The Electric Company (2009)

Hey You Guys!

Following will be some shameless PBS promotion, but I say that more as a fan than as a corporate cog. By now, you have probably heard that a new version of The Electric Company has premiered on PBS Kids. It’s not a remake of the show we grew up with back in the 1970s, it’s really more of a re-imagining of the show. I loved the show back when it premiered the first time. The show back then was targeted to eight-year-olds, and I had just turned eight when it premiered. As we all remember, it featured actors our parents knew, like Rita Moreno and Bill Cosby, and actors we’d all know someday, like Morgan Freeman. But what I liked about The Electric Company the most was that it was cool and it was funny, certainly to my eight-year-old sensibilities. But most importantly, it had animation in it. What I didn’t know at the time was that between Electric Company and Sesame Street, I was getting to see work from some of the most important independent animators of the time. When I finally started attending animation festivals in the early 1980s, there was a reason why some of the films looked familiar to me — I had been trained by the Children’s Television Workshop for years.

I have never been a huge fan of working on remakes. I dodged a number of Looney Tunes remakes from various WB-related concerns while I was at Cartoon Network. I guess someone was making them, but somehow I managed to escape without the taint of a “SpaceJam Babies” on my resume. And yet when talk of a new Electric Company came up back when I had first started at PBS, I was excited. The person heading it all up, Karen Fowler, was a Sesame Workshop producer, but she and I had met briefly in the short period we had overlapped when we were both at Nickelodeon, and I knew her to be very funny and very cool. I figured it would be an adventure.

In 2005, PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and our various production partners — WGBH, Sesame Workshop and Out of the Blue Enterprises — were the recipients of a grant from the Department of Education and that allowed us to have enough funding to make Super Why, Martha Speaks and The Electric Company.

The Electric Company premiered January 23 and if you have had the chance to check it out, you may have noticed that Sesame Workshop is still putting independent animators to work teaching kids reading skills. The show is one part Monkees, one part Fame, one part Batman, and one part independent animation festival.

In some ways, the show is vaguely reminiscent of the old show, with sketches, animation and songs. Most of each episode is a live action narrative. A group of four friends, known as the Electric Company, each have a particular magical ability to produce, control, manipulate and play with words and letters. And then there are the neighborhood pranksters, their nemeses, if you will. Each of the pranksters has some magical ability was well, but of course they use it for evil, and then mayhem ensues. I may be a little biased, but I am pretty sure that Francine Carruthers is one of the funniest bad guys on TV ever.

Each narrative story is broken into four parts and in between these four sections is where you will find the animation.

The animation on The Electric Company actually starts with the title, which was created by the graphic design studio Plus et Plus.

And then we get to the animated shorts. In the first season, eight different studios worked on these interstitials. For a look at some episodes from the series and a look at some of these shorts, you can check out pbskidsgo.org/electriccompany.

If you are wondering who did what, here is a list.
Screen Novelties did the Jack Bowser shorts, which are parodies of “24,” where Jack Bowser must read a sentence in 24 seconds. Clambake Animation did the “Captain Cluck and the Poultry Patrol” shorts. Clambake is run by Carl Adams, who once worked at Soup2Nuts and produced Home Movies. Independent animator Pat Smith of Blend Films did the “Pet Store” and “Josephine” shorts. Stefan Bucher of 344 Design did the pixillated “Daily Letters” spots, which feature monsters that are turned into letters as an artist colors the space around them. The “Laughing Orangutans” shorts were done by Joanna Davidovich. Blacklist, a division of the animation studio Psyop did the Music Man spots. Six Point Harness did the “Odd Couple” spots. And LA-based artist Selena Kassab did the “Rally Racer” spots.

The two things you might catch in the new show that you might recognize are the silhouette blends, of course, and Paul the Gorilla, who makes an occasional appearance. And they do yell, “Hey You Guys!” This part is very important, as you know. Without this line, it’s not actually The Electric Company.

There are also a few things that are new to this incarnation of the series. Shock, the beatboxer, will help to remind you that we are no longer in the groovy early 1970s, but that we are actually nearing the second decade of a new millenium. But Shock’s turntable blending letters to make words will show you exactly how the concept of blending words works in this new era. There are also some songs and shorts performed by musicians you will recognize, such as Wyclef, Ne-Yo, and Common. My favorite segment is one that we run in meetings — a Ramones-esque Jimmy Fallon singing “Pocket Full of H’s.” You can check this one out on the PBS website, too.

