One major question facing the citizens of Mediatopia is "What can't be made into a television show?" Murders can, rapes can, foul-ups, bleeps and blunders can, even a star's contract can. Tonight CBS takes a bold new cake. It airs a TV show made up partly of things it belligerently refused to air in previous years. "America Censored," at 8:30 on Channel 9, is an entertaining height of gall.
Yesterday's willful corporate imperiousness is today's funsy frolic, apparently. In 1969, a cowardly CBS canceled "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," even though it was a hit, because the Brothers and their guests occasionally ventured into political satire. On "America Censored," CBS shows for the first time the innocuous (and apolitical) David Steinberg comedy "sermon" that was used then as a factor in the decision to cancel, dismissing its shabby treatment of the Smothers Brothers with a kind of "Weren't we silly?"
In the early '70s, CBS executives refused to permit the telecast of an episode of "The New Dick Van Dyke Show" in which a married couple dealt with the fact that their young daughter had accidentally opened the bedroom door at the wrong moment and caught them making love. Part of that, too, is included in the "Censored" special, on the grounds that now that worse things are seen on TV all the time, it's safe to show it.
This doesn't prove networks are big enough to admit they were wrong. CBS admits no such thing, never has, never will. This is just mercantile expediency. Maybe someday the network will find a way to make a series out of its various lawsuits. The Democrats are unhappy with the network's decision to show "America Censored" as scheduled tonight and to delay their response to the president's tax reform message until Friday night. Perhaps in 10 years CBS can use the insolence it displays in making such judgments as fodder for an entertainment special: "The Wacky, Wacky World of Terminally Arrogant Network Executives."
Host John Denver promises a wealth of previously unaired footage on "America Censored" but relatively little shows up. In addition to Steinberg and Van Dyke, there are clips of remarks excised from "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marx, 6-year-old Shirley Temple doing a topless hula in "Curly Top" and thus violating the movies' Calvinistically prohibitive Production Code; and Cab Calloway singing "Reefer Man" in an old movie musical.
The hour is filled out with segments on the colorful censorship history of rock 'n' roll (I had forgotten that on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" had to be changed to "Let's Spend Some Time Together" -- and those allegedly outrageous outlaws of rockdom sheepishly complied); wartime censorship; and things you couldn't say on television in the '50s, like the word "pregnant."
Not all censorship has to do with sex or violence, of course. In 1968, the sponsor of a Petula Clark special on NBC protested strongly when the singer merely held the arm of guest Harry Belafonte on camera during a duet. Although he shows the clip, Denver does not identify the car company that found a white woman touching a black man so objectionable. It was Chrysler. The ad agency was Young & Rubicam.
The matter of "Amos 'n' Andy" is a bit more delicate. In Denver's narration it is suggested that the program was much less offensive on the radio because the actors weren't seen. But these were white performers lampooning blacks -- surely more offensive than the TV version, which at least gave work and exposure to gifted black actors like the great Tim Moore, who played Kingfish. CBS withdrew the show from syndication in 1966 after 15 years of pressure from the NAACP, but the clip shown tonight is a reminder that whatever else it was, "Amos 'n' Andy" was funny.
In the narration written for him by Gerald Gardner, Denver notes that today blacks have lots of "dignified role models" on TV. Photographs projected while he says that include those of such pillars of dignity as Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis.
Considering current controversies over the advertising of beer and wine on television, it seems a tad self-serving for this special to include the allegation that together the networks and the breweries "have found imaginative ways to sell their product without encouraging excess." Oh, really? Later there is another untruth. "Today, neither the states nor the movie industry censor films," Denver says, but the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board has the power of censorship over movies for which, say, an R or X rating would be commercially debilitating, and it exercises that power, sometimes at the script stage.
And so on. "America Censored" is really "America Censored Whitewashed." What's impressive in a cynical sort of way is how a network can exploit the stupid idiocies it perpetrated yesterday as the stuff of lighthearted mirth today. It's surprising it didn't include more clips from the Red Scare era, in which CBS and the other networks were willing co-conspirators, and have Denver say, "And hey, how about that wacky-wacky Joe McCarthy? There's a guy who knew how to have fun."