Series: The Electric Company
"We're gonna turn it on, we're gonna bring you the power!"note
"Hey you GUUUUUUYYYYYYS!"Edutainment Show
that ran from 1971-77 on PBS
(the last two seasons reran until 1985) from Children's Television Workshop, the company that previously brought the world Sesame Street
. Its main purpose was to teach reading to reluctant readers by using Sketch Comedy
, but its clever writing, memorable characters (such as Easy Reader, Fargo North Decoder, J. Arthur Crank, Jennifer of the Jungle, Paul the Gorilla), appearances by Spider-Man
, animated inserts with the superhero Letterman, and psychedelic Scanimation visuals made it a cult hit with all ages.
The cast was made up of a diverse group of performers such as Rita Moreno, who was already a well-known actress in her own right. Bill Cosby
was a cast member in Season 1, and "The Adventures of Letterman" shorts featured the voices of Gene Wilder
, Zero Mostel, and Joan Rivers. But most notable was a young and then-unknown Morgan Freeman
, who played Easy Reader (and has been trying to live it down ever since
). Other cast members included Skip Hinnant (best known as the voice of Fritz the Cat
), Judy Graubart (a member of the improvisational comedy troupe The Second City
), Luis Avalos, Jim Boyd, Hattie Winston, and Lee Chamberlin. In addition to the adult cast, there was a Fake Band
called the Short Circus, which consisted of 11- to 17-year-olds; June Angela
was the only member of the Short Circus to stay the whole series' run. Other notable members included Irene Cara, later to become a hit-making solo artist; Todd Graff, brother of Mr. Belvedere
actress Ilene Graff, and Denise Nickerson, at the time known for playing Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
In the 2009 Re Tool
, four teenagers
use the power of the "Word Ball" to thwart the Pranksters, a group of small mayhem-loving teenagers. See the "Characters" link at the top of this page for tropes relating to each character.
"tr" "opes" "tropes":
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1971- 77 Version
- Accidental Misnaming: When Big Bird shows up at Fargo North's office with a message for him to decode, in keeping with his tendency to get names wrong back home, he keeps addressing the decoder as "Furpo" rather than "Fargo", despite Fargo's attempts to correct him. For the inevitable payoff, he finally gets it right at the end of the sketch, and Fargo reflexively "corrects" him to "Furpo".
- Affectionate Parody: Of the historical figures who appeared in sketches, such as Isaac Newton and Paul Revere. Inverted in the end of a sketch featuring Christopher Columbus (played by, hilariously enough, Morgan Freeman).
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The Teeth, according to the newspaper, has eaten "New York, New Jersey, and a dozen jelly doughnuts!"
- Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: Do not bother this tiny person. Or he will send his big brother after you!
- The Bad Guy Wins: Surprisingly for a children's show, sometimes Spider-Man would fail to defeat the Villain Of The Day.
- Bedsheet Ghost: Morgan Freeman and Hattie Winston play a couple trying to sleep. The husband is spooked by weird noises, while the wife is non-plussed. Ultimately, he is kicked, and becomes frightened by a very polite visitor who apologizes for it and even turns off the electric lamp with his breath. Morgan Freeman is on the verge of Fainting as this happens!
- Bilingual Bonus: Frequently occurred among characters played by native hispanoparlantes Luis Avalos and Rita Moreno. A good example were the "Pedro's Plant Place" sketches. (Another bonus: in that, Maurice the guard plant spoke a language of his own!)
- Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: Here, it's an educational tool. Two silhouetted faces going "Ch." "Ew." "Chew." "Bl." "Ew." "Blew." And so on.
- Butt Monkey: Many of Jim Boyd's characters were the objects of comic mischief, but none more so than J. Arthur Crank, whose grouchy manner made him a natural magnet for laughs at his expense. For example, in one sketch (a clip from which appeared in the opening titles of Seasons 5 and 6), he tells the viewers that they will see a lot of words beginning with "cr-", but struggles to think of examples even though his surname, "Crank", is flashing on the screen next to him. When he finally tells us to take his word for it, "Or my name ain't J. Arthur Crank!", bells and whistles sound and confetti drops as though he has said the secret word on You Bet Your Life, prompting a "Who's the dummy writing this show!?" rant from the bewildered Crank.
