at the height of its popularity due in part to a lack of licensed goods. While Sesame Street was expensive for PBS to produce, it also generated revenue through books, games and toys. The Electric Company, on the other hand, only ever birthed a comic series and a Milton Bradley board game based on the “Fargo North, Decoder” sketches. (Two Intellivision video games were produced after the show was canceled.)
Sensing the demise of the show and feeling pressure from local PBS stations, the Children’s Television Workshop produced two final seasons of The Electric Company, with the thinking that they could be repeated and thus give the show four more years of life. In actuality, the show continued to air for about eight more years, ultimately running out of juice in early October 1985.
Reruns re-emerged on Noggin starting in 1995, and Sesame Workshop launched an ill-fated reboot of the show, featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda, in 2009. The show lives on today in the hearts and minds of its nostalgic fans and past viewers, all of whom were hopefully made better readers by its very existence.
Watch Highlights From 'The Electric Company'
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Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin