The Untold Truth Of The Magic School Bus

If you happened to be of school age in the '90s, you probably have fond memories of the PBS animated series "The Magic School Bus," which ran for four seasons from 1994 to 1997. And as you may remember, the series centered on the curiously small class of Ms. Frizzle, the endearing if slightly loopy teacher who, in every episode, endeavored to teach her kids a thing or two about science by way of appropriately themed field trips. Of course, these trips took place aboard the titular bus — which was sentient, could transform into pretty much anything, and was used by Ms. Frizzle to get her class up close and personal with everything from the inner workings of the human body to the far reaches of outer space.

Crazily irresponsible though she might have been, Ms. Frizzle was just as beloved by legions of '90s kids as she was by her own class: bookish, brainy Dorothy Ann, neurotic Arnold (who always knew he should have stayed home), cutup Carlos, born leader Wanda, future engineer Keesha, artistic and thoughtful Tim, everyone's best friend Phoebe, and always-enthusiastic Ralphie. It just may be because of the good teacher that some of those bits of science knowledge you have kicking around in your head have stayed there for all these years — but here are a few things about "The Magic School Bus" that perhaps you didn't know.

It was based on a popular book series

Perhaps you remember that, during those Scholastic book fairs at your elementary school, you could pick up "Magic School Bus" books, a few of which followed the plots of some episodes of the series. You might have assumed the books were based on the TV series, but it was actually the other way around. "The Magic School Bus" was created by children's author Joanna Cole; by the time the show debuted on PBS, the book series had already been running for nearly a decade, and volumes continued to be published during and after the show's run.

In an interview, Cole described how she based Ms. Frizzle loosely on one of her own science teachers, and envisioned her being "very enthusiastic about science, and just [plunging] ahead, and the kids would be running to catch up to her." At first, Cole only made rough notes about the teacher's odd fashion sense — until illustrator Bruce Degen came aboard, and relieved her of that duty. "Once [Degen[ started illustrating it, I didn't have to write down what her clothes were like," she said, "because he had wonderful visual imagination." 

Indeed, Degen's visual aesthetic was honored by the series' animators, and it's safe to say that "The Magic School Bus" was pretty much the coolest-looking kids' show of its time.

Some of the characters were based on the book illustrator's kids and their friends

In an interview, illustrator Bruce Degen described the road that brought him to "The Magic School Bus." An art school graduate with a Masters' degree, he spent about ten seconds considering a career as a serious artiste before remembering that, ever since he was a child, he had liked to draw for one primary purpose: to tell stories. When he was paired with Joanna Cole, he quickly found that he admired her ability to write in a way that was not just entertaining, but concise; she could, he said, put across complex scientific concepts in a way that kids could understand, all within the framework of a fun and fantastical story.

When it came to the creation of their characters, Degen described a method that was simplicity itself. "Joanna would make up a name, and I would make up a kid to go with it," he said. "And I would take my kids' school pictures from elementary school, and I would pick out kids, and what they were wearing ... and some of those kids are in [Ms. Frizzle's] class, and they don't know it. Although, one of my son's best friends is Arnold, he was the model for Arnold, and I didn't tell him until he was 16 years old."

The series broke new ground for PBS

For decades, PBS has been finding ways to make learning fun and accessible on the public airwaves for kids of all ages, from toddlers to tweens. Many of its shows are funded by the National Science Foundation, and Sandy Welch, who was the network's director of education in 1994 and later went to work for the NSF, described on the foundation's website the criteria that must be met for a television project to receive funding, and they are rigorous: The project must have been developed in accordance with the most current understanding of how children interact with educational media, it must have clear educational goals, and it must undergo evaluation to ensure those goals are being met.

Some of PBS' earliest beneficiaries of NSF funding included classic educational series such as "3-2-1 Contact," "Bill Nye, the Science Guy," "Zoom," "Reading Rainbow," and, of course, "The Magic School Bus." One of those things, though — in the parlance of "Sesame Street" — is not like the other. "We were excited [about "The Magic School Bus"] because it was the first fully animated science show," Welch explained. "I was excited to see a teacher featured, and not just any teacher — [Ms. Frizzle] was a delight."

A legendary animation studio helped with production

Bruce Degen's artwork might have been the "North Star" for the look of "The Magic School Bus" book series, but its animation style might have had a few familiar elements for kids who had watched, well, pretty much any other animated series during the decade before it debuted. Among the animation houses that contributed to the series was South Korean studio Hanho, which had a hand in an absolute ton of iconic animated series during the '80s and '90s.

