Lorne Michaels Asks ‘What’s It All About, World?’

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If you were a young person and you were into anti-establishment humor, then the late 1960s were a great time for you. You had Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In socking it to Nixon every week on NBC. Flip the dial over to CBS and you had The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It was a great time to be young, alive, and vaguely angry with the government. But what about the other side? Shouldn’t the right wing have their own lighthearted entertainment/variety show? Enter ABC with What’s It All About, World?

I don’t know what to make of What’s It All About, World? It aired for thirteen weeks, beginning in February 6, 1969 under two different names. Halfway through it’s run it decided to drop the whole satire thing and just turned into a regular variety show. Famed writer Harlan Ellison, who was at the time working for The Los Angeles Free Press as a television critic referred to the show as “a right-wing attempt to prove how good things are these days. It might more appropriately be titled The Establishment Strikes Back.” However, hidden among the writing staff are a handful of folks who would go on to create some very different comedy. We have Avery Schreiber, one half of Burns and Schreiber and longtime improviser with The Second City, and then another duo consisting of two fellows by the name of Hart Pomerantz and Lorne Michaels. Yes, that Lorne Michaels.

The show is a basically your standard 1960s variety show complete with host and musical numbers. The host of the show was Dean Jones who apparently had a healthy career before this one, starring in a number of live-action Disney films such as That Darn Cat!, The Million Dollar Duck, and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. He’s not given a lot to do on this show. Basically he comes out wearing a turtleneck and blazer and serves as the Rod Serling for whatever the next sketch coming up is. He introduces viewers of the show’s premiere episode with the following bland thesis statement: “On our show, all the entertainment is based on the headlines of today, and we’ll also be presenting the things that make life worth living: good music, beauty, and sex. Not as much sex as I’d like, but that’s television.” In one sentence, Jones manages to tell you exactly what you’re in for: a variety show with the tiniest bit of satire thrown in, but a level of satire that seems calculated to offend no one.

Let’s take the opening sketch. It’s 1969 so there are kinds of targets available that are just ready for a satirical take. So what does What’s It All About World? decide to put in its crosshairs first? Well, Dean Jones introduces the sketch, telling us it’s about “governmental interference,” which already seems like a red flag. And then once the sketch begins it becomes clear that we aren’t talking about the draft or anything like that. No, this is a sketch talking about how stupid affirmative action is. In the sketch Mission Impossible’s Martin Landau plays a Mafia don who has just learned that any organization that does business with the government has to hire African Americans. Lucky for the Mafia, the African American janitor just happened to walk in which means we now get to sit through five minutes of racist stereotypes as Cadillac the janitor is interviewed by Landau. It’s a terribly painful experience to watch in 2014 but I can’t imagine that it was all that different an ordeal in 1969.

But the strange thing is that after that they don’t touch anything remotely resembling politics until the last 10 minutes of the hour. Instead we get a couple of songs, including a poetic recitation of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” set to music on top of a montage of historical newsreel footage of Churchill, FDR, Stalin and Hitler. Clair and McMahon, a sort of poor man’s Nichols and May, play a husband and passive aggressive wife driving their kids on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. Then there’s a sketch about a tap dancing nun where I couldn’t even figure what the joke was.

Towards the end of the night they decide to make an attempt at being satirical again, first with a fake newsmagazine-style expose on the world of heterosexual. Okay, so imagine a show like 60 Minutes in the late sixties doing a report about closeted homosexuals. With me so far? Now take every time the word “homosexual” is said and replace it with “heterosexual.” That’s what this sketch was. That’s the whole thing. No twist on anything, or even an attempt at having a point of view. It’s just a news report from a magical world where being straight puts you in the minority, completely ignoring any kind of logic for the world, such as how the population would continue. It’s a sketch written by the “find and replace” function of Microsoft Word disguising itself as satire and it’s dreadful.

The final sketch of the night is entitled “The Great World Vaudeville Show and Real Life Music Hall.” The goal of the sketch is to provide even more of the great satirical content you’ve seen so far, but with the additional twist of presenting it as a Vaudeville act. So we get stuff like “The Russia and Czechoslovakia Comedy Capers,” in which Mr. Russia and Mr. Czechoslovakia greet each other, complain about how one of them invaded the other and then doing a stupid piece of wordplay confusing the word “thanks” spoken through a Russian accent as “tanks.”

To close out the show, and to prove they were just kidding around if you got offended, the whole cast comes out, and beneath the credits they all join in and sing “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s the perfect capper for the show: a song that seems to be patriotic but is ultimately pretty toothless and overly saccharine. Somehow Lorne Michaels made it out of the black hole that was What’s It All About World? Before long the show was renamed after its host as The Dean Jones Variety Hour and then it disappeared completely. Perhaps for the first time the win went to counterculture. But it wouldn’t be the last time.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title.

Lorne Michaels Asks ‘What’s It All About, World?’