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As your body grows bigger'Cause knowledge is power!
Your mind must flower
It's great to learn
Back in the day (1972, to be specific), Saturday morning children's programming was supposed to be at least tangentially educational, and Merchandise-Driven advertising was severely limited. Networks couldn't advertise things related to the cartoons they were airing in those timeslots, so there was an opening for educational shorts even after running through cereal commercials.
At around the same time, ad executive David McCall noticed that while his son was struggling in school, he had no trouble remembering the lyrics to his favourite songs. Thus the idea to introduce basic learning concepts to young minds via simple-but-catchy rock, jazz, folk and pop tunes -- most written by jazz mainstay Bob Dorough and eventual Broadway lyricist Lynn Ahrens -- accompanied by entertaining visuals, animated by a team led by Tom Yohe.
The intial pitch was made to Michael Eisner, then vice president of ABC's children's programming, who brought along one Chuck Jones. Jones loved the concept, Eisner persuaded his regular program lineup to snip three minutes each off their running time to accommodate it, and a legend was born. The Saturday-morning format provided a perfect vehicle to repeat the shorts over and over until the lesson was learned; from the start, Schoolhouse Rock was a roaring success as both education and entertainment, running for 37 episodes repeated endlessly over 12 years. Many of the shorts were burned into the minds of young viewers permanently.
Besides the educational content, the series won accolades for the consistently high quality of the songs - besides Dorough and Ahrens, performers included Jack Sheldon, Blossom Dearie, Essra Mohawk and Grady Tate - and the overall cleverness of the lyrics and animation. Taking cues from Sesame Street and other contemporary educational programming, Schoolhouse Rock avoided sentimentality and presented a hip, inclusive, fast-paced and funny (often downright snarky) attitude to learning.
Episodes initially fell under one of four headings, in order of production: Multiplication Rock, Grammar Rock, America Rock (history, mostly released around the 1976 American Bicentennial) and Science Rock. 1983 saw an earnest but ill-fated attempt at Computer Rock (aka Scooter Computer & Mr. Chips) and in 1995-96 the original team reunited for the much more successful Money Rock. In addition, two new Grammar Rock segments ("Busy Prepositions" and "The Tale of Mr. Morton") were added. In 2002 the team reunited again to produce two new America Rock segments ("I'm Gonna Send Your Vote to College" and "Presidential Minute") as a Milestone Celebration. In 2009, yet another reunion produced Earth Rock, about environmental issues.
All of the classic Schoolhouse Rock shorts are now available on DVD. The newer Earth Rock set is also available as a separate release.
- "Three Is a Magic Number" (Multiplication Rock, performed by Bob Dorough) - The song that started it all, used as the initial pitch to ABC and still one of the best ever produced for the series. Eventually used in Nike and ESPN commercials years later and was sampled for the De La Soul song "The Magic Number" off their Three Feet High and Rising album in 1989.
- "I'm Just a Bill" (America Rock, Jack Sheldon) - A forlorn little bill sitting on the steps of the Capitol explains the long, contentious process by which he someday 'hopes and prays' to become a law. This one became so iconic it earned The Simpsons parody "I'm an Amendment to Be" (about an amendment against flag-burning waiting to be ratified), a Family Guy throwaway joke in "They Call Me Bill" (which ends with the bill being poked with a trash pick and put in a garbage bag), and The Daily Show parody "Midterm Elections", and was referenced by The Rachel Maddow Show's coverage of the 2009-10 health care
- "Conjunction Junction" (Grammar Rock, Sheldon) - What's your function? A kindly railroad freight conductor explains conjunctions in terms of 'hookin' up cars and makin' 'em run right', in possibly the most insanely catchy children's song of all time. Notable for the number of cover versions by big name jazz artists (both Harry Connick Jr. and Doctor John have covered it, to name two). Also gave the name to Rachel Maddow's Debunction Junction segments, and was once parodied on Mad TV as "Dysfunction Junction", about the dangers of giving kids attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication (often for needless reasons -- i.e., the parents want their kids docile so they don't have to deal with them).
