Your mind must flower
It's great to learn
'Cause knowledge is power!"
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 favorite 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 genre legends 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 the blandness and conformity plaguing most animated shows at the time 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 (a.k.a. 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. The shorts continued airing, now part of the One Saturday Morning block, until 2000. 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) - Yes, it is. It's a magic number. 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) - Yes, he's only a bill, and he's sitting there on Capitol Hill. 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 that not only has it been screened in Washington as an instructional film for new Congressional aides, but it also 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), and the The Daily Show parody "Midterm Elections". It was also 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, wherein the Bill (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 (ie. "and", "but", "or") in terms of 'hookin' up cars and makin' 'em run right', in possibly the most insanely catchy children's song of all time. It marks the debut of series regular Jack Sheldon. For the 30th Anniversary Countdown, this was ranked as the greatest Schoolhouse Rock! song. 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 overprescribing ADHD medication. 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.) MADtv parodied this on their short-lived recurring sketch "Public Schoolhouse Rock," listing the terrible things about public school (gangs in the halls, graffiti, and the absentee staff members). Its chorus's rhythm was sampled by Tracey Lee for the song "The Theme (It's Party Time)".
- "Mother Necessity" (America Rock, various) - The most elaborate of the segments, in which four of the regular performers (Sheldon, Dorough, Ahrens & 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.
Tropes present include:
- Abhorrent Admirer: How Geraldine views Geraldo in "Interjections". The verse implies he's simply a Dogged Nice Guy, but after hearing his singing, you can't really blame her.
- Alternative Number System: The song "Hey Little Twelvetoes" is about a friendly alien with six digits on each hand and foot, who uses base 12 and as such has an easy time multiplying by twelves. It only aired a couple of times, because they thought the duodecimal system would be too complex for kids.
- Anthropomorphic Personification: Seen frequently. Most notably in "Tyrannosaurus Debt", where the National Debt is portrayed by a blue Tyrannosaurus Rex with stars and red stripes.
- Artifact Title: Despite being called Schoolhouse Rock, there aren't many songs that can be classified as rock music.
- 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.
- Bad Guys Play Pool: Naughty Number Nine.
- Bare Your Midriff: The singer of "Sufferin' 'Til Suffrage"
- Bears Are Bad News: In "Unpack Your Adjectives", the singer goes camping and encounters a bear. "He was a hairy bear! He was a scary bear! We beat a hasty retreat from his lair!"
- In a subversion of the trope, however, as soon as the singer and her turtle run away from the bear, the bear just shrugs his shoulders and saunters off.
- The bear is an Extreme Omnivore as he eats the adjectives.
- Bigger on the Inside: The schoolhouse in "Figure Eight"
- Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: The backup singers in "The Weather Show"
- 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.
- Cannot Spit It Out: Poor Mr. Morton blushed, fainted, and even ran away (twice) instead of talking to Pearl.
- 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.
- Cape Snag: "My Hero Zero."
- 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 by Walt Disney Home Video, the chef of Conjunction Junction Dinernote 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.
- Several cameos are also seen in "The Good Eleven", including Tom Yohe (wearing a red bowtie), George Newall (riding a bike), and McCall (looking in a mirror).
- Several of the names on the different selections in the voting booth in "I'm Going to Send Your Vote to College" are the names of the show's creators.
- That's Yohe laughing as King George in "No More Kings".
- 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..."
- Crush Blush: In "The Tale of Mr. Morton," Mr. Morton's entire face turned red when he saw Pearl out of his window.
- 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.
- Dissonant Serenity: In "Unpack Your Adjectives", asked to describe her trip to eager friends, the protagonist promptly unpacks... "frustrating" and "worst". "Then I picked 'soggy' and/Then I picked 'foggy' and/Then I was ready/To tell them my tale..." All this without breaking the adorably chipper tone of the song.
- Does Not Like Shoes: Multiple characters are seen barefoot in their regular outfits.
- Educational Short: One of the most famous series of these...
- Educational Song: ...With one of the most famous collections of these.
- Excited Show Title!: To emphasize the whole "Knowledge is power!" mantra.
- Extra Digits: "Little Twelve-Toes" has six fingers on each hand, and six on each foot.
- Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: Newsboys hawking newspapers appear in "Fireworks" and "Walking on Wall Street".
- Eye-Obscuring Hat: The male singer in "The Weather Show" wears one.
- As does Naughty Number Nine.
- Flat Joy: Interjections, which are set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point, or by a comma when the feeling's not as strong.Hooray, I'm for the other team.
- Floating 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.
- Four-Fingered Hands: Most Schoolhouse Rock! characters are drawn with four fingers, with a few exceptions.
- The prince from "I Got Six" has six rings on each finger, by multiplying 6 by 10 to get 60.
- Everyone in "Ready or Not, Here I Come", as that song is about multiplying by 5.
- Noah and his son have five fingers when multiplying 2 by 10 to get 20.
- Little Twelve-Toes, from the song of the same name, has six digits on each hand/foot.
- Fourth Date Marriage: Exaggerated in "The Tale of Mr. Morton." Mr. Morton and Pearl get married after one planned date, though Mr. Morton didn't even have the nerve to go through with it.
- On the other hand, the song clearly tells us that his infatuation (and presumably some small talk) lasted for long enough to grow flowers from seeds, so the "pre-courtship" lasted months at the very least.
- Gaia's Lament: "The Energy Blues" is a literal example, in which the Earth itself, voiced by Jack Sheldon, is singing about the depletion of its energy resources and the need for conservation.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar:
"That's not fair, givin' a guy a shot down there!" (Accompanied by a brief bare-butt shot.)