- Cannot Tell Fiction from Reality: J. Arthur Crank is convinced this trope is in play whenever someone tries to tell him that Spider-Man is part of the cast of The Electric Company, pointing out that Spidey is just a character in a comic book. Inevitably, he never notices the many times Spider-Man is standing right behind him, often engaged in a prank at his expense.
- Catch Phrase:
- Celebrity Paradox: In a "Spidey Super Stories" segment, Spider-Man sits in front of a TV to watch his favorite show: The Electric Company.
- Chain of Corrections
- Cheesy Moon: There is a sketch where Fargo North is an astronaut in space who receives orders to proceed to the moon. He protests that is impossible since the Moon is made of green cheese and his exasperated partner reminds him that he was told otherwise in training.
- Comedic Sociopathy: The Corsican Twins (Jim Boyd and Skip Hinnant), like the characters in the Alexandre Dumas novel The Corsican Brothers, each feel pain when the other is hurt. They use this as an excuse to hurt themselves and cause each other pain in their sketches. For example, in one sketch, they perform their own version of the talking silhouettes (complete with the music from those segments) to demonstrate words ending in "-ow".
Ramon: N... (clonks self over head)
Miguel: Ow! (rubs head)
Ramon: H... (punches self in jaw)
Miguel: Ow! (grabs jaw)
- Comically Missing the Point: Frequently used in the skits to teach words. The most popular were:
- "Gordon, you drive me up the wall!" – Where a woman finally confronts her grunting, lazy husband, henpecking him all the time. Finally, he grabs her and sets her on his lap, presses a button (as though to start a motor inside his recliner) … and then literally drives her up the wall!
- "We are out of sweet rolls!" – A customer does not get the hint (or stubbornly refuses to believe) a waitress when she explains there are no more sweet rolls in stock. She goes from nice to firm to irritated to shouting upset … and finally (when he suggests he wants just a sweet roll) losing her cool and running off in a blind rage to the kitchen. A Live-Action Adaptation was also done, with Hattie Winston and Jim Boyd playing the roles of the exasperated waitress and the galling customer, respectively.
- Computer Generated Images: Scanimate, then a cutting-edge analog video synthesizer, was a constant treat. It allowed humans to interact with words doing all sorts of things for, with, and against, the characters.
- Cordon Bleugh Chef: Julia Grown-Up. How about some grilled dill pickles with chilled vanilla filling?
- Corpsing: A rare example happening off-screen. In a ballet sequence to illustrate the word "sun," the three dancers are joined by Morgan Freeman (yes, in ballet costume too) with a letter "t," shoves himself in to create the word "stun." The musicians off-screen audibly join in his chuckling until Joe Raposo calls them to attention with his baton.
- Cross Over:
- Big Bird, Grover and Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street all paid visits in separate episodes.
- The "Spidey Super Stories" comic.
- A primetime ABC special in 1974, Out to Lunch, featured the Electric Company cast and the Sesame Muppets.
- Cut a Slice, Take the Rest: A staple. When it was used in a live segment, the character doing so remarked that he'd "learned this from the Spellbinder [Letterman's animated foe]."
- Dagwood Sandwich: Deconstructed in that the ingredients are actually given for "our delicious and sandwich": "ham and cheese and tomato and bacon and lettuce and baloney and cream cheese and celery and chopped meat and soy sauce and coleslaw and meat loaf and pot roast and olives and tuna fish and turkey and shrimp and corned beef and peanut butter and liverwurst!" This is subverted when the customer, when told there is no salami, no longer wants it!