The series runs on Fridays on most PBS stations and on weekends (you know, check your local listings…) It is good to know that no matter what we do to the art of animation, we can somehow still teach reading with it.

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  • Brian D. Scott

    Y’know, when the original show was on, I never knew that the Letterman segments featured Joan Rivers (narrator), Gene Wilder (Letterman) and Zero Mostel (Spellbinder)! And Mel Brooks loaned his vocal talents as well! Bring back Letterman!

  • james

    Wait.. No Spiderman?

  • OM

    …What? No Tom Lehrer songs? No Fargo North, Decoder?

    Bah.

  • http://www.frankpanucci.com FP

    This sounds great, but I gets no PBS channels. Long story. Maybe I can find an ep or two online somewhere. I hope they bring back the “slow idiot reader” guy. Keep off the grass!

    Who plays J. Arthur Krank on this dark, edgy reboot?

    re:
    –Shock, the beatboxer, will help to remind you that we are no longer in the groovy early 1970s–

    Naw! We’re in the mid-1980s!

  • http://www.rauchbrothers.com Tim Rauch

    Can’t wait to get a chance to take a peak, I’ve heard good things!

  • http://ratso.podomatic.com Carl Russo

    The beats and the raps are quite infectious, really a modern equivalent of the cheesy funky grooves that ran under a lot of the original show.

  • Liesje Kraai

    One part Batman? I guess he’s replacing ‘Spiderman! Where are you coming from? Spiderman! And nobody knows who you are…”

  • Jay Taylor

    Only looked at the clips on the website. I know this may sound dumb since this is 2009, but why all the hip hop?

    Beat boxing, rapping, Wyclef Jean?

    Of course, it’s the same thing with Yo Gabba Gabba.

    I wish there could be some diversity again in the music world.

    • crk

      I do agree with musical diversity, unfortunately, shows like this have to compete fiercely for kids attention just to get the educational content exposed. TEC in the ’70′s had “groovy” music (as I think some have alluded to) because that was the music of the time…one of the largests genres of music in the U.S. now is Hip Hop, so, yes, they are using it to get kids attention..but I’d also like to eagerly point out that its not as if they’re promoting gangster rap or anything. All of the lyrics are positive. Even the song/rap performed by Wyclef Jean features verses like, Learn your lessons you don’t want to be dumb…It’s okay to read… and tells kids they can be anything they want be..even the President of The United States…..

  • Yvette Kaplan

    Congrats Linda! It sounds wonderful. I can’t wait to watch. And wow, my personal bonus- I love Jimmy Fallon! Will take a look right
    now!!! : )

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Have to check it out, though the music probably won’t pull me in anyway. I was one of those that used to watch the original TEC in the first grade or so daily as I remember! That show was infectious with those words I learned. I hope the new version can keep that up.

  • En Ming Hee

    True story: my parents sometimes wondered if I was watching some drug-induced comedy sketch show when I turned on The Electric Company…and they never had that problem with Sesame Street.

  • http://mymedicatedlife.blogspot.com/ Bitter Animator

    The original Electric Company was a true work of genius. It was very advanced and never talked down to children in any way. This would have run the risk of losing the younger or (if it’s okay to say it) possibly the slower children but I think it would have been more likely to pull those children up. Certainly it took some rather complicated language ideas and managed to make perfect sense out of them. It was also genuinely funny – a great help to parents who actually stick around while their children are in front of the television.

    Both classic Electric Company and Sesame Street are examples that prove educators, researchers and artists can work together to create something greater than any one of them could do alone.

    In the times we live now, however, most television aims under the target group, with the fear being losing children who don’t quite get the concepts. It was a topic brought up by a speaker at the Kidscreen Summit a few years ago (I can’t remember who), but that was from the point of view of simply – don’t lose your audience by being smart.

    Even the once-mighty Sesame Street aimed lower once they realised they were inadvertantly pulling in a younger audience than they initially targeted. And yet, even with that, Sesame Street stands far above most of the bland nothingness of much television for younger children.

    In fact most coma patients are above the level of much children’s television.

