The Great American Dream Machine

| November 2, 2015

If I were to tell you that no one makes television like The Great American Dream Machine (PBS, 1971-1972) any more, that’d be accurate. However, it would also be gross understatement. No one has ever made television like The Great American Dream Machine!

I’d never so much as heard of the series until it was announced that S’More Entertainment was putting out a 4-DVD collection of The Great American Dream Machine. When I read the press release’s description of it as “an irreverent, satirical weekly variety show,” I thought that this would be right up my alley. As a man who fanatically devours television from yesteryear including The Carol Burnett Show and the primetime specials of Don Rickles, and who grew up on the work of Chevy Chase, Albert Brooks and Charles Grodin (all of whom worked on the series), this sounded like just the sort of thing I’d be into.

The thing is, I came to find that the description of this series as a “variety show” does it a great disservice. It’s no mere variety show. It has variety to offer, sure, but not in the way we tend to think of a variety show (e.g. Carol Burnett). It is after all “irreverent,” sure, but that’s “irreverent” in all caps, italicized, emboldened and underlined: IRREVERENT. I’ve never seen anything like The Great American Dream Machine. I’ve seen lots of things like parts of it, but nothing that jammed all those parts together in quite this way.

Some segments could have been taken right out of On the Road with Charles Kuralt, with its thoughtful profiles of the hopes and dreams of the common man, as well as some not-so-common men like Evil Knievel. Other segments hosted by Marshal Efron, with his poignant, directed-toward-the-camera social commentary would have been right at home on The Daily Show. Then there are musical performances from the likes of Mel Torme, Andy Rooney drops in to provide some political commentary, and Dick Cavett (one of my personal heroes) shows up to recite a bit of poetry or Mark Twain. OH! And Kurt Vonnegut reads a short passage from Slaughterhouse Five at one point!

This isn’t your average, gather-your-family-around-the-television, primetime variety programming. This is intellectual variety television in which you’re far more likely to see interviews with people on the street about the nature of the American Dream, a profile of cryonics, or even get some satirical advice on increasing your bust size than you are to see someone singing showtunes with a chorus line backing them up. Then again, even that happens from time to time! You just never can be sure, and that’s the extraordinary thing about The Great American Dream Machine: it’s unpredictable. And how often can you say that about the entirety of any television program? I certainly can’t think of another such program. That’s why you need to see The Great American Dream Machine.

As I understand it, the bulk of The Great American Dream Machine’s content is included in the nearly 13-hour collection from S’More Entertainment. Of course, I can’t say for certain what isn’t included in the collection, only that I know it isn’t complete. Still, any 13 hours of this series, whole or otherwise, constitutes 13 of the most stimulating hours of television I’ve ever seen. And when you consider this set goes for less than $30 online, that makes this set one hell of a steal!

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
Filed in: TV on DVD
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