- Dissonant Serenity: This is initially Fargo North's reaction to the telegram Alison has for him in the "Your desk is on fire" sketch. Having established that she should end her sentence with an exclamation point to convey appropriate urgency, he has the following conversation with her:
Fargo North: (switching off the optospectrometer)
By the way, who's the message for? Alison:
It's for you. Fargo: (as his hand slips off from where he is resting on the machine)
For me? Why? Alison:
BECAUSE YOUR DESK IS ON FIRE! (in a wider shot, we see smoke billowing from Fargo's desk and hear the crackle of flames) Fargo: (brightly)
Oh, so it is!
Thank you for pointing that out to me, Alison! (pats her on the head)
That's very nice of you! Alison: (overlapping)
It's... quite all right. Fargo: (walking to the door with Alison)
Oh, boy. You be a good girl now! (hops over his wastebasket) Alison:
I will. Fargo:
Eat your spinach, do your homework. Alison:
Goodbye. Fargo: (opens the door for her)
Bye-bye! Say "hi" to the folks! Alison:
Okay! (Fargo closes the door and walks over to the phone, smiling and waving his hand at the thickening smoke billowing from his desk; he picks up the receiver and dials, singing the tones as he dials them) Fargo:
Hello, fire department? This is Fargo North here! (laughs)
Fine, yourself?... Wife, kids?... Good, glad to hear it. (the smoke gets ever thicker)
Oh, yeah, I'm still in the old decoding game. Sure am. How 'bout you? Still fighting fires, eh? Terrific, because... MY DESK IS ON FIRE!!
(slams down the phone, grabs a vase of flowers from on top of his file cabinet, and empties the water (and flowers) over the fire)
- Driven to Madness: The "sweet rolls" sketch and its Live Action Adaptations.
- Drives Like Crazy: Sweeney (Luis Avalos) the Taxi Driver in the "Swerve, Sweeney!" sketch. Lee Chamberlin played the very frightened passenger.
- Early Installment Weirdness: From the first season:
- A puppet chicken named Lorelai (voiced by Jim Boyd, who was mostly off-screen that season).
- In the earliest episodes, uncredited children were in some skits, a la Sesame Street.
- During Friday episodes – where the extended closing credits were played – aired during the first two months of the show's life, an extended version of the corporate credits theme (played every day) was used. The Dec. 31, 1971 show was the first to use a bright marching tune unique to the closing credits, and that theme would be used through the end of the 1972-1973 season.
- The episode number was written on a piece of paper, illuminated by a lit match.
- Bill Cosby as a full-fledged cast member. Some of his material would be re-used in later seasons, making him seem more like a recurring Special Guest. It's odd to see him in those first season ensemble pieces.
- Educational Song: Using Genre Roulette.
- End of Series Awareness: The last episode aired, #130B, ends with the entire cast (except Rita Moreno, who had left the show by that point), singing a song that ends, "The show is done. We hate to run. We're sorry, but that's all."
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: Paul the Gorilla.
- Fly In The Soup: There is a variation of this in a three-part skit where each diner complains to the waiter that "there is a moth in my broth."
- Fonts: Franklin Gothic was its stock in trade, perfect for the psychedelic Scanimate sequences.
- Fractured Fairy Tale: Two kinds. There was the feature "A Very Short Book." There were also several skits that were based on, and often deconstructed Fairy Tales, including Snow White and Cinderella.
- Funny Foreigner: With his Anthony Quinn-like ability to do a plethora of accents, Luis Avalos frequently played this. Also, Skip Hinnant sometimes did mangled British accents.
- Genius Ditz: Fargo North is a skilled decoder (though it sometimes takes him a few wrong guesses to arrive at the correct answer), but is otherwise a complete space cadet. For example, in the "Dig deep by the dump before dark" sketch, he is writing a letter to his parents when there is a knock at the door, causing him to write "Knock, knock, knock!" - and then say he can't write that, as he already said that in his last letter. At the end of the sketch, he starts the letter anew, and this time writes "Honk!" when the horn sounds at the end of his Leitmotif.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Check out Rita Moreno performing "Wild", complete with Victoria's Secret Compartment.
