By MARC MOHAN
Imagine you’re at the most fascinating, offbeat cocktail party the early 1970s could muster. You glance to your left—is that Evel Knievel, clutching a can of Budweiser and bragging about his latest jump? And behind him—why, it’s Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., sipping on a martini and outlining the plot of his newest novel!
Before you can make your way to either of them, your attention is grabbed by the room-filling voice of Elaine Stritch, belting out “Ladies Who Lunch” at the top of her lungs. Of course, it being the Seventies, the décor is atrocious, the fashions are outrageous, and the food is terrible—Jell-O casseroles, bubbling fondues, and baby carrots in aspic. But the people are endlessly intriguing, and they come at you in such a rapid-fire manner that you might start to wonder if someone spiked that fondue.
I have just described the experience of watching the imperfect but unjustly forgotten television relic, “The Great American Dream Machine.”
We live in an age where it seems as if any film or TV show worth preserving is instantaneously and permanently accessible. An audio-visual version of Borges’ famous library seems closer than ever. But that’s an illusion, of course, and always will be, a fact we’re reminded of every time some hitherto buried item is resurrected for our consideration today.
The appearance of real live famous celebrity types makes the obscurity of “The Great American Dream Machine” doubly puzzling. This almost unclassifiable satire/politics/music/documentary program aired on public television (specifically WNET) from 1971 to 1973. Contemporary with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and predating “Saturday Night Live” by a few years, GADM, an unacknowledged linchpin of TV comedy, was finally released on DVD a few weeks ago.
From the first moments of the first disc in this four-disc, thirteen-hour collection, familiar faces are evident, at least if you look closely. Each episode opens with a pair of white-painted faces against a black backdrop, miming along to a piece of pompous, symphonic music. One of those faces (the left one) belongs to Chevy Chase, making his on-screen debut. (The other belongs to his comedy partner Ken Shapiro, who went on to direct Chase in “The Groove Tube” and “Modern Problems,” and later appear in Gus Van Sant’s early short film “The Discipline of D.E.”)
The anarchic deflation of snooty culture in the skits that follow is quite Pythonesque, as is the show’s rickety animated title sequence, reminiscent of (though inferior to) Terry Gilliam’s cutout cartoons on “Flying Circus.” But the straightforwardly funny segments of “The Great American Dream Machine” are, overall, its least interesting and most dated part.
The breakout comedy star (really, the only “star”) was Marshall Efron, the chubby, mustached humorist who lampooned consumerism in various first-person sketches: comparing the difference between “jumbo” and “colossal” sized canned olives, or making a lemon cream pie using the ingredients listed on a frozen one’s box (i.e. no lemons, sugar, or cream).
The freeform, hodgepodge format also includes fascinating, time-capsule-worthy, person-on-the-street interviews asking the question “What is the American Dream?” The answers range from the sweetly naïve (one kid says “a ten-speed bike”) to the forthrightly cynical (“it’s all about greed, man”). These segments were the brainchild of one of the show’s producers, Sheila Nevins, who today is the president of HBO Documentary Films and one of the most influential people in the world of non-fiction filmmaking. There are also short documentary portraits of people the show dubs “Great American Heroes” (and this is well before William Katt donned any red pajamas). These quintessentially American outlaws and misfits include daredevil Evel Knievel, exotic dancer-turned-entrepreneur Blaze Starr, and hot rod customizer Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
As one of the first public television shows to (a) be a success in prime time and (b) appeal to a young-adult demographic, “Dream Machine” embodies the political tenor of its times, which is surprisingly congruent with the political tenor of our times. This is most strikingly evident in a recurring segment, “Talks with Terkel.” Historian, raconteur, and friend to the working class, Studs Terkel holds court in a Chicago bar with a cross-section of contemporary America: a middle-aged blue-collar worker, an old reactionary, a liberal college graduate, a housewife, and a laborer (the only African-American member of the panel). The categories are dated, to be sure, but Terkel does pretty well for the era. Full of Miller High Life and cigarette smoke, these ad hoc focus groups fascinatingly expose and explore the fault lines of society in the Nixon era. A fun game to play is to match the individuals in “Talks with Terkel” to the 2016 presidential candidate you think they’d support. (Also, anytime anyone says “Spiro Agnew” you can mentally replace it with “Donald Trump.”)
As if Studs Terkel weren’t enough, “GADM” also has some of the earliest televised appearances of Andy Rooney, the desk-bound liberal curmudgeon who became a decades-long fixture on “60 Minutes.” He does the same shtick here, including a spiel “In Praise of Politicians” that made me wonder if his entire career was one massive, wonderful piece of performance art.
All this is little more than the tip of the iceberg. Factor in performances by Elaine Stritch, Mel Torme (!), Pablo Casals (!!), readings by Dick Cavett and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and early appearances from talents like Henry Winkler, Charles Grodin, and Albert Brooks, and you have a cultural artifact that’s astonishing in its breadth, historically important, and mostly entertaining to watch.
Even with this DVD release, “Dream Machine” seems to exist in some substrata of pop-cultural consciousness. The essay on the package insert by NPR TV critic David Bianculli is more thoughtful than anything written online about the show (until now, that is!). It doesn’t show up on the Wikipedia pages of anyone I’ve named in this piece. And as of this writing, if you visit http://www.greatamericandreammachine.com/, you get…nothing.
The documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” released earlier this year, charted the origins of one particularly influential strand of American comedy, from its countercultural origins in the Harvard Lampoon to its conquering of the mainstream via “The Simpsons.” “The Great American Dream Machine” is a valuable supplement to this narrative, mining a rich but unexplored vein of the humor that continues to shape us today.