Between the Lions
is a PBS
children's puppet show designed to promote reading. The show is a co-production between WGBH
in Boston and Sirius Thinking, Ltd.
, in New York City, in association with Mississippi Public Broadcasting
. The show has won seven Daytime Emmy
awards between 2001 and 2007.
The main characters are the lion cubs Lionel and Leona and their parents Theo (Theodor) and Cleo (Cleopatra).
In addition to the lions, other characters include Click the Mouse (a computer mouse made to resemble the rodent), Barnaby B. Busterfield III, Walter and Clay Pigeon, Arty Smartypants, Heath the Thesaurus, Gus the Bunny, Dr. Ruth Wordheimer, and a variety of monkeys who visit the library.
Barnaby B. Busterfield III is a rock statue that talks to the pigeons, Walter and Clay, and they talk to (and annoy) him.
Dr. Alexander Graham Nitwhite (often mispronounced as "Dr. Nitwit" by his assistant, Watson and sometimes by other characters) is a scientist. In his skits, he announces to Watson that he has discovered "the only word in the entire English language" with a certain word combination (which is nearly always related to the lesson of the whole episode). However, his "discoveries" always turn out to be irrelevant, as Watson inadvertently points out; as such, his nickname is rather apt.
Between the Lions
focuses on teaching reading and a love of books to young children in a fun, informative way.
Among the educational techniques used by Between the Lions are the following:
- Featured Letters and Sounds: Every episode has a feature letter or sound, such as 'h' or 'the long ee sound'. Throughout the show, the featured letter or sound is heard and seen in a variety of words.
- Text on Screen: Frequently, key words or entire sentences of dialog are shown on screen as the characters talk, with the featured letter or combination highlighted.
- Stories: Every episode contains one or more short stories in the form of books read by the Lion family. These stories tie in thematically with the rest of the episode and also serve as another way to present words with the featured sound in context. Sometimes the stories are real books (like "The Carrot Seed" by Ruth Krauss) or well-known tales (like "Rumplestiltskin"); other times they are books that are made-up to fit the episode (like Lionel's favorite book, Nothing but Lug Nuts).
- Songs: Silly but informative songs sum up the rules of English spelling and pronunciation in easy-to-remember ways, with lyrics like "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking" or "Even the blues would be blue without an s" and many others. Often the text of the song is shown on screen. The songs for the show are by Thomas Z. Shepard, Christopher Cerf, Sarah Durkee and Paul Jacobs.
- Animations and skits: A variety of animations and skits show how words are formed and how one word can be changed into another by adding or removing letters.
- Definitions: Whenever a long or unusual word is used in a dialog or story, a quick definition is given. Usually, it is subtly worked into the conversation, such as when one of the parents responds to a question from the children. Other times it may be provided in a humorous way, such as when Heath Thesaurus pokes his head in to define a word. Occasionally words may be defined by showing pictures or other artistic methods.
- Repeated Vocabulary: Various vocabulary words are introduced in each episode, ranging from simple, everyday concepts like "jump" and "read" to more complex words like "sequel", "dictionary", or "drought". After a word has been introduced, it usually used a number of times throughout the episode.
In addition to teaching basic reading, pronunciation, and grammar skills, Between the Lions also strives to promote a general love of reading in its viewers. It explores the many subjects that books can cover and shows how different people may enjoy reading different things. It also demonstrates the value of reference books and the importance of reading in other everyday activities like using a computer, cooking with a recipe, or finding your way with street signs.
Some Between the Lions episodes also deal with larger episodes related to literary matters: How to handle the scary parts of a story, for example, or the fact that it's okay to be a little sad if something bad happens to a character that you like in a book. It also shows how children can use books as jumping points for their own imagination.
Above all, every character on the show expresses a contagious enthusiasm for reading, with the underlying message being "Reading is cool".
