Who Stole My Country 88 – The Fine Art of Goofing Off

Nixon, up for reelection in 1972, doubled down on his policy of suppressing dissent.  Americans were rattled by the continuing nixon-campaign-button-72violence of the anti-war movement.  Then On September 9th, 1971, almost 1,000 prisoners seized control of the maximum-security prison in Attica, NY.  Putting down the uprising claimed 43 lives, 11 guards and 32 prisoners. Nixon appealed to what he called the “American majority” or more commonly the “Silent Majority,” those who were sick and tired of counter culture freaks, women talking out of place, prison riots and radical revolutionaries of any race. He crafted a new coalition of Southern whites upset with Civil Rights and voter registration and northern workers whose unions were strong supporters of the war in Vietnam.  Both groups were traditionally democratic.

Nixon had two foreign policy successes just before the election.  In February of 1972 he spent eight days in China, met with Mao Zedong, and began a long overdue normalization of relations. In May he traveled to Moscow for a week of discussions that ended in a strategic arms pact with the Soviet Union, SALT I, that would be signed by Nixon and Premier Leonid Brezhnev on May 26.  In July the White House announced the first sale of American wheat to the Soviet Union. As for the endless war in Vietnam,  Kissinger assured the nation that “peace is at hand.”

nixon-and-mao-72It was one of the most lopsided races in American Presidential election history.  Nixon beat his Democratic challenger George McGovern by 520 Electoral College votes to McGovern’s 17.  He got a whopping 60% or more of the popular vote. Television network analyses showed Nixon won a majority of the votes from Catholics, blue-collar workers, union members and Italian-Americans, all of whom had been Democratic in 1968.  It was the first election in which 18 year olds could vote and network polling also indicated that first-time voters split their votes about evenly between Nixon and McGovern.  Nixon even scored gains among both Jews and blacks, though they remained predominately Democratic. It marked the beginning of a long term alliance that remained fundamental to Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign in 2016.

Nixon’s overwhelming victory seemed a total defeat for Woodstock Nation and the counter culture. The shattered, splintered, increasing violent left had been roundly repudiated.  The student/labor coalition that had launched Freedom Summer in 1964 was shattered. If Nixon’s “Silent Majority” had an anthem, it was “Okie from Muskogee.” “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street,” Merle Haggard sang, “’Cuz we like livin’ right and being free.”

Progressives and Hippies, feeling excluded from the mainstream culture, grew their hair longer, let their beards fill out and more and more took Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” KQED received a grant to do a series of programs on leisure in America.  We convinced the powers that be to do a short series of films in animation called, The Fine Art of Goofing Off.  Henry Jacobs, a radio producer and a good friend of Alan Watts, who had explained Eastern mysticism to KPFA audiences for years, created an extraordinary sound track.  Bob McClay, a brilliant artist did the animation (in those days, one frame at a time, with thirty frames per second, so this was tedious work.)   I was the producer.

The project took almost a year.  We began each week with a meeting just after dawn in Henry Jacob’s hot tub in the redwood forests goofing-off-01182014of Marine County.  The hot tub on a deck behind his house was surrounded by redwoods, and it would be steaming hot in the early morning air when the team arrived.  We would strip down and slip into the water.  Henry pulled out a huge rolled joint, the first of several, and we would begin to free associate about leisure activities that Americans took part in or, in our opinion, should take part in.  I would sit with one arm out of the water, taking notes.

I’d type up the notes and we’d meet in more sedate circumstances to pare them down to the activities that seemed to offer the most comic promise.  We’d take these ideas to The Committee, a San Francisco impromptus comedy group, which would riff on the ideas in an ad lib session. Henry would record and edit the audio tracks down to their essence and Bob would animate them.  We hired artist Victor Moscoso to do fake commercials in the underground comic style that emerged in the late Sixties in San Francisco.

goofing-off-reviewJohn Leonard, who had been my Drama and Literature director at WBAI in the early Sixties, wrote a review for Life Magazine, under the pseudonym he used in those days, Cyclops.  John began,

“Having spent what seems like the last six years watching Eric Sevareid and Theodore H. White kick the philosophical ball around on CBS during lapses in its convention coverage, one began to wish that the philosophical ball would kick them back. Is it absolutely necessary that gown men pile such a heavy load of platitude on the innocent moment? Has either of them ever giggled’? One longs for comic relief‑a liberating fecklessness.”

He continued, “I propose for Mr. Sevareid, Mr. White and their fellow solemnites a course in remedial unseriousness. PBS has such a course (no credit), in three half‑hour parts, starting this week. It’s called The Fine Art of Goofing Off.  Some wholly unserious people out at San Francisco’s KQED put it together. Producer Chris Koch, who used to be intermittently serious in the old days of Pacifica radio, has clearly been trifling with the Ecstasy Kids down at Esalen.”

The Fine Art of Goofing Off looks at work and leisure, the “pursuit” of happiness (“sit still and let happiness pursue you for a “while”) and the idea of time. There is a carburetor that talks like a sociologist, a lump of clay that plays with itself,  commercials in behalf of drudgery, a rock group called Funky Hair and the Painted Guitar … audience participation games (the tallest person in your living room is Supposed to get up and follow a dot around on the TV screen), doodling and other soul satisfying nonsense.”

It was the last project I produced for KQED.  You can see the three episodes on my website.

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