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‘Hey, You Guys!’

Remembering The Electric Company on its anniversary.

October 26, 2021

This month is the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the television show The Electric Company.

I devoured that show as a kid.

For the uninitiated, The Electric Company was an educational (and very funny) show on PBS in the ’70s. It was aimed at kids who had aged out of Sesame Street, which was still new at the time. This was back when most of the country had only four channels on TV, and the internet hadn’t hit the general population at all. It was very much of its time, as YouTube clips demonstrate, but that was part of what made it fun.

As did the cast. To this day, I can’t see Rita Moreno without hearing, “HEY, YOU GUYS!” in my head. And while the world may consider Morgan Freeman a serious film actor, to me, he’ll always be Easy Reader. (He also made a much better vampire than Bela Lugosi did, for the record.) When I discovered Tom Lehrer in high school, I recognized the voice from the “silent e” song.

The Electric Company had enough adult humor in it that parents could enjoy it. I remember Mom cracking up to “Fargo North, Decoder” and me having no idea why. The humor was always gentle, but some of the jokes went over the kids’ heads. Looking back, I consider that a strength. Kids’ shows that adults can also watch and enjoy -- as opposed to, say, Elmo -- offer the possibility of everyone laughing together.

The Electric Company came on after Mr. Rogers, right before dinner. It was a series of skits and animations, some of which were more clever than they had any right to be. The two silhouettes of faces speaking parts of words to each other, while the letters appeared on the screen, still strike me as the most effective phonics instruction ever. I can still hum the tune that went along with it.

Without ever spelling it out, as far as I remember, the show was very much about diversity. It had a multiracial cast with all sorts of styles, and the cast would inhabit characters without much concern about who played what. The diversity was of the ’70s public television variety -- no openly gay characters, for instance -- but it was a lot more mixed than my block was. It was an early clue that my suburban street was not all there was to the world.

Sometime in the 2000s, it came out on DVD. I bought a compilation, hoping my kids would find it as much fun as I did. They didn’t. As far as they were concerned, it was an artifact of an ancient civilization, before CGI. It was about as relevant for them as Howdy Doody was for me. They were much more about Curious George and Blue’s Clues and Arthur and iCarly.

So it goes. Maybe you had to be there. But for those of us who were -- the few, the proud, the Gen Xers out there -- it was unabashedly great. And I can still sing the “silent e” song.


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