    So that makes me wonder if this new Electric Company will be as strong when it comes to educational content. Will it be as sure of itself as the original? Will it be as brave? Will it pull those younger children up rather than aim beneath them?

    I really hope so. It’s more than just a name and show concept. There is a whole educational ideal involved here. I wish this new Electric Company every success and hope it is as good for today’s children as the original show was back in the day.

  • lorenzo

    Being a teacher, I have to agree with JAY.

    Rap and Hip-Hop, I hate to say it, are dated.

    They are always used by eductors as a feeble attempt to “connect’ with students.

  • Daniel J. Drazen

    The original was structured like a review, without an overarching theme. The new show sounds like its narrative structure was “adapted” (nicer word than some others I could use) from another PBS series, “Between The Lions.”

  • Chuck R.

    Thanks for the post, Linda and a hearty thanks for your work!

    My daughters watch some educational TV on PBS, so I’m amazed I haven’t seen this yet. I will definitely check it out. The Electric Company targets kids at a very critical age. Even if you are very careful about what they watch in the home, they go to school and to stores and are barraged with the likes of Spiderman, Disney Princesses and Hannah Montana.

    My daughters have outgrown Sesame Street, so thankfully, there are follow-up shows like Word World, Super Why (their favorite) and Fetch. I think they are all great and I wish you all the best of luck in what you do.

    I can’t add much to what Bitter Animator said above. If there is any area of animation under-discussed on the Brew, it’s educational TV, which is a shame because this sector of entertainment not only gives work to many creative minds, it is building the minds and attitudes of future generations of working artists and leaders.

    BTW, My girls love pbskids.org as well. In the right doses, the site is a healthy supplement to the TV programming.

  • liz watkins

    I think it’s great that artists like Joanna Davidovich and Pat Smith were used to do some of the shorts! I’ve seen most of the shorts (on youtube) and they look wonderful, nice work linda!!

  • http://Mr.FunsBlog Floyd Norman

    I worked for the Children’s Television Workshop back in the sixties. Because they allowed all of us the incredible freedom to create, it was one of my most memorable experiences in animation.

  • http://ryuuseipro.deviantart.com John Paul Cassidy

    Bitter Animator:

    Personally, I thought SESAME STREET went downhill when Jim Henson (one of my greatest heroes) died. I think Henson’s death greatly affected the quality of the series. So did the subsequent passing of fellow Muppeteer Richard Hunt. This led to the centralization, overexposure, and commercialization of Elmo (who I originally liked as a team player), and the “Elmo’s World” segment, which killed much of the show’s intelligence. When SESAME STREET was made, it treated children like intelligent beings, but today’s version talks down to them. I watch newer episodes, and while they did get some of that wit back, “Elmo’s World” continues to ruin it. They should spin that off into its own series, much like PLAY WITH ME SESAME (which was actually okay!). Because the greatest magic of SESAME STREET, besides the memorable characters, was the fact that no one was more or less important than anyone else. Plus, I love Muppets.

    And I will never outgrow the old SESAME STREET. If I had children, I’d rather let them watch the Old School version than the newer Elmo-thon. (My younger nephew, who’s 14 going on 15, really enjoyed the SESAME STREET: OLD SCHOOL DVDs when I loaned them to him and his mom/my older sister!)

    I also loved THE ELECTRIC COMPANY, because, while it was trippy, groovy, and yes, even corny, it was still absolutely fun and wild, and like classic pre-1990 SESAME STREET, never insulted my intelligence! Plus, this show taught me how to read! (I was the only one in my classroom who knew what “quotation marks” were!) And the “Spider-Man” and “Letterman” segments were my favorite part as well!

    As for the new series . . . forgive me if I sound the slightest bit harsh.

    I haven’t seen it, but based on what I saw on the website, here’s what I have to say: it’s probably difficult to get celebrities as the main cast on the show, much like Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby or Morgan Freeman in the original (considering most celebrities these days are absolutely guilty of the sin of hubris), so I’m really put off by the adolescent teen cast of this new show. (Although, on the bright side, they could be comparable to the child actors from the original series.) The older cast members fare somewhat better. And I have to agree that rap and hip-hop are TOTALLY overused in children’s educational programming, as a forced way to “connect to the children,” and it’s so in-your-face here. It’s getting old, tired, forced, and needs to stop. Use techno, rock, jazz, 70s groove, ANYTHING. There are other educational kids’ shows that are more diversifying.

