Do these three words give you couch potato flashbacks of funky, funky alphabets and Bill Cosby?
“Heeeyyy yoooou guyyyyys!”
If so, you probably recognize that as the signature sign-on of The Electric Company, one of public television’s most beloved shows of the 1970s. Now, after a three-decade hiatus, the program is powering back up. From 1971 to 1977 it was the series to watch for kids who had moved on from Big Bird’s nest at Sesame Street. With a focus on reading and literacy, the Electric Company — produced, like Sesame Street, by the not-for-profit Sesame Workshop — catered to the second grade set, too mature for Grover’s antics but still learning the niceties of the silent E. In a bid to address the literacy crisis in the country’s inner cities, the show was a little groovier than Sesame Street and included regular appearances by Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers and Gene Wilder. The songwriting team boasted the chops of satirist Tom Lehrer and Joe Raposo (who penned both “C is for Cookie” and the “Three’s Company” theme). But The Electric Company really broke ground by using vaudeville-style sketch comedy to keep kids laughing while teaching them the rudiments of phonics.
The revamped Electric Company, which debuted this week (and airs Fridays on PBS KIDS GO! beginning January 23rd — check local listings) bears little resemblance to the old show. The new program aspires to be as culturally clued-in as its predecessor was. It’s imbued with a hip-hop sensibility, deploys cutting edge graphics and drops allusions to touchstones like 24 and Indiana Jones. But instead of a series of sketches that have little to do with one another, each new episode has a cohesive narrative built around the antics of the Electric Company, a team of four singing and rapping wordsmiths who use the power of reading to defeat the nefarious Prankster gang. Like most programming today, it’s busier and noisier than its predecessor, if a bit corny. There is also a new stable of celebrity guests: in the debut episode, Sean Kingston contributed a song about the two different sounds the letter C makes. Pete Wentz, Jimmy Fallon, Wyclef Jean, Ne-Yo and Common all pop up in the first season.
“I really loved The Electric Company when I was a kid,” Common tells Rolling Stone. “It was soulful. It definitely had a funk to it and that was attractive to little kids who didn’t even know why they liked it.” Common, whose favorite memory of the show was watching Morgan Freeman’s superfly Easy Reader sound out words, engaged in a little freestyle battling with the show’s cast — which includes Chris Sullivan, a professional beatboxer. Sullivan and Bill Sherman, the show’s musical director, are both members of Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip-hop improv comedy troupe. They also worked together on “In the Heights,” the Tony-winning musical.
“Hip-hop by nature is a very verbal idiom,” making it perfectly suited for teaching language, says Sherman, who at 28 was too young to catch the original Electric Company on the air. “Dealing with target audiences is an interesting battle. We’re talking about kids who are six to nine years old, so you need to simplify the songs as much as possible. But why can’t a kid who is four or three like it? Why can’t it be something that a parent can enjoy too?”
The thinking of course is that if the show isn’t entertaining, then the kids will turn it off. And if they turn it off, they don’t learn. According to Department of Education statistics, literacy rates haven’t improved much since the original Electric Company debuted: 27 percent of public school fourth graders score below basic levels on reading. Broken down along demographic lines the numbers are more unsettling: 54 percent of African-American, 51 percent of Latino/Hispanic, and 49 percent of American Indian fourth graders read below basic level. “There isn’t any silver bullet that’s going to solve that problem over all,” says Aletha Hutson, a professor of child development at the University of Texas at Austin, who remembers watching the original Electric Company when her daughter was learning to read. “I think the whole rationale for those TV programs early on was that low income kids and minority kids watch an enormous amount of television, so instead of showing them some kind of junk, something that might teach them a little can help. But the problems of poverty aren’t going to be solved by any one intervention.”
Karen Fowler, The Electric Company‘s executive producer and a nine-year veteran of Sesame Workshop, understands this. “One viewing is not going to radically shift [a child’s literacy] for long term,” she says. “The big win is that it’s cool to be smart, that reading and writing and being able to express yourself is one of the coolest things to be able to do.” Thirty-five episodes have been shot so far and full episodes will be available online alongside an array of games. The cast will be doing outreach into 19 communities in the fall, making appearances and performing in malls to connect with their audiences. “I want to create a revolution in the nation’s playgrounds,” says Fowler. “Sing about that Silent E, not somebody’s booty. The literacy statistics are weirdly shocking — let’s make it happen.”