Television Is Chewing Gum for the Eyes

Frank Lloyd Wright? John Mason Brown? Henri Peyre? Fred Allen? Dick Cavett? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The most acerbic criticism I have heard directed at TV was attributed to the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright:

Television is just chewing gum for the eyes.

However, I recently saw the remark credited to a drama critic named John Mason Brown. Could you explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this vivid metaphor located by QI appeared in a 1944 book by Henri Peyre who was a Professor of French at Yale University. In 1944 television sets were still very expensive, and the industry was immature in the U.S. The metaphor was applied to movies and radio broadcasts instead. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1944, Writers and Their Critics: A Study of Misunderstanding by Henri Peyre (Sterling Professor of French at Yale University), Quote Page 291, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Yet there is no sorrier sight to watch then the vacant faces of those former high school and college students when, at thirty-five or fifty, all their mental alertness having vanished, the spark gone from their eyes, they dutifully chew their gum to keep from yawning, while absorbing the chewing gum for the eyes of the movies or the chewing gum for the ears of the radio.

The same men who once read Shakespeare, Molière, Byron glance at the headlines of their tabloid papers, turn straight to the page of the funnies, to devour them with the same dutiful sense of boredom as they swallow their hamburger at lunchtime and their highball after dinner.

More than a decade later this figurative language was applied to another communication medium. In January 1955 Steven H. Scheur who was a well-known film critic visited the “book-lined New York apartment” of John Mason Brown who was a prominent theater critic. They discussed the quality of the programs broadcast on television. Brown applied the chewing-gum metaphor to TV:[ref] 1955 January 21, Syracuse Herald-Journal, Ed Murrow To Call on Critic Brown by Steven H. Scheur, Quote Page 32, Column 1, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

Although Brown is generally recognized as our most eminent theater essayist—Saturday Review of Literature—he confesses to a special partiality for TV news shows.

“So much of TV seems to be chewing gum for the eyes. … TV desperately needs more self-reliance and pride in the medium.”

By 1958 the remark was being credited to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In June 1955 “Time” magazine wrote about a radio program called “Invitation to Learning” featuring three participants: critic John Mason Brown, essayist Clifton Fadiman and moderator Lyman Bryson. During the show Brown repeated his harsh characterization of TV:[ref] 1955 June 6, Time, Radio: Conversation Piece, Time Inc., New York. (Accessed on September 12 2013; Online Time Magazine Archive)[/ref]

Talk is cheap, the three decided, but conversation has a different price tag on it. “There must be mind in talk to make it conversation,” said Moderator Bryson. “Television programs are so much chewing gum for the eyes,” said Critic Brown. “A conversation has to be more than just chewing gum or wastage.” Essayist Fadiman urged intellectual exercise.

Brown’s remark was memorable, and it was included in a collection titled “Best Quotes of ’54 ’55 ’56” compiled by James Beasley Simpson. Brown used the saying when he was interviewed by the compiler in July 1955, but this time he credited another unnamed person:[ref] 1957, Best Quotes of ’54 ’55 ’56, Compiled by James Beasley Simpson, Section: Radio and Television, Quote Page 233, (Quotation spoken by John Mason Brown is from interview dated July 28, 1955), Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

“Some television programs are so much chewing gum for the eyes.”
John Mason Brown, quoting a friend of his small son, interview with James Simpson, July 28, 1955.

In October 1955 the popular columnist Walter Winchell printed a version of the saying with a similar indirect attribution:[ref] 1955 October 10, Springfield Union, Walter Winchell on Broadway, Quote Page 13, Column 8, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

John Mason Brown’s quipper-snapper: “I heard someone (a young man of 17 but of great wisdom) define many television programs as being just so much chewing gum for the eyes.”

In January 1958 the saying was attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright by the columnist Ed Sullivan who stated that Wright employed the expression during a dinner. This is the earliest evidence of this common ascription located by QI:[ref] 1958 January 10, The Morning Herald (Uniontown Morning Herald), Little Old New York by Ed Sullivan, Quote Page 22, Column 4, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

Frank Lloyd Wright’s definition, at a Chicago dinner: “TV is chewing gum for the eyes,” would be applauded by Clement Attlee, who explains his refusal to buy a TV set: “I don’t want it. I don’t like it. I won’t have it.”

