Shout! Factory // 1971 // 630 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // November 8th, 2006
Hey, yooou guyyyyys!
What do Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, Gene Wilder, Luis Avalos, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, Bill Cosby, Tom Whedon, Chuck Jones, and Spider-Man all have in common? If you thought "The Electric Company!" -- and then lapsed into fond recollections of Letterman, Easy Reader, and Paul the Gorilla -- then this DVD set is for you. If you lapsed into fond recollections of The Bloodhound Gang, you're close; wait for 3-2-1 Contact to come out on DVD. If the lightbulb didn't go on, so to speak, then you'd better get back to your Tickle-Me Elmo and ignore the rest of this review.
An ensemble cast uses animation, funky musical numbers, subversive skits, and vaudeville techniques towards the noblest of ends: to teach kids how to read.
Honestly, I'm almost as excited now as I was watching The Electric Company while sitting in my molded plastic chair in elementary school. The Best Of The Electric Company (Volume 2) has brought it all back as clearly as if the 1970's happened yesterday. It is shocking how many disused, thirty-year-old neurons fired up when I popped in this DVD set. Paul the Gorilla, Letterman, Easy Reader, and Goldilocks are like old friends. I haven't missed this show, per se, but it must have had a potent impact in my formative years.
The same cannot be said for my son. He's usually hip to kid's DVDs. When the screeners come in, he roots through the pile, emerges with the kid's DVD clutched in his hand, and says "Daddy, I want to watch this one." (Good thing I was able to intercept Suburban Secrets.) Since I was thrilled at the prospect of sharing one of my formative shows with him, The Electric Company went in first.
To my great sadness, the light did not come on. He did not find Letterman amusing. Paul the Gorilla is no Lion King. The car that wouldn't go because it was missing an apostrophe-S had nothing on Thomas the Tank Engine. All the funkiness, the urban wit, and the subversive skits went over his head. To people who weren't there, the tacky brown clothes of the 1970's are not funky; they are blah. The shimmies and snarls of the singers might as well have been seizures. He simply wasn't into it. In fact, he looked like he wanted to cry, so we turned it off.
My kid is not representative of every kid who might see and love this show. But the truth is, there are some obstacles to the modern viewer. First and foremost is the sound quality. Shout! Factory probably did what they could with it, but this mono track is among the harshest, most ear-grating tracks I've listened to. From the anemic, warbling opening songs to the thin, brassy, and hot mix whenever anyone shouts (which happens often) the audio track ran the gamut of poor quality. We kept turning the volume knob down until the fluctuations no longer threatened to make either of us cry. The video quality is barely better. With very poor contrast, poor detail, poor color rendition, and a nasty purplish line down the left-hand side, The Best Of The Electric Company (Volume 2) is no beauty queen.
Aside from that, everything is peachy. The episodes in this set range from 1971 to 1976, and truly represent the best of this imaginative show. Rita Moreno's show defining "Hey, you Guuuuyyyyys!" rings out when she's hitting the streets with Morgan Freeman as a rookie cop. The guys all get cozy as they rub-a-dub-dub four men into a tub. Hattie Winston belts out "Nitty Gritty" in the most memorable beach number since Annette's '60s surf flicks. (Note to Barney: this is what your ensemble of cute kids should be like.) The catchy musical numbers and goofball skits are interspersed with absurd -- or just plain trippy -- snippets of animation. There are fewer Spider-Man sightings than I'd like, but Spidey and his animated dialogue balloons are just as cool now as they were then.
Under the surface, the skits and animations are bound by a subversive edge. Everything in The Electric Company is turned on its ear, skewering society in a gentle parody. Cops and robbers, cowboys, and hobos are all fodder for social commentary. Some of the humor skips right over the kids and hits the adults, which was a mild shock.
The musical numbers are the crowning achievement. From the Silver Sipper to "Pete's Pickle," the songs resonate with energy and stick in your mind long afterward. Some of them are downright moody, such as Morgan Freeman's plaintive "Shoo Shoo Sunshine" from Season One. Managing even one catchy song is a feat, and this gang cranked out several. (Note to Shout! Factory: I'd buy The Electric Company Soundtrack, particularly if the audio was spiffed up a bit.)
Shout! Factory has adequately supplemented this release, even if the
features themselves aren't scintillating. The intros basically feature actors
telling you what is in the episode; I could get that by reading the DVD liner. A
1975 documentary on how the show impacts education merely highlights how far
documentaries have come in the last thirty years. By the fifth elementary school
principal interview, I was ready to throw my PET chocolate milk at the screen.
"Remembering The Electric Company" is the best feature of the bunch,
with interviews of many of the original cast. There are several interesting
tidbits, buried amongst a slew of these key phrases:
* "I'm in love with ____"
* "___ was delightful!"
The only one who seems completely frank is Hattie Winston, who stresses the positive African American role models provided by the show. It almost makes me afraid to admit that "sexy" was the word that went through my mind whenever she came on in her nurse's uniform, or in her old-timey bathing suit belting out "Nitty Gritty," or in the sensual Silhouettes skits. (Remember those? Hattie and Morgan square off in silhouette and breathe out "Th......anks. Thanks!")
There may be hope yet. Yesterday, my son asked me to put the "Hey you guys!" lady. Perhaps Rita's energy and the pure fun of The Electric Company really can span the generations.
Guilty of warping the malleable minds of generations.
Review content copyright © 2006 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 630 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Remembering The Electric Company"
* Episode Intros
* Play All Songs on each disc
* The Electric Company Documentary (1975)
* Bill Cosby on The Dick Cavett Show
* DVD Verdict Review of Volume One