The creators didn’t know. ABC didn’t know. Not even David McCall, who had the idea in the first place, knew. Who could have known that those innocent lyrics and simple pictures would burn themselves into the consciousness of a generation considered unfairly by most to be unconscious: Generation X.
But today you can sit at your restaurant table, look up at your thirty-or fortysomething waiter or waitress, say “Conjunction Junction,” and chances are you’ll get the same enthusiastic reply every time: “What’s Your Function?”
It began in the mind of David McCall, then President of McCaffrey and McCall Advertising. While vacationing with his family, he noticed that his son, Davey, who was having more than his share of trouble learning the multiplication tables, could sing any Rolling Stones lyric, line for line. In fact, any rock lyric at all. In one of those flashes of inspiration that occur on a regular basis to successful ad men, Mr. McCall thought that his son might have a better time of rote learning if he had a catchy tune to go with his times tables. It was as simple, and as brilliant, as that.
Back from vacation, Mr. McCall passed on the idea to advertising colleagues George Newall and Tom Yohe. The two struggled to find a jingle writer at the advertising agency who could do the material justice, but got something halfway between the saccharine sweetness of “The Singing Lady” and “Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya!” They went outside of the agency and recruited Bob Dorough, a jazz pianist and composer with a penchant for turning mundane subject matter into great music. Mr. Dorough immersed himself in his daughter’s text books, and returned to Mr. Newall and Mr. McCall a few weeks later with “Three is a Magic Number.” Mr. Dorough’s lyrics were so visual that Mr. McCall decided they would make a wonderful educational film. He designed a magician character and drew a storyboard. The account executive of the agency’s biggest account, the ABC Television Network, saw the storyboard and – knowing that ABC was on the lookout for some “pro-social” children’s programming – suggested they take the idea to ABC. A meeting was set up with the network’s young Vice President for children’s programming, Michael Eisner. (Yes, that Michael Eisner.) Mr. Eisner invited the legendary animator Chuck Jones, of “Roadrunner” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” Fame, to join the meeting. The demo tape was played and the storyboard presented. At song’s end, Mr. Eisner turned to Mr. Jones and said, “What do you think?” his reply? “Buy it!” Schoolhouse Rock was born.
The little three-minute capsules appeared as many as seven times each weekend. How does a bill get through Congress? Why is Zero a hero? How many planets are in the solar system? Why are we all “victims of gravity”? These questions, and others, were answered over and over again for 13 continuous years.
According to an article in Indiana University’s Indiana Daily Student, “The Schoolhouse Rock video clips on ABC Saturday Morning television were more than booster shots in grammar, multiplication, American history, and science. for 13 years, the videos were to the ‘baby bust’ (those born from 1965 – 1975) what Howdy Doody was to the baby boom: an icon.” The impact was evidenced when a young Canadian-born woman tracked down George and Tom to tell them she wouldn’t have passed her U.S. Citizenship test without the help of “The Preamble.”
In the early ’90’s enthusiasts began to arise organizing petitions to get ABC to start airing the series again. ABC gave way and started replaying the series in 1995. The videos and CD’s of the cartoons and songs were released to the public, new videos were created and aired, and now stores carry scores of novelty items for the nostalgic in all of us, which brings us to today.