- "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 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!":
- 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.
- Gravity Is a Harsh Mistress: The whole point of "A Victim of Gravity".
- 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 alters weights by the same means, making them literally heavier. He even creates money by altering the $4 written on a piggy bank to a $4000... and there doesn't appear to be any limit to any of this. Thus, theoretically, he could for instance take a box of "10 guns" and grow it into "1,000,000 guns", enough to supply an army. He could also potentially reduce the opposition's arms, funding etc to zero. Granted he didn't do much in the video besides making some small-time money, but he is still young yet... The video.
- Hoist by Her Own Petard: In "A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing," a Mrs. Jones sends her dog to bark at the protagonist and her younger brother for no explained reason. They feed the dog a bone, and the dog turns on Mrs. Jones.
- Instant Costume Change: The singer of "Sufferin' 'Til Suffrage" demonstrates this ability.
- 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 very Happy Ending.
- Laser-Guided Karma: In "A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing," a Mrs. Jones sends her dog to bark at the protagonist and her younger brother for no explained reason. They feed the dog a bone, and the dog turns on Mrs. Jones. On the other hand, when the narrator is listing the nouns from that vignette, Mrs. Jones is given a flower and suddenly smiles and turns nice, so perhaps she simply needed a kindness the same way her dog did.
- The Last of These Is Not Like the Others: "Interjections!" has two examples:Geraldine: Well! You've got some nerve! Oh! I've never been so insulted in all my life! ...Hey! You're kinda cute!Spectator #1: Aw! You threw the wrong way!
Spectator #2: Darn! You just lost the game!
Spectator #3: Hurray! I'm for the other team!
- Logo Joke: Each Multiplication Rock song ended with a giant rock reading "a x b = c" landing in front of My Hero Zero.
- Lucky Rabbit's Foot: Lucky Seven Sampson has a lucky foot with a 7 on it.
- Luminescent Blush: It happened to the girl in "Telegraph Line" when she couldn't read her lines, and Max in "Tax Man Max" when Joy commented on his suit.
- Medium Blending: The singer of "Sufferin' 'Til Suffrage" interacts with black-and-white photos and drawings.
- Me's a Crowd: The singer of "Sufferin' 'Til Suffrage" has this ability, as she represents all female voters in the United States.
- 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."
- Mixed Ancestry: The singer of "The Great American Melting Pot" has a Russian grandmother and an Italian grandfather.
- Music Genre Dissonance: The series has a Non-Indicative 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 1995-2002 begin with characters from the songs gathering together at Conjunction Junction Diner.
- Overly Long Name: Rufus Xavier and Rafaella Gabriela Sarsaparilla 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.
- Perpetual Smiler: The Noun Girl is almost always smiling during her song.
- 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 productions of the live show based on the series 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 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."
- Another variant of that line is "Pluto, little Pluto, used to be a planet when they wrote this song."
- 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, as noted above the true complexities of history do tend to be difficult to convey in three minutes on Saturday mornings.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "INTERJECTIONS! SHOW EXCITEMENT! OR EMOTION!"
- Rewritten Pop Version: Greg Rapso, Matt Ballinger and Stevie Brock performed a pop cover of "Three is a Magic Number" in 2004, which oddly enough wasn't a Schoolhouse Rock! tie-in despite keeping many of the key lyrics of the song. Instead, it was used in a music video to promote Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers, which is also owned by Disney.
- Rule of Three: "Three is a Magic Number" has parts that center on the connection between the number three and certain objects (like triangles, tripods and families).
- Sequel Episode: Schoolhouse Rock: Earth 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.
- Shout-Out: In "Interplanet Janet", the people seeing her exclaim, "It's a bird! It's a plane!"
- 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.
- Smart People Wear Glasses: Subverted in "Unpack Your Adjectives". The protagonist sees a boy wearing glasses and a boy without them, and labels the glasses-wearer with a "brainy" sign and the other boy with a "dumb" sign. Then, the boy without glasses spouts a complex math equation, and the protagonist switches the signs.
- Something Blues: "The Energy Blues".
- Spelling Song:
- "I'm Gonna Send Your Vote to College".
- "Save the Ocean".
- 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.
- Sweetheart Sipping: The main character of "A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing" does this with her "best friend" at the local Malt Shop.
- Standard Snippet: "Interjections"'s melody morphs into the Hallelujah chorus from Haendel's Messiah.
- 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.
- Synchronized Swarming: Used all over the place in "Busy Prepositions".
- Take That!: Money Rock song "Tyrannosaurus Debt" is a polite one, as they go, but it still portrays the national debt as a gigantic, ever-feeding monster dinosaur.
- Thank goodness it's not a carnivore.
- Talking Animal: Lucky Seven Sampson is a rabbit.
- The Dog Bites Back: In "Nouns", a Grumpy Old Lady gets her dog to bark after the heroes, who give it a bone, causing it to turn against her.
- Tin-Can Telephone: Facetiously suggested as an alternative to the normal telephone if the family stops paying the phone bill in "Where the Money Goes."
- 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 before taking viewers to the main menus of discs one and two, respectively.
- Truck Driver's Gear Change: Happens in tons of songs from the series. See which ones here.
- Uncommon Time: "Naughty Number Nine", appropriately enough, is played in a 9/8 time signature.
- Unfortunate Name: In "The Little Things We Do", Mr. Morton and Pearl have a son named Norton Morton, though the song only calls him by his first name. It also calls the cat, "Orton", which doesn't sound like a common name for a cat.
- 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.
- Wallet Moths: In "$7.50 Once A Week" a moth flies out of the boy's pocket when he looks for more money, but has already spent his entire allowance.
- 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.