Western Animation: Schoolhouse Rock
"As your body grows bigger Your mind must flower It's great to learn 'Cause knowledge is power!"
— Opening theme
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
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.
- "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 idea of 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)note , 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), The Daily Show parody "Midterm Elections", was referenced by The Rachel Maddow Show's coverage of the 2009/10 health care law, and was recently parodied on the season 40 Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Cameron Diaz where the bill wanting to become a law (Kenan Thompson) gets pushed down the stairs by Barack Obama (Jay Pharaoh) and replaced with an executive order (Bobby Moynihan) to grant legal status to 5 million undocumented immigrants.
- "Conjunction Junction" (Grammar Rock, Sheldon) - What's your function? A kindly railroad freight conductor explains conjunctions (those little words that connect phrases and clauses in sentences, with "and," "but," and "or" as the most common) 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). In 2013, the real railroad Norfolk Southern made a commercial with an updated tempo of the iconic song.
- "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). MA Dtv 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 (including Pluto, which back in the 1970s, was considered a planet).
- "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.
Tropes present include: