Edutainment Show that ran from October 25, 1971 until April 15, 1977 on PBS (the last two seasons reran until October 4, 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 & the Chocolate Factory.
A different series with the same title premiered in 2009; that version of the show has its own page.
"tr" "opes" "tropes":
- 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".
- Acting Unnatural: In one of Tom Lehrer's compositions for the show, "L-Y", this trope comes into play in the second verse. Enhanced by the animation for the song, in which the "secret agent man" leans against the safe he is trying to open while playing with a yo-yo and smiling ear to ear.You're a secret agent man
Who's after the secret plan
How do you act so they don't know you're a spy?
Ah-normally (Not-So-Innocent Whistle) Normally (whistles again)
- 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).
- Agony of the Feet: Several sounds can be made with this trope. Examples:
- A drum major shouts "Gimme an 'O'!" His wished is obliged, with one on each foot, making him make the "oo" sound.
- Crank gets help with the two vowel sounds of the "y" when a heavy box falls - twice - on a moving man's foot!
- Anachronism Stew: In any historical or Western skit, this is to be expected.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The Teeth, according to the newspaper, has eaten "New York, New Jersey, and a dozen jelly doughnuts!"
- Artistic License – Geography: Played With and subverted in an animated Western parody that takes place in Or, Utah"Or, was it Montana?"
- 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!)
- Bowled Over: The conclusion of the animated song "The Skull is connected to the Skeleton," complete with the bones as bowling pins.
- 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.
- Calvinball: Jim Boyd's inventor/salesman introduces Luis Avalos' game company executive Mr. Overprice to the game called "Pay." It involves hitting a Koopa (an enormous baseball) with a cudgel and running around the bases (i.e., the office furniture). Afterwards:Mr. Overprice: I think you named it right in naming it "Pay," because you are about to pay for everything you've broken!(Mr. Overprice grabs the inventor in rage)Inventor: Ah, Mr. Overprice, you can't touch me while I'm standing on home base.Mr. Overprice: Ye! (Fainting into the resulting clutter)
- 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.
- If you came to this page, you know it: HEY... YOU... GUUUUUUUUUUUUUYS!
- "Who's the dummy writing this show?" was used by various characters, but most often by J. Arthur Crank.
- 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: The "Giggles, Goggles" sketch. One person misuses a word, the other corrects her, and they do this several times until they come back to the original word.
- 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?
- Morgan Freeman was guilty of this quite frequently. One example was during the taping of a first-season Otto the Director skit (known by fans as "The Director and the Musketeer") wherein after Bill Cosby flubbed his line ("all for one and one for all") one last time, Otto (Rita Moreno) kicked Cosby's shin and took his props, running off crying as both Freeman and Judy Graubart (who played the cue card girl in this installment) visibly began laughing.
- There was a rare example happening off-screen. In a ballet sequence to illustrate the word "sun," the three dancers are joined by 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.
- 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!
- Disney Death: Inverted. Otto has had it with with a Damsel in Distress (Judy Graubart) drowning in the quicksand, going deeper as she cannot say her line. The mood changes immediately when she disappears in it, and Otto, cast, and crew are visibly distraught. Cut to Graubart alive and well (and dirty) and making work demands. Otto then inserts herself into the quicksand!
- 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.
Fargo: (opens the door for her) Bye-bye! Say "hi" to the folks!
(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)
- The Dog Bites Back: A Cinderella sketch has the Wicked Stepmother constantly interrupt Cinderella's sweeping, to demand items that begin with "br-". Finally, she commands, "Bring me my breakfast", and tells the "country clod" to put it on her lap. The overworked Cinderella proceeds to dump the breakfast on the Wicked Stepmother's lap, then call for a taxi.
- 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."
- 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:
- The Girl Who Fits This Slipper: The Cinderella scene gets spoofed to teach about suffixes.
- 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."
- Hero Ball: As close as The Blue Beetle ever was to anything that passes for heroic!
- Hollywood Heart Attack: The animated skit "Who is it?/It's the plumber, I've come to fix the sink," which the plumber suffers shortly after losing his cool when he unsuccessfully conveys to (unknown to him) a parrot, who could only squawk "Who is it?" with each knock on the door. After the fourth such exchange, the plumber grasps his neck, gasps for air and contorts severely before passing out.
- Jumping Out of a Cake: In a "Spidey Super Stories" sketch the Birthday Bandit thinks Spiderman is hiding in a kid's birthday cake. Spiderman comes up behind him while he's smashing it with a mallet.
- Jungle Princess: Jennifer of the Jungle.
