Books Are Pretty

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Electric Company.

Would you let this man teach your children how to read?

Credit where credit is due: it was my mother who taught me how to read. But it was this man here,


who just made it look so outta sight.

For those of you who didn't have your noses pressed up against the television set from 1971 to 1977, this man is Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, back when he was busy impressing the shit out of 6-year-olds everywhere in the U.S. as Easy Reader, on PBS' The Electric Company.

And it wasn't just Morgan Freeman teaching me and countless others how to read. There was also Rita Moreno, the first actress in history to win an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy, and an Emmy (and who also was the one shouting "HEY YOU GUYS!!" at the beginning of the show*). There was Bill Cosby, who had a hand in virtually every single piece of quality children's television thoughout the sixties and seventies. There was Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder, but that was almost incidental to the show's ability to suck in a child and spit out a reader.

I acquired the 4 dvd collection of The Best of the Electric Company in the worst possible way: I stayed up way too late surfing, came across some of these old clips, got all sentimental, and the next thing you know it's in our mailbox and Steve is pissed at me for spending money we really don't have.

It was worth every dime, though, because when the kids got home from school and I put it in, they settled in on the couch to see what it was all about. I hung back in the doorway, actually nervous, because, you know, they don't have to like it or anything, it's okay if they don't like it, but it's just that it was a really important show to Mommy a long time ago and she'll be crushed if you hate it, but it's okay. Really. You don't have to like it.

We watched the first episode, originally aired on October 25, 1971. The sets were cheap. Super cheap. In one episode, Morgan Freeman plays Marvin, a very clumsy man who destroys everything he touches. When he leans against the brick fireplace wall, you can see a hand sneak out from behind the set and push the wall on top of him.

And compared to the frenetic pacing in today's children's television shows, The Electric Company seemed agonizingly slow. During the segments, I kept glancing nervously to the kids to see if they were getting restless. They weren't. Alex was staring at Bill Cosby, who was carefully explaining the two different sounds the letter "G" makes.

"Mommy," said Alex, his eyes still on the screen as he spoke in a voice that was genuinely pleased and respectful, "that man is teaching me how to read."

And that's the beauty of it, I think. The Electric Company didn't bother to disguise their intent. Sure, they made it funny, and there was a lot of repetition, but in between that, they slowly and methodically explained how the English language works. They assumed their viewer knew their alphabet and letter sounds, and worked mostly on teaching children to put the sounds together to make words, punctuation, and capitalization. The words they worked on were just out of Alex's reach, reading-wise, words like "great" and "tomorrow" and "light," and they explained them in such a way that you could see the connections being made in his head as he watched.

It was amazingly cool, cooler even than the cast, and that's really saying something. The cast of The Electric Company were adults (except for the Short Circus, the all-kid rock band). They weren't adults pretending to be kids, and they didn't treat their viewers like kids, either. They were hip adults, and they successfully convinced kids that reading was cool. (And speaking of adult, Skip Hennant, who played the popular Fargo, North Decoder, went on to star as the title character in the X-rated cartoon Fritz the Cat.)

Looking cool was the purpose of Easy Reader, I think. And who, I have to say, looked staggeringly pimptastic in the first episode. You have no idea. He appeared in a later episode less macked-out but still sidling up to a diner waitress, played by Lee Chamberlain, and crooning, "Hey, baby, you got a pack of matches?"

This made me scream at the tv, "Oh my God, you're not going to start smoking, are you?"**

Which was a valid question because two scenes prior to this one, Bill Cosby spent the entire sketch teaching the kids how to pronounce "DR" with a big fat cigar stuffed between his fingers.

I would have almost rather Morgan Freeman and Lee Chamberlain get it on atop the diner's formica counter than smoke cigarettes, and given the general clothing vibe and those kissably close silhouettes pushing letter sounds out of their lips and urging them closer and closer until it was certain the letters knew each other in a Biblical sense and a new word was formed, I wouldn't put some literary screwing past those two at all.

Ah, the seventies!

Here's one more clip, "The Adventures of Letterman," featuring the voices of Joan Rivers, Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder.

*Interesting that the two best shouters in televsion are women - Rita Moreno on The Electric Company and Carol Burnett's imitation of Tarzan.

**Easy Reader, as it turns out, does not smoke.

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