In February 1958 a popular syndicated columnist Larry Wolters writing in the Chicago Tribune credited Wright:[ref] 1958 February 22, Chicago Daily Tribune, TV Ticker by Larry Wolters (TV Radio Editor), Quote Page C4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)[/ref]

CHICAGO: Definition of television from Frank Lloyd Wright: “Chewing gum for the eyes!”

In October 1958 a writer in a West Virginia newspaper connected the saying to a manipulative press agent:[ref] 1958 October 8, Charleston Gazette Wednesday, The Gazetteer by George Lawless , Quote Page 17, Column 1, Charleston, West Virginia. (NewpaperArchive)[/ref]

Some poor press agent has succeeded in getting his client credit with saying: “Television is chewing gum for the eyes.” We’ll go along that. Especially the endless and tiresome series of adult and adolescent westerns that smoke up our screens nightly.

Wright died in 1959 and a short Washington Post article reviewing his career credited him with a version of the quotation:[ref] 1959 April 10, The Washington Post, Frank Lloyd Wright, Quote Page A12, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)[/ref]

But Mr. Wright did not merely express an opinion; he threw off remarks like a porcupine shedding quills. His barbs struck home. One recalls the remark credited to him that television “is chewing gum for the eyes.” Surely this was ungrateful from a man who came over television with so unblurred and memorable an image.

In 1960 the indefatigable quotation collector Bennett Cerf ascribed a variant of the remark to Wright in his syndicated column:[ref] 1960 April 22, Greenville Delta Democrat Times, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, (Syndicated Column) Quote Page 4, Column 7, Greenville, Mississippi. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

No TV addict was the late Frank Lloyd Wright. “Television,” was his dictum “is nothing more than chewing gum for the eyeballs.”

In 1961 the columnist Larry Wolters published the saying again, but the phrasing was slightly altered:[ref] 1961 August 20, Chicago Daily Tribune, Radio TV Gag Bag: Culled by Larry Wolters, Quote Page B19, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)[/ref]

The late Frank Lloyd Wright on TV: “It’s only chewing gum for the eyes.”

In 1962 a newspaper in Montana printed a variant in which the word “eyes” was replaced with “mind”:[ref] 1962 July 1, Billings Gazette, The New Books: Writer Wonders if Television Has Lost Its Way Permanently Quote Page 6, Column 1, Billings, Montana. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

It’s called idiot box, Cyclops, chewing gum for the mind, the mind-seduction machine, conversation killer, a wasteland and television.

The connection to Brown was not forgotten, and in 1968 “Time” magazine credited him with the saying:[ref] 1968 July 19, Time, Pop: Tunes for Teeny-Weenies, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine Archive; accessed on September 12, 2013)[/ref]

A dozen years ago, Critic John Mason Brown defined television as chewing gum for the eyes. Now the record industry has come up with bubble gum for the ears. Set to a chink-a-chink beat, bleated out with pep-rally fervor, it goes like this:

Yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy, And I feel like a-lovin’ you; Love, you’re such a sweet thing, good enough to eat thing, And that’s just a-what I’m gonna dooooo.

In 1974 the prominent talk show host Dick Cavett writing in “New York Magazine” ascribed the saying to the popular comedian Fred Allen[ref] 1974 July 22, New York Magazine, Volume 7, Number 29, Dick Cavett Bares All by Dick Cavett and Christopher Porterfield, Start Page 27, Quote Page 34, Column 1, New York. (Google Books Full view) link [/ref]

Fred Allen called TV chewing gum for the eyes. Although many people write me after a show and thank me for educating and stimulating them, my guess is that a larger number of people want TV to be a visual Muzak, a mind deadener.

In conclusion, QI believes that Henri Peyre deserves credit for originating this striking metaphor by 1944. He applied it to movies and radio and not TV. By 1955 John Mason Brown adapted the metaphor to television. However, he did not credit himself with the coinage; instead, he ascribed to words to an unknown young person.

Evidence also suggests that Frank Lloyd Wright employed the expression during a dinner circa January 1958 though it is unlikely that he coined it. The ascription to Fred Allen is not well-supported at this time.

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