- God: Morgan Freeman and Jim Boyd sit on a bench when each sneezes and the other in turn replies "bless you." Then they both sneeze at once and guess who bellows "bless you."
- Jungle Princess: Jennifer of the Jungle.
- Large Ham Radio: Mel Mounds. "Sounds righteous, delight-eous and outta-sighteous!"
- Last-Second Word Swap: In the "Menu song" sketch, a waitress (Rita Moreno) sings the various types of soup, sandwich, salad, and ice cream on the menu to a customer (Morgan Freeman). At the end of the list of ice creams, she lists sarsaparilla, manzanilla, caterpillar, and plain old-fashioned... gorilla. The customer, who was clearly expecting the last flavor to be vanilla, gives up and goes to the laundry across the road for a bowl of soap flakes.
- Leitmotif: For the Fargo North, Decoder sketches.
- Live-Action Adaptation: Probably the Ur Example for this trope relative to Western Animation, as it occasionally remade its own animated sequences into live-action skits, sometimes Lampshading and Parodying the original (for example, The Adventures of Letterman was spoofed with Jim Boyd as the Spoil Binder and Skip Hinnant as Litterman). Either way, Hilarity Ensues.
- Malapropers: The Giggle Goggle girls.
- Medium Awareness: One sketch starred both Dr. Doolots and Fargo North, Decoder, with the latter visiting the former to find the missing word ("is") in his "The doctor ___ in" sign. When the missing word is discovered (having been eaten by Paul the Gorilla), the closing theme from the Fargo North sketches plays, leading Dr. Doolots to ask what Fargo's theme music is doing in his office.
- The Merch: The series' aversion of this is what ultimately led to production closing down after six seasons, even though it was still drawing big audiences at the time. When PBS told the Children's Television Workshop they could only have the funds to produce Sesame Street or The Electric Company but not both, they chose the merchandising cash fountain that was Sesame Street (Electric Company merchandise being limited to a monthly magazine and a short-lived Fargo North, Decoder board game by Milton Bradley), and re-ran the last two seasons of The Electric Company until 1985.note
- No Celebrities Were Harmed:
- Fargo North appears to have been based on Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, although the voice is more of a rip-off of Maxwell Smart. (Skip Hinnant admitted this was on purpose in the PBS pledge drive special The Electric Company's Greatest Hits and Bits.)
- The recurring character of Dr. Dolots was an amalgam of Groucho and Harpo Marx.
- Nursery Rhyme:
- On the Next: Usually follows a format in which a clip from the next episode plays, and a cast member announces, "Tune in next time, when [character] says [a word or phrase appears onscreen, accompanied by one Sound Effect Bleep for each syllable]."
- Episodes from the last four seasons recycle these as Precaps, with "Tune in next time" replaced with, "Today on The Electric Company..."
- The first season didn't use these; instead, the final scene would be "And now, the last word", and would show a word next to a bare light bulb, which would then be turned off by a hand pulling its pull-chain. Usually, the word would be repeated out loud in the dark.
- Our Ghosts Are Different: Such as in "Galloping Saddle" sketch, a Western pastiche.
- Parental Bonus: Lots, especially given the large number of adult actors.
- Police Are Useless: The show took this trope as far as was possible for a children's show. Police were portrayed many times as either incompetent, outsmarted by the criminals, or even crime victims themselves. When they actually apprehended anybody, the criminals were then the less competent ones.
- Prima Donna Director: Otto, a real drama queen! Justified, apart from bullying the actors and terrorizing cue card holder Marcello (Morgan Freeman), as she is surrounded by actors who constantly flub their lines.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: HEY... YOU... GUUUUUUUUUUUUUYS!
- Punny Name: Fargo North, Decoder (Fargo, North Dakota); J. Arthur Crank (British film producer J. Arthur Rank); Dr. Dolots (Doctor Dolittle); Julia Grownup (Julia Child, "The French Chef"); Morgan Freeman's Easy Reader (Easy Rider); Short Circus (short circuit); Johnny Charge (Johnny Cash).
