The Great American Dream Machine

Curator's Note

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.


Thanks, Laurie, for starting us off with a look back at a rather prescient model for success in television satire.  Why do you think this show has been less closely considered by television scholars?  Does the discourse about public television tend to focus on particular programs or does the conversation, rather, usually operate at the broader level of policy or other big-picture issues?  

I'm also curious about the suggestion that this show is a precursor to "Saturday Night Live", which premiered a few years later.  Are there other examples of this sort of experimentation on PBS leading to (more mainstream) successes down the line.  I'm thinking of "An American Family" and reality television, for example.  What do you think scholars might learn by taking a closer look at a program like "The Great American Dream Machine"?

I was unaware of this show, so I appreciated learning about it here. It made me rack my brains for examples of (non-British, non-children's) comedy that have thrived on PBS, and while my knowledge of 40+ years of public television is less than encyclopedic, I pretty much came up empty. Maybe this is due to silences in the archive, and PBS's history is chock full of neglected comedic shows like GADM, but I kind of doubt it.  

Comedy fares better on NPR (e.g. PHC, Wait, Wait …, Michael Feldman), suggesting that a gently political form of American humor can occasionally get through public broadcasting's multiple filters, so maybe the TV/radio split is salient here?  

In any case, thanks for an interesting post!



I had the exact same reaction as Bill, and also came up empty-handed. It's true that "PBS comedy" reads as kind of oxymoronic, which only speaks to Laurie's point on the unrealized possibilities of public TV.

The commemorative broadcast of The Great American Dream Machine is interesting, especially since it came on the heels of the re-broadcast of An American Family, which itself coincided with the telecast of HBO's fictionalized account of the series, Cinema Verite.  The period of NET/PBS shows of which both series were a part was so brief, but arguably was the most creative--and least politically timid--era of public television programming. In gesturing back to this period, PBS seems to be both celebrating its past innovations while also only drawing attention to the more conservative (in every sense!) cast of its contemporary programming strategies.

I was an adolescent when that show first aired, and remember it well. I suspect I'm not at all alone in feeling that it was a significant expression of the powerful cultural ferment of the time, and probably belongs in people's lists of great late '60s-era cultural events, alongside Woodstock, The Selling of the Pentagon, etc. And it represents a road not traveled for PBS; beaten back after it's early '70s experimentation, it took a generally tamer path. 


While in college in the early '70s I was working as a booth announcer for a PBS station.  Some of the best comedy sketches on TV at the time came from The Great American Dream Machine.  Marshall Efron's TV commercial spoofs were among the funniest.  The one I most clearly recall was his slogan for a trash compactor:  "The Trash Masher - It turns 40 pounds of trash... into 40 pounds of trash."  Priceless!

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