The studio was founded in 1984, and it hit the ground running — within its first couple of years, it had contributed animation to shows such as "Thundercats," "Dragon's Lair," and "MASK." Later in the '80s and early '90s, Hanho's animators worked on the likes of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Care Bears," "Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers," "The Real Ghostbusters," and "Darkwing Duck." The studio worked on all four seasons of "The Magic School Bus," and it continues to go strong today; by its count, its animators have lent their skills to over 1,400 episodes of television and feature films.

The theme song was performed by a rock legend

A big part of the charm of "The Magic School Bus" lay in its intro — a breezy trip through a sampling of the weird types of situations we could expect to see Ms. Frizzle and her young charges get into, soundtracked by a rollicking, soulful, piano-driven theme song. That song, "Ride on the Magic School Bus," was penned by Peter Lurye — a veteran of kids' television who has served as a composer, arranger, or musical director on such classic series as "Bear in the Big Blue House," "My Life as a Teenage Robot," and "Dora the Explorer." Lurye's tune is an excellent one, to be sure, but it was lent a little extra spice by its performer — the legendary pianist, vocalist, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Little Richard.

Once you know who sings the tune, it's impossible to mistake that voice for anyone else's — but, as it turns out, there were apparently a goodly number of fans of "The Magic School Bus" who had no idea who the theme song was sung by: a man who literally helped to lay the foundation upon which modern rock and roll was built. Upon his death in 2020, one thread on X (formerly Twitter) spiraled out of control when a poster pointed out that he had sung the tune. One user summed up the general sentiment nicely: "I had no idea," they wrote, "but re-listening, how did I not figure that out?"

A comedy icon was the star of the show

Speaking of absolute legends whose voice you heard on every single episode of "The Magic School Bus," consider the voice of Ms. Frizzle herself. The teacher was voiced by none other than Lily Tomlin (pictured above), a comedy giant whose 50-plus year stage, screen, and television career has seen her score six classic comedy specials and a successful one-woman show. She has shared the silver screen with everyone from Steve Martin to Mark Wahlberg, and taken home two Tony awards, one Grammy, and no fewer than eight Emmys — one of which she won for her work on "The Magic School Bus." That's right: Ms. Frizzle is just one statue away from the EGOT. Make it happen, Hollywood.

In a 2022 sit-down with Vanity Fair, Tomlin reminisced about some of her most iconic roles, and she revealed that she was initially reluctant to take on "the Frizz." "I said, oh God, I'm not good at any kind of voiceover. If I'm not in the moment doing something, I don't think it works," she said. She agreed to send the producers a tape, though, and when they gave her performance their stamp of approval, Tomlin took the gig. "That was fun, and I was very happy I did it," she said. "Because it was just wonderful to do a woman science teacher, and to do science in general."

The producer also had a familiar voice

One of the most fun parts of "The Magic School Bus" was a brief segment, after the main story and before the closing credits, featuring "the Producer." A nameless, endlessly patient sort, the Producer would field phone calls from skeptical viewers of the show, pointing out ways in which it had taken liberties with whatever science-y theme it had been exploring that week. The producer (usually accompanied by Liz, Ms. Frizzle's freakishly smart pet lizard) would usually explain that, due to the time constraints of a half-hour show, certain concepts necessarily had to be condensed or simplified. He would usually be in the middle of some science-y stuff himself, and since he was also endlessly polite, he would always thank the caller for their input.

The Producer's voice was also likely to be super-familiar to anybody who watched TV in the '80s — he was voiced by Malcolm Jamal-Warner, who had portrayed eldest son Theo Huxtable on the hit sitcom "The Cosby Show." Warner appeared in person to host "Behind the Wheel of the Magic School Bus," which accompanied the broadcast of the series' holiday special in 1996; it featured conversations with the entire cast, as well as some of the animators and even guest stars.

Some massive stars made guest appearances

When watching the show, you may not have realized that "The Magic School Bus" received assists in the vocal booth from a veritable who's-who of some of the biggest names in show business. Many of these were distinguished character actors: the likes of Ed Begley Jr., Rosalind Chao, Paul Winfield, Swoosie Kurtz, and Elliott Gould all appeared, some in multiple episodes. Yet others were Hollywood icons, such as Carol Channing, Tony Randall, Dom Deluise, Jessica Walter, Rita Moreno, Ed Asner, Alex Trebek, and Eartha Kitt.

Then, there were those guest stars who were absolute legends — three of whom were particularly notable. In the episode "The Family Holiday Special," none other than Dolly Parton (who was, incidentally, Lily Tomlin's co-star in the hit 1980 comedy "9 to 5") guested as Katrina Eloise "Murph" Murphy, the cousin of Ms. Frizzle and the operator of a recycling plant through which the class is given a tour. 