Between the Lions
often makes wild parodies of (often children's) programming. The title itself is a twofold pun, first on the phrase "between the lines
", the second is that many classic library buildings have two lions separated by the main entrance. Thus in order to enter the library, you must go "between the lions". Every so often, a wide-eyed child whose face is mostly obscured by TV set comments on the strange thing that has just happened, and an off-stage mother's voice responds with, "It's educational television. It's good for you" or "I'm sure it will help you in school... somehow." Some recurring segments include:
The Monkey Pop-Up Theatre
A monkey (monkeys are often featured as background characters...or library patrons...in this series) opens a pop-up book which presents a zany musical performance by monkeys.
Three lips, different colors, along with different colors of hair, gloves, and scarves, perform songs to an audience. These songs are simply a sequence of the same vocalizations of vowel sounds. The Vowelles are often accompanied by Johnny Consanante and/or Martha Reader. In the very first segments, the stage background is not lit, leaving viewers to see only lips, and usually gloves, scarves, and hair. In more recent segments, the dark stage background is replaced with a bright silver background, obviously revealing that The Vowelles are merely three pairs of floating lips, surrounded by hair...and usually accompanied by scarves and gloves.
The Word Doctor with Dr. Ruth Wordheimer
Dr. Ruth Westheimer
plays "Dr. Ruth Wordheimer", a therapist. Her two types of clients are:
- Monkeys who need help reading or understanding long or difficult words (they are having a "long word freakout").
- Words who are dissatisfied with their current meaning. (By replacing certain well-chosen letters, Dr. Wordheimer is able to give the word a new meaning and a new lease on life.)
Little Wendy Tales
A girl (a parody of Sailor Moon
, among other anime clichés
) reads the misadventures found in Little Wendy Tales. In classic fashion, the big-eyed girl transforms herself into The Punctuator and saves Wendy by means of switching around the punctuation, altering the scene in the process.
Fun with Chicken Jane
Fun with Chicken Jane is a parody
of the famous Dick and Jane
books for children. In this, two naive children, Scot and Dot, place themselves in harm's way. An intelligent chicken named Chicken Jane spells out an obvious solution to the problem. At the last moment the children get out of the way and Chicken Jane gets hurt instead. The theme song is a parody of the old Alka Seltzer
jingle. When the skit starts, Scot, Dot and Chicken Jane come skipping down a dirt road to the jingle that goes "Look, look, see, see, coming down the lane. Here comes Scot, here comes Dot, here comes Chicken Jane!" When the skit is over, Scot and Dot head back up the road (Chicken Jane limping along behind) to "Look, look, see, see, going up the lane. There goes Scot, there goes Dot, there goes Chicken Jane!". Chicken Jane once fell out of one of the books, and ended up in several other books, including a cookbook written by Molly Stewpot (a reference to Martha Stewart
). The very demanding chef sees Chicken Jane, and wants to use her in one of her recipes. The book is swatted at in an attempt for Chicken Jane to escape, while jelly is spilled onto Molly Stewpot.
Cliff Hanger is a cartoon lantern-jawed outdoorsman usually featured hanging off the side of a cliff, hanging onto a branch. Each episode presents Cliff with a preposterous situation of some kind, which he attempts to use to his advantage by reaching into his backpack, pulling out what he calls his "trusty survival manual", and following the instructions provided therein. The instructions, though often highly unorthodox, usually prove successful, and Cliff briefly escapes from the cliff. But, inevitably, another highly unlikely incident occurs that leaves Cliff back where he started, hanging onto his branch once again. The cartoon then ends with Cliff's baleful catchphrase: "Can't -- hold -- on -- much -- longer!" Much like Warner Bros.
' Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner
, these cartoon clips follow along the same storyline, although Cliff never gives up on trying to get off the cliff, he never succeeds.
Each segment begins and ends with a theme song sung by a formally-dressed group of singers that flies by in a helicopter, singing "Cliff Hanger, hanging from a cliff! And that's why he's called Cliff Hanger!" Cliff attempts to attract their attention to his predicament by shouting "Excuse me!", but to no avail. Cliff Hanger once escaped the cliff in an online story on the Between the Lions website, but eventually missed his cliff and, through a series of bizarre events, got himself back onto it.
In the series, the character Lionel is a fan of Cliff Hanger books, which his sister Leona thinks are pointless.
