THE ELECTRIC COMPANY

My first experience with plagiarism came as a result of my devotion to THE ELECTRIC COMPANY.

THE ELECTRIC COMPANY was the Children’s Television Workshop’s follow-up to Sesame Street, aimed at somewhat older kids in an attempt to teach reading skills and encourage reading. By the time I started watching it in the early 1970s, I could already read, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the hell out of it.

The show was built around short comedy sketches and musical numbers built around a cast of recurring characters: Easy Reader, J. Arthur Crank, Fargo North, Decoder, the Short Circus band, and a dozen others. Like Sesame Street, it mixed animated segments with live action, all edited at the pace of a commercial to combat the shorter attention spans that children were developing.

Today, most comic book fans remember the Electric Company primarily as the show that had Spider-Man on it, which is true. The web-spinner appeared regularly, both in segments of his own and interacting with the other characters, though he never spoke a word. The shtick was that Spidey’s dialogue would appear in word balloons and thought balloons for the viewer to read at home. Spidey’s segments also had what is perhaps the most succinct theme song in super hero history:

Spider-Man!

Where are you comin’ from, Spider-Man?

Nobody knows who you are!

Myself, I always preferred the recurring Adventures of Letterman, in which Gene Wilder voiced the varsity-sweater-wearing hero who would thwart the plans of the evil Spellbinder by replacing a key letter in a word, thus changing the outcome. Letterman also had a recurring entry mantra, voiced by Joan Rivers:

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!

It must also be said that I had a crush on June Angela, who played Julie.

The show was clever, and produced many episodes each season, enough that it could air every weekday without running into repeats for a considerable amount of time. And I was a regular and devoted viewer–so much so that we come to that plagiarism.

It was in third grade, and the teacher, Mrs Novak, had given us some manner of writing assignment–I don’t recall the specifics of it. What I do recall is that involved a concept that I had seen on the Electric Company. And so, I completely ripped off the Wild Cold Bill western sketch from the sow, as best I could remember it. And it was a huge hit–my teacher loved it. In fact, she loved it so much that she wanted me to read it aloud to the whole class.

To this day, I have no idea whether she knew the origin of the piece and was deliberately trying to teach me a lesson, or if this was a totally innocent turn of events–I suspect the latter. But I can recall vividly the anxiety I went through as I read the piece in front of the entire class, waiting for the inevitable moment when somebody would reveal the truth and out me. It was awful–though that moment of revelation never came. I got away with it–but it was a powerful lesson that stuck with me.

(Not powerful enough that I didn’t once rip off the plot to an EC science fiction story for a middle school writing assignment. But given that Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein themselves appropriated many of their springboards, that almost seems appropriate.)

The Electric Company ran until 1981, by which point I had long since stopped watching it. But every once in a while a bit or a routine will come to mind, still.

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