A series of educational short cartoons — so short that they fit in the space of a single commercial break — aired from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s on Saturday mornings on ABC.Back in the day (1972, to be specific), Saturday morning children's programming was supposed to be at least tangentially educational, and Merchandise-Driven advertising was severely limited. Networks couldn't advertise things related to the cartoons they were airing in those timeslots, so there was an opening for educational shorts even after running through cereal commercials.At around the same time, ad executive David McCall noticed that while his son was struggling in school, he had no trouble remembering the lyrics to his favourite songs. Thus the idea to introduce basic learning concepts to young minds via simple-but-catchy rock, jazz, folk and pop tunes — most written by jazz mainstay Bob Dorough and eventual Broadway lyricist Lynn Ahrens — accompanied by entertaining visuals, animated by a team led by Tom Yohe.The initial pitch was made to Michael Eisner, then vice president of ABC's children's programming, who brought along one Chuck Jones. Jones loved the concept, Eisner persuaded his regular program lineup to snip three minutes off each program's running time to accommodate it, and a legend was born. The Saturday morning format provided a perfect vehicle to repeat the shorts over and over until the lesson was learned; from the start, Schoolhouse Rock was a roaring success as both education and entertainment, running for 37 episodes repeated endlessly over 12 years. Many of the shorts were permanently burned into the minds of young viewers.Besides the educational content, the series won accolades for the consistently high quality of the songs - besides Dorough and Ahrens, performers included Jack Sheldon, Blossom Dearie, Essra Mohawk and Grady Tate - and the overall cleverness of the lyrics and animation. Taking cues from Sesame Street and other contemporary educational programming, Schoolhouse Rock avoided sentimentality and presented a hip, inclusive, fast-paced and funny (often downright snarky) attitude to learning.Episodes initially fell under one of four headings, in order of production: Multiplication Rock, Grammar Rock, America Rock (history, mostly released around the 1976 American Bicentennial) and Science Rock. 1983 saw an earnest but ill-fated attempt at Computer Rock (aka Scooter Computer & Mr. Chips) and in 1995/96 the original team reunited for the much more successful Money Rock. In addition, two new Grammar Rock segments ("Busy Prepositions" and "The Tale of Mr. Morton") were added. In 2002 the team reunited again to produce two new America Rock segments ("I'm Gonna Send Your Vote to College" and "Presidential Minute") as a Milestone Celebration. In 2009, yet another reunion produced Earth Rock, about environmental issues.All of the classic Schoolhouse Rock shorts are now available on DVD - save one installment of "Scooter Computer," which was thought lost until 2013, when it finally emerged on YouTube. The newer Earth Rock set is also available as a separate release. Notable episodes:
"Three Is a Magic Number" (Multiplication Rock, performed by Bob Dorough) - The song that started it all, used as the initial pitch to ABC and still one of the best ever produced for the series, centered on the three times tables and the Rule of Three. Eventually used in Nike and ESPN commercials years later and was sampled for the De La Soul song "The Magic Number" off their Three Feet High and Rising album in 1989.
"I'm Just a Bill" (America Rock, Jack Sheldon) - A forlorn little bill sitting on the steps of the Capitol explains the long, contentious process by which he someday 'hopes and prays' to become a law. This one became so iconic it earned The Simpsons parody "I'm an Amendment to Be" (about an amendment against flag-burning waiting to be ratified), a Family Guy throwaway joke in "They Call Me Bill" (which ends with the bill being poked with a trash pick and put into a garbage bag), and The Daily Show parody "Midterm Elections", and was referenced by The Rachel Maddow Show's coverage of the 2009/10 health care law.
"Conjunction Junction" (Grammar Rock, Sheldon) - What's your function? A kindly railroad freight conductor explains conjunctions in terms of 'hookin' up cars and makin' 'em run right', in possibly the most insanely catchy children's song of all time. Notable for the number of cover versions by big name jazz artists (both Harry Connick Jr. and Doctor John have covered it, to name two). Also gave the name to Rachel Maddow's Debunktion Junction segments, and was once parodied on MADtv as "Dysfunction Junction", about the dangers of giving kids attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication (often for needless reasons — i.e., the parents want their kids docile so they don't have to deal with them).
"We the People (Preamble)" (America Rock, Lynn Ahrens) - Explaining the basic concept of the Constitution, using the Preamble as the chorus (albeit omitting the first 'of the United States' to fit the lyric scheme). A decade or so later, teachers across the nation wondered why students taking history exams were singing under their breaths...
"A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing" (Grammar Rock, Ahrens) - This decent but unremarkable segment became notorious for a colouring goof that causes Chubby Checker to appear briefly as white. (There are also the deliberately white and smiling plantation slaves in "Mother Necessity"; weird notes in an otherwise fully integrated series). MADtv parodied this on their short-lived recurring sketch, "Public Schoolhouse Rock," using this song in a parody about the terrible things about public school (gangs in the halls, graffiti, and the absentee staff members).