In the series' final episode, "The Magic School Bus Gets Programmed," Malcolm McDowell appeared as Mr. McClean, the school's janitor. And, in the Season 4 episode "The Magic School Bus Goes Cellular," Tom Cruise appeared as himself (yes, that was really him).

The Netflix revival series was in the works for years

Perhaps the only surprising thing about a reboot of "The Magic School Bus" is that it took so long to happen. In 2014, it was announced that Netflix (which had been the streaming home of the original series for years) was bringing the show back with an updated spin for the internet era. At the time of the announcement, the show was tentatively titled "The Magic School Bus 360" — but it would be three years before the show would finally make its debut, with a different title.

In September 2017, Netflix debuted the first season of "The Magic School Bus Rides Again," with 26 episodes that explored such topics as quantum physics, space travel, robotics, alternative energy sources, and ocean exploration. The updated series featured a new Ms. Frizzle — Fiona, the younger sister of the original — and a new classmate, Jyoti, in place of Phoebe (who returned to her old school, briefly seen in the first series). The series did an admirable job of keeping up the inquisitive, unpredictable feel of the original, and fielded a second season in 2018.

The revival was met with some controversy

When "The Magic Bus" was relaunched in 2017, it employed an updated art style that was not exactly reminiscent of the original. The new series was all smooth lines and clean, curved edges; in particular, the character design was much more stylized, as opposed to the somewhat rougher but more realistic design of the original characters. The problems that some fans of the original had with the update weren't merely aesthetic — many of those fans saw the changes as a big, fat swipe at diversity.

The character of Fiona, for example, was rendered as classically pretty, almost in the mold of a Disney princess (as was the design of the original Ms. Frizzle, who did pop up in the series). This was at odds with Ms. Frizzle's classic design, which — with her bumpy nose and curly, frizzy hair — looked a bit more, well, average (some users on X, formerly Twitter, pointed out that the original Frizz was one of few characters who looked like that, but was not a villain). 

Most pointedly, though, the series was accused of making changes to the design of its Black characters, like Tim and Keesha. Looking at the original and updated versions side by side, it's tough not to see: the updated characters' skin is several shades lighter, and their features are much more cutesy than the originals.

The reboot kept the original's legacy of iconic stars alive

"The Magic School Bus Rides Again" was overall a worthy successor to the original — and, like its predecessor, it was not afraid to call in some star power for its regular roles and guest spots. Fiona Frizzle was voiced by Kate McKinnon, the "Saturday Night Live" alum who recently starred in 2023's smash hit feature "Barbie," and Lily Tomlin reprised her role as now-Professor Frizzle, who popped in on occasion to see how little sis was handling herself.

And then, of course, there were the guest stars. Most notably, in the debut episode "Frizzle of the Future," Will Arnett appeared as Galapagos Gil, who had a thing or two to teach the kids about ecosystems. In a pair of Season 2 episodes, Catherine O'Hara guested as Teresina "Aunt" Tennelli, leader of a circus troupe made up of Ralphie's relatives — and appearing as Tony Tennelli in those same episodes was the great Martin Short. We'd also be remiss not to mention that every geek's favorite actor, the always-awesome Nathan Fillion, also appeared in one of those episodes as a character by the incredible name of Axle ValveStuck.

Joanna Cole passed away in 2020

Unfortunately, though the legacy of "The Magic School Bus" is still going strong, the creative mind behind it is no longer with us. In 2020, after a battle with pulmonary fibrosis, Joanna Cole passed away at the age of 75. Not only did she leave behind generations of science-minded adults who grew up on the television series she helped create, she also more than did her part to advance the cause of childhood literacy — that is to say, she sold a whopping 93 million books over the course of her decades-long career as an author. 

Cole was the recipient of an absolute truckload (or school bus-load, if you will) of awards, including multiple citations from the Children's Book Council, the American Library Association, and the School Library Journal. She also may have inspired the creation of more actual scientists than any other children's author. 

Way back in 1988, when "The Magic School Bus" had not yet made its way to the public airwaves, The New York Times' Katherine Burton summed up Coles' significance nicely in her review of "The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth." "Elementary school science should never be the same again after the ”Magic School Bus” series is completed," she wrote. "Just as 'Sesame Street' revolutionized the teaching of letters and numbers by making it so entertaining that children had no idea they were actually learning something, so the 'Magic School Bus' books make science so much fun that the information is almost incidental."