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50 is a magic number

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WORLD Radio - 50 is a magic number

Schoolhouse Rock! taught a generation how to multiply and turn a bill into a law


Getty Images/Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Today is August 11th, 2023.

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Paul Butler.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

It’s that time of year when many kids head back to school. But today, we’re going to take a look back at Schoolhouse Rock!

BUTLER: Many of us have fond memories watching those three-minute educational clips that aired during Saturday morning cartoons. Would you believe that Schoolhouse Rock! turned 50 years old this year. Time flies, doesn’t it?

BROWN: It certainly does. Here’s arts and culture editor Collin Garbarino to talk about the iconic series.

COLLIN GARBARINO: Thanks to that first episode of Schoolhouse Rock! everyone in my generation knows that three is a magic number.

SINGER: Yes it is. It’s a magic number

We learned the multiples of three up to 3 times 12. We also learned it takes three legs to make a tripod, and every triangle has three sides, and that when a man and a woman have a little baby, they have three in the family.

In the spring of 1973, Schoolhouse Rock! began airing on Saturday mornings on ABC. That first season was all about numbers and multiplication.

CHILD: Hey, Dad. How many animals on this old ark, anyway? Huh?

SINGER: Elementary, my dear. Two times two is four. Elementary, my dear. Two times three is six.

The show got its start because David McCall had noticed his son was having trouble remembering multiplication tables.

SINGER: 2 times 1 is 2 of course and it must occur to you…

But he also noticed his son didn’t seem to have trouble remembering the lyrics to popular songs. McCall partnered with musician Bob Dorough to write some songs that might help his son remember those multiplication tables.

SINGER: If school is where you are, aw, that’s not hard. Let me show you something. You multiply 7 times 1, I’ve got 7 days to get that problem done.

The songs proved so catchy they pitched them as brief cartoons to ABC television.

After teaching kids to multiply by all the numbers from two to twelve, Schoolhouse Rock! started a second series that fall focusing on grammar.

SINGER: Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?

SINGER: Hookin’ up words, phrases, and clauses.

The goal of Schoolhouse Rock! was to teach children some basic educational concepts through silly songs. But the genius of Schoolhouse Rock! was that it didn’t talk down to children. The lyrics possess some smart turns of phrase, and the music sounds like what you’d hear on the radio in the mid-1970s.

SINGER: That’s an additive like “this and that.” But. That’s sort of the opposite: “Not this but that”

Besides light rock and roll, we also get some disco and blues.

The third season started in the fall of 1975, running through the summer of 1976.

SINGER: The British are coming! The British are coming!

To celebrate America’s bicentennial, Schoolhouse Rock! focused on America’s founding and the distinctive features of its government.

SINGER: And the shot at Lexington heard ‘round the world.

One of my earliest memories from Schoolhouse Rock! comes from this third season. I distinctly remember sitting riveted watching as a bill tried to become a law.

BILL: I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.

In the episode, a bill explains how he must pass Congress and get the president’s signature in order to become a law.

BILL: It’s a long, long wait while I’m sitting at committee

After watching that episode when I was four or five years old, I understood how the process worked. It really prepared me for my high school civics class.

I’m not the only person “I’m Just a Bill” made an impression on. The song gets reused in pop culture fairly often. Probably one of the funniest spoofs is from the Saturday Night Live skit in 2014 that mocks then President Obama for executive overreach.

KID: President Obama, what’s the big idea? That bill was trying to become a law!

OBAMA: I realize that but you know, son. There’s actually an even easier way to get things done around here. It’s called an executive order.

EXECUTIVE ORDER: I’m an executive order, and I pretty much just happen.

This children’s series helped shape the way a generation of Americans saw the world. Sifting through Spotify to listen to Schoolhouse Rock! covers from Gen-X musicians is almost as much fun as revisiting the original cartoons.

The mid-70s had its share of problems. The sexual revolution was in full swing, and America had plenty of economic and political difficulties. But these three-minute kids’ music videos hearken back to some traditional values. The episodes teach basic lessons, while promoting patriotism and positive images of families. One episode even tells the Biblical story of Noah. You’re not likely to find that on ABC these days.

We’re so cynical these days. Maybe after 50 years, Schoolhouse Rock! still has something to teach us.

ALBERT ANDREAS ARMADILLO: You see a pronoun was made to take the place of a noun ‘cuz sayin’ all those nouns over and over again really weigh you down.

I’m Collin Garbarino

BUTLER: Most episodes of Schoolhouse Rock! are available to stream on Disney+.

And If you're interested in getting reviews and entertainment news delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to Collin’s weekly Muse newsletter at wng.org/newsletters.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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