Pop Culture Vomit Bag!: "The Letter People" (1972)
Who doesn't reminisce about kindergarten? Back when learning was still fun and hands-on, when you were still allowed to play during class, when it was still cool to watch Sesame Street, when life was so simple and carefree and all you needed to know were colors and numbers and shapes and the days of the week and the letters of the alphabet. Truly it was the best time of our lives.
Then you enter the first grade…and it's all downhill from there.
If you were like me, you probably were sat down to watch a lot of videos in kindergarten. And if you're my age, chances are that some of these videos may have featured puppets with giant capital letters emblazoned on their chests who sang and had adventures and taught phonics.
The Letter People was conceived in 1972 as a classroom program aimed to teach younger children how to read which in the same year branched out into television thanks to St. Louis PBS station KCET. A total of sixty 15-minute episodes were produced through 1976, which became so popular with new readers that reruns ran on PBS stations and in kindergarten classrooms for years.
Each show takes place in Letter People Land, home of twenty-six individuals known as Letter People. In this land the spirits are high, the atmosphere is friendly, all the consonants are men, all the vowels are girls, and the business of the day was always bringing literacy to the under-sixes. (Bet some of you didn't catch on that the vowels were all girls, huh? Though it does raise a question about Mr. Y...a hermaphrodite, maybe?)
Each Letter Person had a specific characteristic or bodily feature which helped children remember the sound they made. For instance, Mr. H had "horrible hair".
Mr. N had a "noisy nose":
Mr. S was a superhero with "super socks":
Mr. T had "tall teeth":
No, not that Mr. T.
There we go. It also appears he had a huge capital letter T welded to his incisors for some reason.
And Mr. L looked like a lemur wearing lipstick with lemon lollipops stuck all over him:
A clever idea, though in one case they seemed to be stretching a bit. Miss O in the classroom program was an optimist, but on the TV show she became..."obstinate."
I'm not sure anyone in this show's target demographic knew what the word "obstinate" meant.
As the series goes on, it introduces each Letter Person by putting them in situations full of words which start with each character's letter. It also tackles more advanced phonics such as two-letter clusters, different sounds coming from the same letter, and in the last few episodes covered words with more than one syllable and even got their audience started with full sentences. And then there was "The Catching Game", an idea that came about when the Letter People discovered they could make words by bumping into each other and "catching" each other's sounds. It started out as a game show within a show but evolved into a recurring motif in later episodes.
Oh yeah, and each Letter Person had their own song, too. And good grief, if the songs on this show don't get stuck in your head.
Wherever you find a show like this, that people grew up on, have memories of and hopefully introduce their kids to, there's always that small faction of maniacal fans who combine their love for the show with their unparalled hatred for everything new in its genre and start wishing they revive their favorite series. They will post on their favorite forums and write up online petitions, "everything new sucks nowadays, bring back this show, kids need to watch more of this stuff instead of the garbage they're putting out now," blah blah blah.
Well, that's understandable, because most new stuff is crap. But there are some problems with franchise reboots. You see, standards have changed from the 1970s to today, which have been helped along by the FCC, certain special interest groups, and the soccer moms of America, all of whom have taken steps to strip the fun out of entertaining children. They will not be satisfied until their kids are watching nothing but wholesome, inoffensive, bland TV programming. Using this show as an example, we can already see that these self-appointed censors would pick the littlest things apart.
Take, for instance, Mr. M and his "munching mouth":
Given that we've spent these last few years fighting childhood obesity alongside the mainstream media, agreed upon as the single most dangerous weapon in the modern world, it's obvious they'd make this guy go on a diet.
Then there's Mr. W and his "wonderful wink":
This guy wouldn't last five minutes with Focus on the Family. Neither would Miss E, for that matter:
The very thought of a Letter People revival is tantalizing, but just remember that as with Hanna-Barbera's non-violent self-bastardization of Tom and Jerry in 1975, the Star Wars prequels pandering to children and teens with Jar Jar Binks and the trashy romance novel storyline, and with all these movies based on old cartoons and TV shows coming out to universal condemnation from critics and moviegoers, teaching an old dog some new tricks isn't always a good idea.
So it may surprise some of you to know that they actually DID revive this franchise—not the show per se, but the characters themselves in new books and educational content. Abrams and Co. Publishers bought out the rights to the characters in 1990 and turned them loose upon younger readers once again, but not without giving them a major facelift. I've got a link to the website right here, so let's have a look at them.
Good lord, they all look the same! They're all blue skinned and around the same height! And it looks like some of them changed sex...even the ones that didn't!
What about individually? Let's see…looks like they let Mr. M keep his munching mouth, and yet ironically they've rewritten the Mr. C ("cotton candy"), Mr. D ("delightful donuts") and Mr. L ("lemon lollipops") characters. Miss E still exercises (even though she's a dude now), but they've also taken away Mr. R's ripping rubber bands and turned him into a walking Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. Mr. H's hair is no longer horrible, but "happy". Mr. W's wink is gone, replaced by "wonderful words" (what's so unique about that? They make words all the time, what makes his…sorry, hers any better?). And just what the hell are "impossible inches"?
And perhaps the biggest kick in the face to fans of the original…Mr. X, the one who was "all wrong" or "mixed up" because he was based off the mark that a teacher would give a wrong answer, is now just "different." That's right, he's DIFFERENT from the other Letter People. He does things A DIFFERENT WAY, which doesn't make him any less of a Letter Person than any of the others. Considering there aren't a lot of words in the English language that start with X, it would make sense that its original creators would focus more on the letter's symbolic use, so this little slice of political correctness makes absolutely no sense.
Luckily this reboot has yet to spawn a new TV series (at least one that I'm aware of), but there would be no doubt in my mind that if they ever decided to produce one it would echo the PC blandness of these new characters. I think part of the reason we remember The Letter People is because each of them were unique as well as a little silly, and it's difficult to recapture that uniqueness when they're redesigned as little blue people.
As for the original TV series…it's a harmless kids' show. Sure its low production values are visible from time to time, but it's charming, it's clever and many of the songs are kinda catchy. Sadly, no DVD of it exists, which is a crying shame because, not to suggest they make a new TV show, but I really do think kids could eat stuff like this up.
I know we did.