Recent graduates of “Sesame Street” (and their parents) rejoice -- on Jan. 19 a revamped version of “The Electric Company” premieres on PBS Kids Go. And, you should know, there’s lots of beat-boxing.
The original “Electric Company” premiered in 1971 -- two years after “Sesame Street” launched and became an instant (and unexpected) success. Joan Ganz Cooney, the visionary behind both shows, created “The Electric Company” as a follow-up with a focus on phonics.
If “Sesame Street’s” mission was to teach kids their ABCs, “The Electric Company” would show them how to string those letters together. There were sketch comedy segments (both Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby were featured on the show) interspersed with animation, songs and the iconic silhouette of two people sounding out a word (“B.” “Ack.” “Back!”).
That version of the show left the air in 1977 after 780 episodes. It continued to air in reruns throughout the early ‘80s and is now available on DVD and on iTunes. Still, the people at the Sesame Workshop believe there is a great need for an updated version of “The Electric Company,” which teaches literary skills to elementary school students.
More than a quarter of fourth-graders in public schools read below grade level, with those from poor communities performing especially badly, according to the show’s producers. The hope is that a revamped “Electric Company” will be part of a multi-pronged effort to help underachieving kids catch up with their peers in reading.
“I want to create a revolution in the playgrounds of America,” said Karen Fowler, the show’s executive producer. “Kids can sing about silent E just as easily as they can sing about people’s booties.”
But reviving a beloved classic of children’s educational programming was as audacious as it was obvious.
“There have been other people over the years who have tried to bring it back,” said Fowler, who started developing the new “Electric Company” in 2006. “It is kind of a no-brainer if you are looking for a show to get off the ground, but the approach I took was similar to the original one: Find the best people working in theater and broadcast television.”
Part of Fowler’s approach has been to incorporate hip-hop into the show. She hired the creative team from the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights” as music supervisors and worked with an improv hip-hop group called Freestyle Love Supreme. The hip-hop group performs most of the musical numbers -- songs like “Silent E Is a Ninja” and “Miss Bossy R.”
But a beat-boxer named Shockwave (Chris Sullivan) gets the most screen time. Among other recurring characters, Shockwave -- who resembles an affable camp counselor -- plays a short-order cook, a rhythmic secret agent and a black belt karate master who sounds out words so he can break them in half. Beat-boxing, it turns out, is a surprisingly effective tool for repeating consonant and vowel sounds.
Perhaps the biggest change is that the sketches have for the most part been replaced with narrative threads that run throughout each show. The stories largely center on a foursome of regular-looking kids who have superpowers that enable them to manipulate words. In addition to helping one another, the band uses its powers to thwart the Pranksters, a group of comedic neighborhood bad guys. (In one episode, former NFL running back Tiki Barber shows up only to have his bird stolen.)
These narrative bits -- which include jokes, singing and dancing -- also teach five vocabulary words per episode. The writing staff -- headed by MacArthur Fellow and Tony and Academy Award nominee Willie Reale -- tries to “seamlessly” work in the definition of each word and how to use it in context.
It’s not a coincidence that when one character gets hypnotized into thinking he’s a dog his friends keep referring to his “canine” “instincts.” The hope is that each word is so integral that a kid would need to use the word in order to recap the story.
And just like the original, humor is a key element as well.
“Joan Ganz Cooney taught me if you are not entertaining them there is no way you are educating them,” said Fowler. “It is television, not school.”