A Wayne's World
spoof featuring two jousting knights charging at each other, each touting a speech balloon with half of a word which then became their respective names, then demonstrating the word. For example, one skit featured "Sir ch" and "Sir air". When Sir ch collided into Sir air, their speech balloons melded together to form the word "chair." Then they took advantage of the word, by sitting on chairs. Though the title of the segment clearly is a parody of the SNL
skit, the two knights in the segment speak more characteristically like Bill & Ted from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
than Wayne & Garth from Wayne's World
A spoof of the Sam Spade
detective stories, this segment portrays an anthropomorphic potato who types out the voice-over narration typical of film noir, making and correcting typographical errors that demonstrate word sounds. This segment makes heavy use of sight gags based on wordplay (such as the narrator referring to the entrance of a "tomato" -- 30s slang for an attractive woman -- who is revealed to be a real tomato wearing a costume; or a neon sign that blinks the words "Flicker Flicker" or "On" and "Off").
The Un-People vs The Re-People
is aimed at teaching kids their prefixes
. The main character is "young" Monica Maxwell, a girl who seems to have an inordinate amount of trouble with a group of rambunctious rhinos
. The segment always begins with the rhinos running amok, usually in Monica's house. The clever, resourceful girl somehow manages to subdue or round up the rhinos, for example, putting them in a zippered bag. All of a sudden, the evil Un-People come along and "un-zip" the bag, causing the rhinos to run free again and resume their rampage of destruction. But when the crime-fighting Re-People appear, they "re-zip" the bag and the destruction of the charging rhinos stops. This segment may be considered a parody
of common superhero
-themed cartoons such as the Justice League
There is at least one skit that didn't feature rhinos-- the "undressed"/"redressed" skit where a marching band is seen without clothes, only to get redressed in their outfits.
Vowel Boot Camp
In this segment, the soldiers, who are vowels (except the drill sergeant, who is an exclamation point), practice making their sounds and then go out to make words. The famous catchphrase is "This isn't happy babby camp; this is Vowel Boot Camp!"
The Lone Rearranger Rewrites Again
A parody of The Lone Ranger
, this animated segment features a sentence which needs to be rearranged. For example, "Horses must ride cowboys into the corral" needs to be rearranged to say "Cowboys must ride horses into the corral".
A parody of Moby-Dick
, this takes place in a peapod
(parody of Pequod
) where there are two captains
seen. One looks through a telescope
and sees a white animal and gives the tagline "Argh! That not be Moby, the great white duck! Argh! That be Moby, the great white (something else)!".
Similarities to The Electric Company
Comparisons are often made to another PBS children's reading series, The Electric Company
. The format is similar, with animated segments showing words suspended in the air near people who discuss them. In particular, Sam Spud, Gawain's World and the short segments featuring Fred Newman are highly reminiscent of the old Electric Company vignettes
Similarities to Sesame Street
Sesame Street is another series that is made of both animated and live action segments, often repeated and featured in many episodes to fill up the rest of the program. Big Bird, Bert, Elmo and Ernie have made appearances as library patrons in Between The Lions.
Other Guest Stars
Guest stars from other series have appeared in Between The Lions. 3 castmembers of ZOOM
have appeared, teaching viewers how to read the word "Zoom". Al Roker
and Jane Seymour
have made appearances to read words to the viewers.
Although the series started strong, winning Emmys and attracting many stars (e.g., Oliver Platt, Kelly Ripa, and Melissa Etheridge), the seasons aired beginning in 2005 are very different from those created between 2000-2003.
Most of the characters are now gone, including Click the Mouse, Barnaby Busterfield III, Walter & Clay the pigeons, Heath the Thesaurus, or other central characters. No new segments of Cliff Hanger, The Lone Rearranger, Sam Spud, Vowel Boot Camp, Moby Duck are being produced, and these have not been replaced by other segments.
Most "new" episodes simply show a re-edited version of a first or second season episode, shortened to 15 minutes instead of a half hour, which are shown together as two 15 minute episodes in one half hour slot.
The show is no longer created by Sirius Thinking, Ltd, but now receives funding from the No Child Left Behind program, which may explain some of the changes.