Have you ever heard of The Great American Dream Machine? If you’re like me, born more than ten years after the two-season PBS series came to an end, probably not. But if you were alive in this era, I can’t imagine you’d forget. After watching just a small sampling of the show, I certainly won’t stop thinking about it anytime soon.
The Great American Dream Machine is billed as a variety show, but it’s not in the vein of what we think of today as being in that genre. There’s no stage or host or transition bits. Instead, it’s a series of shorts on a variety of topics and done in a myriad of styles, making up a disjointed, but thoroughly engaging show.
Sometimes, the segments are documentaries. For instance, stuntman Evel Knievel, someone I’d heard about but know very little of, is interviewed. It’s a casual portrait of a man, presenting what he thinks of himself more than a listing of his achievements. It’s deeply personal in a short running time, and unlike most documentary-style things you might see today.
Sometimes, the pieces are meant to be both humorous and informative. For instance, a man named Marshall Efron examines the various sizes of canned olives available. While what he presents is relatively straight forward, the way in which he talks about the government regulations and inconsistencies within them are more satirical than what you’d be taught in school.
And sometimes, the bits are just bizarre, just as a singing pig that some seek to eat, or a French-language sexual interlude, or a music video about computer dating (which apparently existed pre-1970, surprisingly), or Chevy Chase and Ken Shapiro as mimes mouthing along to music. And that’s all just in the first episode! I’m not sure what is supposed to be meant by these, but they are creative looks at different subjects.
Instead of telling you what The Great American Dream Machine is, it might be easier to tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t silly like Monty Python; it’s a style of comedy being more intellectual and less superficial. (That’s not a knock on Monty Python; there’s room for both in this world). It isn’t as edgy nor as polished as Saturday Night Live would be just a few years later, more raw in presentation. It isn’t stuck in its metropolitan roots, as although it’s based in New York, it frequently ventures across the country.
One thing The Great American Dream Machine is is a fascinating time capsule. For someone who didn’t live in this era, the bits where average people are interviewed, a technique still appearing on television today, is eye-opening. It’s amazing how similar and different attitudes are then to now. Some things never change, and some have changed drastically.
In its time, The Great American Dream Machine was attacked by conservatives for being too controversial for television. While on its face it does seem like a conservative show, given the title and a lot of the middle-of-the-country segments, it also has a bit more sex than most television would have in that era (though still tame by today’s standards). As someone interested in history, I am intrigued by this program.
I think another way to illustrate this series is high-quality is to mention some of the names involved. Besides those appearing above, personalities like Andy Rooney, Albert Brooks, Elaine Stritch, Charles Grodin, Penny Marshall, Carly Simon, Tiny Tim, Henry Winkler, and many, many more are involved. Such a group could not be assembled for just any show.
S’more entertainment has released a four-disc DVD set that captures many of the great moments from The Great American Dream Machine’s two-year run, nearly thirteen hours of content in all. Whether you have never heard of it or remember it fondly from your past, I recommend checking it out. It’s dated, but in a good way, capturing a time and a spirit that doesn’t exist any more, and is endlessly interesting.
The Great American Dream Machine is available now.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00WAZHRZ4]