It’s summer, which means the only thing on TV is America’s Got Talent, which I am sure is a fine show, but let’s all agree it doesn’t really qualify as high-quality nonfiction programming. We’ve been revisiting some of our favorite shows from our childhoods recently, and I’ve started longing for all those weird kid-centric nonfiction shows we used to love, the bizarre variety shows and game shows and educational programs that starred actual kids doing actual kid things. You know, the shows we loved because they felt grown-up—they weren’t Looney Tunes—but were meant just for us.
1. The Electric Company
The screech of “HEY YOU GUYS!” meant the sun was going down, and I could smell dinner cooking and it was time to settle in front of the TV for Electric Company. It was meant to be an educational show for kids who’d grown up on Sesame Street, and to its credit I never detected that the show was teaching me anything. I loved that there were actual kids on the show and that there were songs—like the amazing one that taught me how to turn an adjective into an adverb—which I still sing to myself in private moments.
Like the opening to Jesus Christ Superstar, as much as I loved Zoom, it kind of terrified me. Those simultaneously groovy and creepy opening credits were so weird and ’70s, but there were kids like me singing and dancing so why shouldn’t I “zoom-a zoom-a zoom-a zoom” along with them? Like all the genius PBS shows of this era, it emphasized learning through games, wordplay and singing. I found it confusing that the kids all wore striped shirts, which I’d learned to associate with prisoners in cartoons.
Zoom was the show that taught me the song “The Cat Came Back,” which is so bizarro and minor-keyed—watching it now I feel a deep sense of dread, even as I recognize why it was appealing to kids like me at the time.
3. Kids Incorporated
Why wasn’t I allowed to be a normal kid who also performed in a rock band? Kids Incorporated showed me that was possible, and it seemed terribly unfair that I had to content myself with playing second chair clarinet. I wanted to be Stacy Ferguson so badly and somehow I did not realize until just now that SHE BECAME FERGIE FROM THE BLACK EYED PEAS. Of course, the coolest member of the band was Marta Marrero, who grew up to be one-hit wonder Martika, she of “Toy Soldiers” fame.
4. 3-2-1 Contact
Everything I knew about science as a little kid, I learned from National Geographic World magazine and 3-2-1 Contact. The show taught us about light refraction. It taught us about surface tension using bubbles. Somehow it managed to make science cool long before I’d ever lit a Bunsen burner at school. The theme song promised an otherworldly adventure through brainy experiments, and that’s just what 3-2-1 Contact offered.
5. The Bloodhound Gang
A show within a show on 3-2-1 Contact, The Bloodhound Gang featured real kids solving mysteries. I loved it as much as I loved Encyclopedia Brown books—viewers got to play Nancy Drew and try to sleuth out the solution like real detectives. The story was a serial, continuing from episode to episode, which was a smart move by the creators to keep us tuning in. (This is a tiny bonus, not really a nonfiction show but I had to include it.)
6. Kids Are People Too
It had not occurred to me that kids were not people until the name of this show taught me that my personhood was in question. A variety show whose host had the thickest head of hair I’d ever seen, it featured celebrity interviews and a Q&A segment where kids in the audience got to ask the stars questions. I was dying to be in the audience for Kids Are People Too.
7. You Can’t Do That On Television
I had to include this show, even though I hated it. I loved the segments that just featured real kids acting like kids, but You Can’t Do That on Television was mostly sketches in which the kids were in some way being punished by their parents or the principal or some other authority figure. There was a recurring sketch of a kid in jail that still gives me nightmares. Yeah, it’s where Alanis got her start, but it’s also the show that introduced the prospect of getting water or green slime dumped on you from the sky, which was also pretty upsetting.
8. Mr. Wizard’s World
Step aside, Bill Nye. Mr. Wizard (Don Herbert) was the OG science guy. I always wished my science teachers were as patient as Mr. Wizard—maybe then I wouldn’t have wept my way through physics and ended up taking a remedial class called “How Things Work” in college to satisfy the science requirement.
9. Double Dare
A game show that was totally designed for kids, Double Dare was so imaginative, smart, exciting—it totally fulfilled every kid’s fantasy ideal of what heaven might be like. It had an obstacle course that was like the game Mousetrap, but life-size, and prided itself on being sloppy and messy. Who didn’t want to go down a slide and land in a pile of whipped cream? “The Messiest Minute on Television” was also the best minute.
10. Reading Rainbow
Reading Rainbow was a nerdy kid’s paradise. LeVar Burton’s idea of a good time was exploring the local library, as was mine. Each show ended with real kids—fans of the show—reading their book reviews. Who didn’t, when slogging through another book report, wish they got to perform theirs live on Reading Rainbow? OK, maybe I was the only one.