    The visual effects are passable, though.

    Whether I’ll enjoy this new “reimagining” of THE ELECTRIC COMPANY or not, I’d still like to catch a whole episode, if possible (I have to look it up, to see if my local PBS affiliate shows it), but in no way will I expect anything like the original series.

  • Norm

    Jazz is so old it’s new again. And, done right, is timeless.

  • lorenzo

    -”don’t lose your audience by being smart. ”

    What hack spewed this nonsense?

    As an educator, you always want your students to be challenged.

    Do shows like Yo Gabba Gabba challenge at all?

    And also, shows like Yo Gabba Gabba are strange for strange sake.

    the Electric Company was strange, and GREAT, for its own sake.

  • http://mymedicatedlife.blogspot.com/ Bitter Animator

    John Paul Cassidy:

    I totally agree with you on classic Sesame Street. The Elmo domination is a strange issue and, while it may not have happened if Henson was around (that’s debatable given the team effort that Sesame Street was and how driven by research it was – it wasn’t just Henson’s show even though he brought the magic), it was a very deliberate move and, in my opinion, was an incorrect reaction to what they were picking up on their research.

    At a certain point, they realised that then show was hitting a younger audience than they were targetting, but that younger audience was dropping off towards the end of the show. Their solution – Elmo and, after a while, Elmo’s World. They were also left with no choice but to react to growing competition – in the late 60s and in the 70s, they pretty much had the market to themselves. In today’s world of all-day children’s channels, that’s just not possible.

    I don’t think they had any choice but to react. Reacting to research and taking it seriously was initially one of the things that made Sesame Street great.

    But, to me, the Elmo domination may have worked for the very young children, but what about the older children? The parents? Is there a parent on the planet who doesn’t want to tear their ears off when he screeches? I don’t know.

    But I completely agree with you – the solution would have been to split it. Keep their Sesame Street show targetting the children they always did but create a shorter spin-off for the younger children.

    Interestingly, recently they tested some episodes without the Elmo’s World segment. Apparently they didn’t test well – children asked “where’s Elmo’s World?” So it was back in and the test was concluded. I’m repeating myself from my blog here I think but I couldn’t help thinking if you smack a child around the head every day and then, suddenly, out of the blue, stop doing it, the child will ask “where’s my smack in the head?” Familiarity will always cause a problem when something is dropped suddenly, especially something that has been dominating the way Elmo’s World has. I can’t know of course and I’m no researcher but I can’t help feeling their tests were flawed.

    The tricky thing about research, especially with children, is that it can be misrepresentative, or used to back up what you want to find. Or it can be revealing, guiding and a great help. It depends so much on the researchers and interpretations.

    But my own daughter watches the classic Old School Sesame Street DVDs and adores it. She’s actually in love with Bert. Like, she doesn’t just love him. She’s in love with him. And she has learned a bunch of letters in the process. And Joe Raposo deserves a mention in any Street discussion – a musical genius. What bugs me is that they have two DVDs out from a 10-year period and just ten episodes on them. Ten episodes out of over 1000. I don’t expect them to release whole seasons but it feels criminal to sit on that much good children’s television.

    Lorenzo: As for the hack, I can’t remember who she was and I’m probably doing her a disservice by boiling it down to something so simple but that’s the message I got from it. But she wasn’t talking specifically educational shows, just children’s shows in general. She was just looking for what many or most people in children’s television are looking for – ratings.

    And the way to do that, seemingly, is feed children the tv equivalent of junk food. But then Sesame Street is now sponsored by McDonalds so I guess that’s just the world we’re living in.

  • lorenzo

    Bitter animator-
    Great points. I just finished reading Street Gang and your comments reiterate everything that I was thinking after reading the book.

    To get quality TV programming for children….you have to buy DVDs of classic shows…

    I was not aware of McDonalds sponsoring Sesame Street….You have to be kidding!!

  • Dora Standpipe

    My 8 year old was beyond excited when he saw the promo’s for the new Electric Company on PBS. He was very familiar with the old Electric Company since we borrowed the DVD from the library and he was counting the days until it came on.

