This past summer, PBS affiliates aired a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of The Great American Dream Machine (PBS, 1971-1972), one of the earliest (and most controversial) national PBS programs, with little fanfare. Sandwiched between the old Hollywood movies, self-help seminars, nature documentaries and British imports that currently dominate primetime public television in the United States, the special presentation, which featured archival footage from the original show, stood out as an archival document.
Unlike anything on PBS today, Great American Dream Machine combined humorous skits, drama, musical performances and political commentary in an “experimental” variety format; commentators dubbed it the intellectual Laugh In. Produced by station WNET in New York, it sympathized with the counterculture of the 1970s and regularly criticized the war in Vietnam and the Nixon White House. The show also poked fun at commercialized mass culture, including advertising, fast food, and television. In this clip, host Marshall Efron (posing as a TV cook) attempts to bake a lemon cream pie using the mostly artificial ingredients listed on a box of frozen pie.
While mostly overlooked by television scholars, Great American Dream Machine is a cultural precursor to Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show (indeed, Chevy Chase was a cast member). Due to its political positions, the show drew the ire of conservative critics (including Nixon aides), who used it to level accusations of leftist bias and cultural elitism at public television, and played a role in the show’s cancellation after two seasons. Now available on DVD, Great American Dream Machine evidences the unrealized possibilities (and inherent tensions) of public television in the U.S.