ABC Special Revives ‘Schoolhouse Rock,’ if Only for a Night

By Mark Walsh — September 04, 2014 2 min read
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Attention, Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers. Plop your children, and yourselves, in front of the TV this Sunday evening. The kids may learn something, not only about grammar, history, and mathematics, but about a cherished part of your childhoods.

“The ABC’s of Schoolhouse Rock,” will air at 7 p.m. Eastern time (6 p.m. Central) on ABC, where the “Schoolhouse Rock” series of educational short films debuted in 1973. The one-hour special is hosted by Chandra Wilson of “Grey’s Anatomy,” who notes that it is the network’s tribute to back-to-school time. (And it comes in a season when there have been relatively few such specials, even on public television.)

The special is pretty much what Boomers and Gen X-ers might expect. It’s a look at the beloved shorts from such original groupings as Multiplication Rock (“Three Is a Magic Number,” “Figure Eight”), Grammar Rock (“Interjections!”, “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here”), Science Rock (“Electricity, Electricity,” “Telegraph Line”), and America Rock (“Preamble, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”).

There are short takes from many of those films and others. The special airs the full segments of those that producers have picked as the top five of all time. I won’t reveal them all, but it should not surprise viewers that the two best remembered films, “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction,” are part of that group.

The special is fairly low-budget. Wilson introduces the clips from a simple set, though a narrator provides some of the history. New York City advertising executive David McCall wondered why his son could memorize lyrics to Rolling Stones songs but not his multiplication tables. That led to the first film, “Three Is a Magic Number,” and eventually to ABC, where the shorts were part of the Saturday morning cartoon block from 1973 until 1985. (Some additional songs and films were produced in the 1990s and 2000s, but those aren’t included in the special.)

Much of the special revolves around the on-camera recollections of jazz artist Bob Dorough (now 90 years old, if Wikipedia is correct), who wrote or co-wrote and performed many of the catchiest tunes.

“Schoolhouse Rock” has been the subject of nostalgia and satire. “The Simpsons” memorably did a parody short called “Amendment to Be” (about a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution), which has replaced “Itchy & Scratchy” in a mid-1990s episode. “What the hell is this?” asks Bart. Lisa answers, “It’s one of those campy 70s throwbacks that appeals to Generation X-ers.”

There have also been nostalgic recollections of the show on VH1’s “I Love the ‘70s” (which aired in 2003) and a more vulgar parody on Adult Swim channel’s “Robot Chicken.”

In a 1996 book, Schoolhouse Rock: The Official Guide, producers Tom Yohe and George Newall write that Dorough used to get requests to perform tunes from the show while touring with his jazz trio in Europe. The producers were once invited to an education symposium at Dartmouth College and were surprised to be greeted by “900 rocking, rolling, clapping, foot-tapping ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ fans.”

Sunday’s special is no scholarly symposium or detailed history lesson. It’s just television. But “Schoolhouse Rocks” still rocks.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.