- Reading Is Cool Aesop: The theme of the theme song and a Running Gag for Easy Reader.
- Scary Teeth: Played for Laughs as a couple experiences the terror of The Teeth. Subverted as said Teeth proclaims, "Look dad, no cavities!"
- Soap Opera: "Love of Chair," a parody of the CBS soap opera Love of Life that even used the same continuity announcer (Ken Roberts).
- The Speechless: Spider-Man, in the "Spidey Super Stories" live-action skits, speaks only with word balloons.
- Sting: The show had a cool collection of these to conclude skits. A few were specific to certain themes, such as Western (trumpet sounding like a horse whinny) or medieval parodies (Parody of Baroque Music, with concluding Rimshot-like bell). Even Fargo North Decoder had one that parodied the opening theme for the sketch.
- Stuff Blowing Up: Skip Hinnant picked up a book in the library called Explosions. The inevitable happens. Afterwards, he looks at the screen:
- The Taxi:
- Two words: "Swerve, Sweeney!"
- A scanimate sketch actually shows the back of a taxi ... going away.
'Skip Hinnant's voice:
Taxi! Oh, taxi! (Beat
They never stop when you want them!"
- The Television Talks Back: In a skit taking place in a TV shop, not only did the TV talk back, it turned itself on - "when it wasn't plugged in!"
- Theme Tune Extended: Friday shows featured the instrumental theme in full (in Franklin Gothic, of course), along with a credits roll. Viewers only heard part of the theme during the corporate sponsor announcements.
- The Unintelligible: Maurice, the guard plant in Pedro's Plant Place. Yet he could make sounds that allowed him to take part in a "Soft Shoe Silhouette" routine. Yet he actually spoke in his first ever appearance (it was the voice of Jim Boyd doing a Funny Foreigner bit) and never did so again.
- Vegetarian Vampire: Morgan Freeman's Vincent the Vegetable Vampire, of course (though Word of God says that he was originally supposed to be Dracula).
- Visual Puns: Taken Up to Eleven!
- Volleying Insults: Two cowboys on a screen exchange words, and it is subverted at the end.
Jim Boyd's cowboy: Rat
Luis Avalos' cowboy: Snake
Jim Boyd's cowboy: Worm
Luis Avalos' cowboy: Weasel
Jim Boyd's cowboy: Skunk
Luis Avalos' cowboy: Dirty dog
Jim Boyd's cowboy: Pussycat
Jim Boyd's cowboy: Pussycat?
- Weird West: Exemplified by the "galloping saddle" and "My Name is Kathy" sketches.
- Who’s the Dummy Writing This Show?: Another Catch Phrase.
- Who's on First?: Not with a person, but, true to the program, a word. Morgan Freeman and Lee Chamberlin start an escalating exchange when he is offering the word "what."
- With Catlike Tread: In "O-U (The Hound Song)", a hound sings very loudly about how he dare not make a sound.
- Word Salad Humor: As educational as it was silly!
- Word Salad Lyrics: Often, the only thing the words had in common were similar sounds or consanant blends, such as this birthday song parody:
Happy birthday, Miss Jones, you sure got nice bones!
- Words Can Break My Bones: Literally.
"Who's the dummy writing this page?"
- Aesop Amnesia: Expect the Pranksters to forget any lesson they learn by the start of the next episode. The Electric Company is guilty of this, too - no matter how many times it's proved you can't trust a Prankster, one of them will get suckered in again.
- Aliens Speaking English: Skeleckians.
- Amusing Alien: The Skeleckians, with all their bizarre customs.
- Art Shift: The "Prankster Planet" segments feature animated versions of Jessica, Marcus, the Pranksters, and Paul the Gorilla.
- The Artifact: The soft-shoe phonetics routine ("Wuh! All! WALL!"), used with much less frequency.
- Call Back: Keith and Marcus have the same reaction to their first word balls.