- Large Ham: Everyone had a turn at this, although Jim Boyd's characters were frequently the largest at being a Large Ham - "and cheese and tomato and bacon and ... ".
- 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 flavour 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.
- 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.
- Jim Boyd played Krojak/Flapjak, depending on the skit, as a Parody of Kojak complete with lollipop!
- Season 1 Easy Reader is basically Jimi Hendrix.
- Nursery Rhyme:
- Deconstructed in "A Very Short Book" segments.
- In an animated segment, a Fats Domino Expy cat does a jazzy soul take on "Hey Diddle Diddle," with a cat playing the fiddle.
- "Rub-a-Dub-Dub" was remade as:Rinky-dink-dink
Three men in a sink
The butcher, the baker, and Freddy the fink
Fred gave a tug and pulled out the plug
And I think that sink will soon sink
- Officer O'Hara: Combined with Police Are Useless characterizations in skits by Jim Boyd and Skip Hinnant.
- 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.
- Phlebotinum Pills: A huckster invents "ue" pills, so words will come out a person's mouth with the "ue" sound in them.
- 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 / Ezy Ryder); 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.
- Rhymes on a Dime: In a "Spidey Super Stories" sketch the Birthday Bandit speaks in rhyme.
- The Sandman: In one sketch, a crossover appearance of Spider-Man where he fights Sandman, not the known enemy of his rogue gallery, but a one based on this version (seen in nightshirt and cap).
- Scary Teeth: Played for Laughs as a couple experiences the terror of The Teeth. Subverted as said Teeth proclaims, "Look dad, no cavities!"
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Otto's frequent response when's she's had enough of an actor flubbing a line.
- Whenever Letterman would come in to save the day, Joan Rivers would make a speech reminiscent of one used for Superman.Faster than a rolling O! Stronger than silent E! Able to leap Capital T in a single bound! It's a word, it's a plan, it's Letterman!
- Every "Love of Chair" sketch would end with the narrator and a cast member asking random questions, the second-to-last of which was always, "What about Naomi?" referring to producer Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, mother of Jake and Maggie.
- In a courtroom sketch, the participants rap a snippet of "Here Comes the Judge"
- Whenever Letterman would come in to save the day, Joan Rivers would make a speech reminiscent of one used for Superman.
- 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:
- Suddenly Voiced: Spider-Man on the Super Spidey Stories album.
- The Taxi:
- 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!"
- One skit sees a character played by Jim Boyd sleeping in front of a TV broadcasting an ad with a pitchman voiced by Morgan Freeman. The pitchman declares, "Put some Ship Shape on your face after you shave, and you'll feel sharp all day!" Jim continues sleeping, and a slightly irritated Morgan clears his throat and repeats the pitch. When this still doesn't rouse Jim, a hand reaches out of the screen and slaps him across the face. Jim finally wakes up and sarcastically says, "Thanks! I needed that!"
- 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.
- Too Dumb to Live: An animated segment and a live-action segment frequently appeared back-to-back, each featuring a man who should never be allowed to ride in small seafaring vessels.
First man: Hey, (removes the plug) what's this?Second man: That's a plug, stupid!
- In the animated segment, two men are on raft:
- Translator Buddy: The New-Age Retro Hippie for Tex the sax player, with assist, of course, from words appearing on the screen!
- 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: RatLuis Avalos' cowboy: SnakeJB cowboy: WormLA cowboy: WeaselJB cowboy: SkunkLA cowboy: Dirty dogJB cowboy: PussycatJB cowboy: Pussycat?
- Weird West: Exemplified by the "galloping saddle" and "My Name is Kathy" sketches.
- Where the Hell Is Springfield?: Deconstructed in the animated Western Parody that takes place in Or, Utah ...
- 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."
- Who Writes This Crap?!: The Catch-Phrase "Who's the dummy writing this show?"
- 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!
- Word Salad Philosophy: The show's approach to teaching reading.
- Words Can Break My Bones: Literally.
- In an animated Chicken Little parody, the iconic phrase appears on the top of the screen and the wolf thinks he has dinner when the sentence falls on him, sending him to the ground.
- In a Western skit, a cowboy (Jim Boyd) was constantly annoyed by a sentence in the air, to the point of pushing him as it made slide whistle sounds. "My Name is Kathy" — a subverted Badass Creed named after a Short Circus song — taunted the cowboy into a fight. The sentence won as the cowboy merely vanished. After one last whoop from the victorious sentence came the cowboy's voice: "Weeelll, you can't win'em all!"