"Mother Necessity" (America Rock, various) - The most elaborate of the segments, in which four of the regular performers (Sheldon, Dorough, Blossom Dearie & Essra Mohawk) each sing about different inventions. Notable in that this was a complicated process in the pre-Internet era; the producers had to travel to four different studios across the country to record a couple of lines at a time.
"The Shot Heard Round the World" (America Rock, Dorough) - Notable both as a fairly comprehensive three-minute summary of the American Revolution and for a spectacular instance of Getting Crap Past the Radar. Near the end, a multi-ethnic crowd appears to represent America, and one of them—apparently a Native woman—is naked (albeit in the long shot only, no details shown).
"Interplanet Janet" (Science Rock, Ahrens) - She's a galaxy girl! Another notoriously catchy tune, about... an alien softball team exploring our solar system. No, really. "She travels like a rocket with her comet team/and there's never been a planet Janet hasn't seen..."
"The Weather Show" (Science Rock, Bob Kaliban) - A Missing Episode for years because of legal difficulties stemming from the song's use of the phrase "Greatest Show on Earth", which trademark owner Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus did not view kindly. Eventually released as part of the 30th anniversary DVD, with the offending references rather awkwardly excised.
Artistic License - History: Several of the America Rock shorts, which as noted were produced around the Bicentennial celebrations. Suffice it to say that the nuances of history tend to be really difficult to stuff into catchy three-minute songs (with the notable exception of "I'm Just a Bill", which gets the process of lawmaking impressively straight.)
Book Ends: Each vignette of "A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing" begins and ends with the exact same sentence. (Well, almost exactly the same for the second verse.)
The Cameo: The Bill from "I'm Just a Bill" makes a brief appearance at the very end of the Money Rock song "Tyrannosaurus Debt". The titular dinosaur looks down over the Capitol and sees Bill sitting there. Bill looks up at it and runs away in terror.
Canon Discontinuity: The first VHS copies cut out several songs in favor of new, live-action numbers performed by Cloris Leachman and a group of children. These songs disappeared from later home video versions, since they do not have the same composers as the original shorts.
Cats Are Mean: The titular pool-playing cat in "Naughty Number Nine".
Couch Gags: The home video opening sequences used the following:
On Golden Book Video compilations, part of Cloris Leachman's theme song changed to something describing the video's main subject.
On compilations released through Disney, the chef of Conjunction Junction Dinernote the same chef who burnt his hand in "Telegraph Line" always gives a different response when Rocky asks, "Hey, Chef! What's the special today?"
Creator Cameo: David McCall influenced the design of one of the "very weird creatures" Interplanet Janet meets on Earth.
Creepy Child: Arguably, the cute little skater from "Figure Eight", whose eerily ethereal song (by Blossom Dearie) includes the wholly non-sequitur lines "If you skate/Upon thin ice/You'd be wise/If you thought twice/Before you made another single move..."
Cut-and-Paste Suburb: An occupational hazard of limited animation. If you see a bunch of houses in an aerial shot, they're probably going to be identical.
Dem Bones: "Them Not-So-Dry Bones" is all about the bones in one's body.
"The Shot Heard Round the World", already mentioned.
"Verb: That's What's Happening!", which is performed as a '70s funk homage to a black superheronote technically, a boy in a mostly black city seeing a movie about a black superhero, including repeated references to getting his 'thing in action!' and this from the adoring female chorus: "I can question like, 'What is it?'/Verb, you're so demanding!/I can order like, 'Go get it!'/Verb, you're so commanding!"
In one of the America Rock segments, wherein the Declaration of Independence is described, the three rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are testified to by members of the Continental Congress. When the third right is listed, a man is shown pursuing a woman rather lecherously. (Is that you, Ben Franklin?)
This line from "Interjections!":
"That's not fair, givin' a guy a shot down there!" (Accompanied by a brief bare-butt shot.)
ABC's Standards and Practices reportedly took issue with the cat smoking in "Naughty Number Nine," but the creators prevailed, saying it was necessary to prove just how naughty Number Nine was.
Green Aesop: The entirety of Earth Rock. "The Energy Blues" also counts.
Heart Is an Awesome Power: Zero the Hero's power seems useless on the surface... but then he alters any number by the power of 10 through adding (and presumably removing) zeroes. He also altered weights by adding zeroes, making it literally heavier. He created money by altering the $4 written on a piggy bank to a $4000, and there doesn't appear to be any limit to this. So he theoretically could change reality, simply by altering numbers. If there was box of "10 guns" he could grow it to a box of "1,000,000 guns" and supply an army. This also implies he could reduce anything to zero as well, causing it to vanish! He didn't do much in the video besides making some small-time money and making weights heavier, but he is still young yet... The video.
Jive Turkey: "I Got Six" and the aforementioned "Verb: That's What's Happening!".
Karma Houdini: The pool-playing cat in "Naughty Number Nine." For the entire duration of the segment, the cat puts a mouse through absolute hell on a billiards board; and at the very end, the cat tips his bowler, smiles at the audience, and struts away. But don't worry, the mouse pops out of the #9 ball, making for a veryHappy Ending.
Nonindicative Name: It has been noted that a minority of the songs actually qualify as "rock", per se. Most are straight pop, but a few lean more toward jazz, blues, gospel, etc.
Opening Credits Cast Party: VHS and DVD compilations from 1995 until at least 2002 begin with characters from the songs gathering together at Conjunction Junction Diner.
Overly Long Name: Rufus Xavier and Rafaella Gabriela Sarsparilla and Albert Andreas Armadillo.
"Thank you, pronouns!"
Parental Bonus: The use of established jazz and cabaret performers means this runs through the entire series, intentionally or not. See (for instance) "I Got Six" for a splendid example of just how intentional they could get.
Pluto Is Expendable: "Interplanet Janet" contains the lines "Nine planets" and "And Pluto, little Pluto, is the farthest planet from the sun." The fact that an entire generation grew up with Schoolhouse Rock may have had a little bit to do with the fervor over Pluto's demotion from planethood.
Some theatre productions update the script and have someone interrupt the number and attempt to "correct" the song with an explanation about Pluto's decommission. And then the production has Audience Participation its audience vote on whether Pluto should stay.
Others just use the updated lyrics of "Eight planets large and small, parading by." and "Pluto, little Pluto, used to be a planet, but now it's not."
Politically Incorrect History: Ask Native Americans what they think of "Elbow Room." Frankly, this is true of most of the America Rock shorts, when viewed from the POV of anyone who isn't a patriotic American circa the Bicentennial celebrations. That said, the true complexities of history do tend to be difficult to convey in three minutes on Saturday mornings. Buy a textbook if you want a more nuanced account.
Raymanian Limbs: Little Twelvetoes takes the concept to extremes. Empty space is apparently a key part of his biology (and his Nice Hat), and also his head, hands, and feet are held on like with magnets (i.e. pretty easy to remove and stick on somewhere else) instead of like with flesh and blood.
Sequel Episode: The most recent "Earth Rock" collection includes a few:
"The Tale of Mr. Morton" continues into "The Little Things We Do".
The title character of "Interplanet Janet" returned in "Solar Power to the People".
Settling the Frontier: The episode "Elbow Room" is about the expansion of the United States from the original 13 states to its current size (not counting Alaska & Hawaii, the "freak states".) It also suggests that if we need to expand more we'll settle the moon.
Shrinking Violet: Mr. Morton, the subject of the sentence, from "The Tale of Mr. Morton". He doesn't have the nerve to talk to his neighbor, Pearl, to the point where he runs away when she invites him over. But she was apparently so touched by the poem he wrote for her that she went over to his house and proposed to him.
Stay in the Kitchen: "Sufferin' 'Til Suffrage" calls out this mindset a few times. The singer unpleasantly recalls that before the suffragette movement and consequent passing of the 19th Amendment allowed women to vote for president, they just stayed home and did such menial tasks as mashing potatoes and washing dishes while the men cast their votes.
Starfish Aliens: Little Twelvetoes is human-shaped, but he can pop his head off and stretch out his body at will, and said body appears to have pieces that either are invisible or missing completely (yet not harming him by their absence). This is probably why that short is so often labeled Nightmare Fuel.
Technology Marches OnTelegraph Line explains how the nervous system works, using telegraph lines as an analogy. These days, it would be easier to explain the nervous system to a child than it is to explain telegraph lines, as they haven't been around since the 1990s.
The Metric System Is Here to Stay: The Metric Marvels, a cartoon bumper series produced by the same folks who made Schoolhouse Rock. It had shorts intended to teach about metric units such as the meter, liter and kilogram, featuring metric super heroes like "Super Celsius" and "Wonder Gram." (They missed a golden opportunity, though, by not naming one of them "Meter Maid.")
Title Sequence Replacement: Each subseries originally had its own intro sequence. In 1977, these became replaced with a scene of children walking into a schoolhouse, taken from "Figure Eight." After a few years, this gave way to the intro containing Schoolhouse Rocky, and the song quoted at the top of this page. The DVDs cut out the title sequence altogether, although the 30th Anniversary Edition at least plays the "Schoolhouse Rocky" theme and the "Figure Eight" excerptnote with the music replaced before taking viewers to the main menus of discs one and two, respectively.
Vanilla Edition: In addition to the 2-Disc 30th Anniversary DVD containing 52 songs, audio commentaries, and interviews, DVDs only containing one set of SHR songs also became available for classroom use. These editions are by-and-large rip-offs, however, as the price of an individual disc is higher than that of the 30th Anniversary DVD.
A Wild Rapping Walrus Appears: During the solo parts of the otherwise rock & roll-themed "Save the Ocean" in "Earth Rock", provided by Eric "Badlands" Booker.