- "We the People" (America Rock, Lynn Ahrens) - Explaining the basic concept of the Constitution, using the Preamble as the chorus (albeit omitting the first 'of the United States' to fit the lyric scheme). A decade or so later, teachers across the nation wondered why students taking history exams were singing under their breaths...
- "A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing" (Grammar Rock, Ahrens) - This decent but unremarkable segment became notorious for a colouring goof that causes Chubby Checker to appear briefly as white. (There are also the deliberately white and smiling plantation slaves in "Mother Necessity"; weird notes in an otherwise fully integrated series.)
- "Mother Necessity" (America Rock, various) - The most elaborate of the segments, in which four of the regular performers (Sheldon, Dorough, Blossom Dearie & Essra Mohawk) each sing about different inventions. Notable in that this was a complicated process in the pre-Internet era; the producers had to travel to four different studios across the country to record a couple of lines at a time.
- "The Shot Heard Round the World" (America Rock, Dorough) - Notable both as a fairly comprehensive three-minute summary of the American Revolution and for a spectacular instance of Getting Crap Past the Radar. Near the end, a multi-ethnic crowd appears to represent America, and one of them--apparently a Native woman--is naked (albeit in the long shot only, no details shown).
- "Interplanet Janet" (Science Rock, Ahrens) - She's a galaxy girl! Another notoriously catchy tune, about... um... an alien softball team exploring our solar system. No, really. "She travels like a rocket with her comet team/and there's never been a planet Janet hasn't seen..."
- "The Weather Show" (Science Rock, Ahrens) - A Missing Episode for years because of legal difficulties stemming from the song's use of the phrase "Greatest Show on Earth", which trademark owner Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus did not view kindly. Eventually released as part of the 30th anniversary DVD, with the offending references rather awkwardly excised.
Tropes present include:
- Alternative Number System: The song "Hey Little Twelvetoes" is about a friendly alien with six digits on each hand and foot, who uses base 12 and as such has an easy time multiplying by twelves.
- Bigger on the Inside: The schoolhouse in "Figure Eight."
- Canon Dis Continuity: The first VHS copies cut out several songs in favor of new, live-action numbers performed by Cloris Leachman and a group of children. These songs disappeared from later home video versions, since they do not have the same composers as the original shorts.
- Creator Cameo: David McCall influenced the design of one of the "very weird creatures" Interplanet Janet meets on Earth.
- Creepy Child: Arguably, the cute little skater from "Figure Eight", whose eerily ethereal song (by Blossom Dearie) includes the wholly non-sequitur lines "If you skate/Upon thin ice/You'd be wise/If you thought twice/Before you made another single move..."
- Cut and Paste Suburb: An occupational hazard of limited animation. If you see a bunch of houses in an aerial shot, they're probably going to be identical.
- Educational Short
- Educational Song
- Foot Focus: Twice in Multiplication Rock. Lucky Seven Sampson wriggles his toes into an Iris Out at the end of his song -- and then there's Little Twelvetoes, an alien from a world that uses the base-12 number system for obvious reasons.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: As per above. There's also "Verb: That's What's Happening!", which is performed as a '70s funk homage to a black superhero, including repeated references to getting his 'thing in action!' and this from the adoring female chorus: "I can question like, 'What is it?'/Verb, you're so demanding!/I can order like, 'Go get it!'/Verb, you're so commanding!"
- In one of the America Rock segments, wherein the Declaration of Independence is described, the three rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are testified to by members of the Continental Congress. When the third right is listed, a man is shown pursuing a woman rather lecherously. (Is that you, Ben Franklin?)
- This line from "Interjections!": "That's not fair givin' a guy a shot down there!"
- It Is Pronounced "Tro-PAY": "Interplanet Janet" rather obviously invents a non-offensive pronunciation for Uranus, rendering it 'Ur-Ahh-Nus'.
- Jive Turkey: "I Got Six" and the aforementioned "Verb: That's What's Happening!".