    Biggest let down ever. I am sorry, this show was boring. So boring, HE turned it off. Nothing that made the original show great was there. Yelling “hey you guys” does NOT make it The Electric Company even though you may want to push it as such.

    While reading the story I learned that this same group did Super Why and Martha Speaks. This really explains it all. Ugh, Super Why is a re-worked Blues Clues for older kids and Martha Speaks? I can’t even go there.

    I give this show another month.

  • http://www.cupojo.net Joanna Davidovich

    Great post! I just wanted to mention that the “Laughing Orangutan” picture from the post is an early concept illustration (back when they were still gorillas)- the final orangutans are a bit different. Again, thanks for post Linda! I bet all of the animators appreciate it as much as me!

  • http://mymedicatedlife.blogspot.com/ Bitter Animator

    Loernzo – Not kidding about the McDonalds sponsorship. You’ll find it on the official site – http://www.sesamestreet.org/home . On every page on the bottom right, there is a sponsor logo. It varies randomly but as you navigate around the site you’ll soon see the familiar logo with the message ‘McDonalds is proud to support Sesame Street’.

  • Chuck R.

    Dora,
    It’s possible that your 8-yr old is not the target audience. My daughter is 4.5. She’s a bit bored by Sesame Street and Dora. She loves Super Why, and gets a lot out of it. I don’t see the similarity between that show and Blues Clues, although I’ll admit —sometimes I wish Martha wouldn’t speak.

  • Brian Kidd

    I agree about Super Why being bland, boring, and taking far-too-many liberties with classic fairy tales. It’s one thing to embellish the stories. It’s another to change them completely so that they lose any meaning they once had.

    I have to disagree about Martha Speaks, though. Although many shows on PBS Kids are sadly lacking in entertainment value to go along with their educational value (I’m looking at you, Clifford!), I’ve found Martha Speaks to be refreshingly funny and enjoyable. Arthur is also a quality show in both the educational and entertainment areas.

    Sesame Street is, alas, a shell of its former self. The old show had an excitement to it that is absent from the modern series. Although segments repeated themselves frequently, you never knew what was coming next and even old favorites seemed like new surprises. There was genuine glee when a Grover and the Angry Customer sketch came on or Raposo’s “Everybody Sleeps” song was played. The show never talked down to children and had humor that kids could appreciate but that adults could enjoy on a different level. I think it’s easy to blame Elmo for the current show’s problems, but it was really the series’ change to a rigid structure and overly-safe approach that signaled the turning point. My young son tired of the current Sesame Street by the age of three, however I’ve shown him the Old School DVDs and he loved them!

    As for Yo! Gabba! Gabba!, I think it’s more like the original Sesame Street than any other show on television. You have great songs, appearances by wonderful musicians and actors, and some of the most stylish and interesting animated segments on television. The Art Direction on the show is fantastic as well.

    No show on currently is as good as Sesame Street was in its prime, but I don’t think we can expect many to reach those heights in the future. The first fifteen years or so of Sesame Street were lightning in a bottle. Someday, another show will come along that will change the way that we educate and entertain children and do it in such a way that makes all succeeding shows seem like pale copies. That’s what both Sesame Street and The Electric Company did in the 1970s. That time just isn’t right now.

  • http://ryuuseipro.deviantart.com John Paul Cassidy

    Brian Kidd:

    You raise excellent points.

    I see I’m not the only one with frustrations on CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG! As a big fan of the Clifford storybooks, the only thing that was right about CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG, IMHO, was Clifford himself. (John Ritter was acceptable, but I prefer Clifford to be the non-speaking type.) Other than that, all the other character designs were ugly, bland and unappealing (lacking the sweetness and simplicity of Norman Bridwell’s original art), the music was so commercial, and some of the voice acting was so annoying. I always thought that the late Bill Melendez should’ve done the series. If you read the early Clifford books, it has that UPA sort of flavor to it, which really would’ve fit his style! And Bill would’ve used real kids to voice Emily and others. Anything to be closer to the books than this series was.

    I enjoyed YO GABBA GABBA! That show is a lot more like the original SESAME STREET than SESAME STREET is now. I also really loved the Japanese-inspired creature stars of the show (which reminded me of Shoutarou Ishinomori’s Robocon, even though they were going for that “Urban Vinyl” design toy look)! The show wasn’t pretending to be something that it was never meant to be. It’s got a lot of talent.