- The Cameo: Many celebrities pop up for a segment, including Jimmy Fallon and Whoopi Goldberg.
- Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: Francine can throw wordballs as her power, but they're PURPLE.
- Comes Great Responsibility: The whole pilot, especially the pledge.
- Continuity Reboot: Almost everything associated with the 1970s version has been thrown out the window, including the cast.
- Design Student's Orgasm: Just look at the logo.◊
- Disproportionate Retribution: Danny Rebus. He takes offense at a lot of things and retaliates harshly.
- Evil Gloating: Lampshaded in "Prankster Holiday". Turns out, blurting out the evil plan is a really bad habit amongst the Pranksters.
- Evil Is Petty: Very, very petty.
- Evil Is Hammy: The Pranksters. Special mention to Manny Spamboni.
- Grand Theft Me: Annie Scrambler stealing Lisa's body in "Scrambled Brains".
- Halloween Episode: "Unmuffins."
- I Can't Hear You: "Count Vacula's a little loud!" "What?! I can't hear you. Count Vacula's a little loud!"
- Bonus point because it had a mute button the whole time.
- Incredible Shrinking Man: The Electric Company, Francine and Lisa's friend Dax in the episode "Lost and Spaced".
- And again in the episode "The Flube Whisperer", this time with Keith and Manny.
- It Can't Get Any Worse: Used by Hector in "Trouble Afoot".
- Jumped at the Call: Marcus can't wait to join the company.
- Last-Second Word Swap: Combined with Gosh Dang It to Heck! in the season three premiere.
- Local Hangout: The Electric Diner is a rare example of one being used as home base.
- Mad Scientist: Manuel "Manny" Spamboni is a teenage version.
- Made of Explodium: "I'm special agent Jack Bowser. And this place is about to explode!"
- Master-Apprentice Chain: Hector → Keith → Marcus.
- Meaningful Name: Annie Scrambler, Danny Rebus and Gilda "Flip", who uses a flip phone.
- Mythology Gag: "The Slide and Drop" music sequence is done in 1970s-style costumes reminiscent of the original series.
- Ninja: Silent "E" is called "the ninja of the alphabet".
- Once an Episode: There will be a song in the main storyline, or possibly a rap. Usually tied to the moral of the day.
- Pet the Dog: Annie and Danny have occasionally done some good deeds (and are literally both dog lovers). Manny and Francine have done it only if personal gain is involved.
- Photographic Memory: Hector's superpower, in a more literal sense. He can actually call up any image he remembers, then manipulate it.
- Poke the Poodle: The Pranksters' deeds can only be considered evil in context. If PBS Kids took it any further than that, they'd be impressionable.
- Remake Cameo: June Angela had one, but did not say anything.
- Science Fair: The premise of the episode "Lost and Spaced".
- Sesame Workshop: Produced this show.
- Spiritual Successor: Given the show's timeslot and premise, it can be hard not to think of Ghostwriter if you grew up in the 1990s.
- Status Quo Is God: At the end of the Unmuffin story, Danny and Manny eat the unbuns to go back to being pranksters. Jessica says they don't have to, but Danny says they do (with no further explanation).
- Super Speed Reading: Viewers at home are told to take their time reading, because a word or sentence might end differently than they expect.
- The Teaser: Used to set up the conflict of the episode. One member of the company sees something going wrong and rallies the team with "HEY YOU GUYS!" This doubles as a Couch Gag.
- Timeskip: Between seasons 2 and 3.
- True Companions: The four main characters.
- Tsundere: Annie on occasion; a villainous version.
- Viewers Are Morons: Strangely averted, although some say this is a good thing. The 1970s version seemed to address short attention spans (no overarching stories; some segments lasted only three to five seconds), while this version uses a continuing story arc. If anything, attention spans decreased in the 32 years between that version's end and this version's beginni—hey, a butterfly!
- Villain Song: There are many, trust us.
- Will Not Tell a Lie: In the pilot, Hector explicitly states that the members of the Company do not lie. And yet, they tend to lie sometimes.