- Karma Houdini: The pool-playing cat in "Naughty Number Nine." For the entire duration of the segment, the cat puts a mouse through absolute hell on a billiards board; and at the very end, the cat tips his bowler, smiles at the audience, and struts away. But don't worry, the mouse pops out of the #9 ball, making for a very Happy Ending.
- Laser-Guided Karma: In "A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing," a Mrs. Jones sends her dog to bark at the protagonist and her younger brother for no explained reason. They fed the dog a bone, and the dog turns on Mrs. Jones.
- Lost Episode: Even discounting the weather short that was removed from syndication for years, there is one Scooter Computer episode that hasn't survived as a video. "Introduction" only survives in audio form on the four-CD soundtrack set released in 1996.
- Lucky Rabbit's Foot: Lucky Seven Sampson has a lucky foot with a 7 on it.
- My Hero Zero: Trope Namer.
- Non-Indicative Name: It has been noted that a minority of the songs actually qualify as "rock", per se. Most are straight pop, but a few lean more toward jazz, blues, gospel, etc.
- Parental Bonus: The use of established jazz and cabaret performers means this runs through the entire series, intentionally or not. See (for instance) "I Got Six" for a splendid example of just how intentional they could get.
- Pluto Is Expendable: "Interplanet Janet" contains the lines "Nine planets" and "And Pluto, little Pluto, is the farthest planet from the sun." The fact that an entire generation grew up with Schoolhouse Rock may have had a little bit to do with the fervor over Pluto's demotion from planethood.
- Some theatre productions update the script and have someone interrupt the number and attempt to "correct" the song with an explanation about Pluto's decommission. And then the production has Audience Participation its audience vote on whether Pluto should stay.
- Others just use the updated lyrics of "Eight planets large and small, parading by." and "Pluto, little Pluto, used to be a planet, but now it's not."
- Politically Incorrect History: Ask Native Americans what they think of "Elbow Room." Frankly, this is true of most of the America Rock shorts, when viewed from the POV of anyone who isn't a patriotic American circa the Bicentennial celebrations. That said, the true complexities of history do tend to be difficult to convey in three minutes on Saturday mornings. Buy a textbook if you want a more nuanced account.
- Raymanian Limbs: Little Twelvetoes takes the concept to extremes. Empty space is apparently a key part of his biology (and his Nice Hat), and also his head, hands, and feet are held on like with magnets (i.e. pretty easy to remove and stick on somewhere else) instead of like with flesh and blood.
- Spelling Song: "Save the Ocean".
- Sweetheart Sipping: The main character of "A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing" does this with her "best friend" at the local Malt Shop.
- Starfish Aliens: Little Twelvetoes is human-shaped, but he can pop his head off and stretch out his body at will, and said body appears to have pieces that are either invisible or missing completely (yet not harming him by their absence). This is probably why that short is so often labeled Nightmare Fuel.
- Synchronized Swarming: Used all over the place in "Busy Prepositions".
- Take That: Money Rock song "Tyrannosaurus Debt" is a polite one, as they go, but it still portrays the national debt as a gigantic, ever-feeding monster dinosaur.
- Thank goodness it's not a carnivore.
- Talking Animal: Lucky Seven Sampson is a rabbit.
- Title Sequence Replacement: Each subseries originally had its own intro sequence. In 1977, these became replaced with a scene of children walking into a schoolhouse, taken from "Figure Eight." After a few years, this gave way to the intro containing Schoolhouse Rocky, and the song quoted at the top of this page.
- Vanilla Edition: In addition to the 2-Disc 30th Anniversary DVD containing 52 songs, audio commentaries, and interviews, DVDs only containing one set of SHR songs also became available for classroom use. These editions are by-and-large rip-offs, however, as the price of an individual disc is higher than that of the 30th Anniversary DVD.
- A Wild Rapping Walrus Appears: During the solo parts of the otherwise rock & roll-themed "Save the Ocean" in "Earth Rock", provided by Eric "Badlands" Booker.