    I also saw the new ELECTRIC COMPANY this past afternoon. And I was right about what I feared, only it’s a bit worse. There are only two things that hearkened back to the original series (“Hey You Guys!!!” and the “Two Silhouette Faces” segment), and some of the animated segments were fairly entertaining and educational. But other than that, this is not THE ELECTRIC COMPANY I know and love. It’s more like an inner-city superpowered version of DEGRASSI. It’s got a “story” with four typical adolescent PC teenagers with magic superpowers. Where’s the cast pretending to be diverse (and memorable) characters? Skip Hinnant with his Fargo North and “Love of Chair” Boy? Morgan Freeman with his Easy Reader? Rita Moreno with her Director? Jim Boyd and his Arthur J. Crank and Paul the Gorilla? What did this series have that came close? NOTHING! Just “contemporary” and “hip” teenagers being in-your-face rappers. It would be insulting to even dare compare them to the Short Circus! Anything like Letterman? I’m beginning to wonder if even Spider-Man could save this series!

    I could go on and on, but I’ll save you the trouble just by saying this series shouldn’t even be called THE ELECTRIC COMPANY. More like DEGRASSI MATRIX.

  • lorenzo

    It is remarkable that everyone who mentions that when they show their children the Old School Sesame Street Dvds, that their children love it.

    CHILDREN DO NOT CHANGE. WHAT HAS WORKED BEFORE WILL ALWAYS WORK when educating children

    The old school Sesame Street is mesmerizing and could be carried on today in the same manner and still be a hit.

  • OM

    “considering most celebrities these days are absolutely guilty of the sin of hubris”

    …No, actually, most of them are guilty of *other* sins which don’t exactly make them role models.

  • EI

    Okay adults. One thing the electric company is for kids not you. I played the theme song of the old show for my 8 yeart old sister and she absolutly hated it. She then begged me to play her the new theme song. Afterwards we made up a funny skit about the old theme song after watching the old show. And I thought yo gabba gabba was bad. FYI the new show doesn’t hve much rap at all it’s hip hop which is a kind of form of singing. and who doesn’t love beat boxing?

  • Bob

    Thanks Jay Taylor, for saying it, I couldn’t have said it better. Really, why is there so much rap/hip-hop in EC??? They really need to be more musically diverse. The world of music is certainly NOT only rap/hip-hop…nuff said.

  • Bob

    Thanks Jay Taylor, for saying it, I couldn’t have said it better. Really, why is there so much rap/hip-hop in TEC??? They really need to be more musically diverse. The world of music is certainly NOT only rap/hip-hop.

  • John

    It was recently announced that the show goes daily in September, why not give the show a chance to mature. every series takes a season to find its legs. hey adults, how about stop hating it based on seeing a few snippits, your prejudgments and reminiscence.

    this show also has a story which will help hold kids’ attention spans in this post mtv, disney era… and the small segments to harken back to our olden days…

    and btw, adding hiphop to the show *IS* diversity. From what I’ve seen, the show has PLENTY of other music styles, much more than the original. My son and I also saw country, a kind of slow pop song and a lot of other energy filled musical pieces I’m sure kids everywhere love…

    • crk

      Hey John, well its been over a year now and it seems as though your prediction was right. I like what you said. Its 2010 now!

  • Casey L.O.

    Why so little love for Martha Speaks? That and The Electric Company are my brother’s favourite shows, and he is six. Martha Speaks is one of my favourite shows, and I’m twenty-one.

  • S.A.

    Hip-hop isn’t singing……it’s a culture a way of life. Rapping is part of hip-hop, as is beatboxing, breakdancing, fashion, and DJing, the 5 pillars of hip-hop.

  • crk

    All I want to say is I have actually used some of the lessons I’ve learned on TEC (like when to use hard and soft C and G) to help my non-English speaking friends speak better English. I’m 30 years old and already know how to speak English, but watching TEC has given quick/cute reminders/pointers on how to teach others (I have no children). I’d also like to mention the difference between PBSKIDS (for younger children, of which Sesame Street is a part) and PBSKIDSGO(for slightly older children, of which TEC is a part) at least that’s how it is where I live.