Television Is Chewing Gum for the Eyes

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

franktv07Dear 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: 1

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: 2

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.

Continue reading Television Is Chewing Gum for the Eyes

Notes:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)

Combining the Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Telescopes Still Won’t Be Enough

George S. Kaufman? Eddie Fisher? Clifton Fadiman? Dick Cavett?

Dear Quote Investigator: Many, many years ago I saw an old clip on TV of George S. Kaufman and he was replying to a question submitted by a listener/viewer/audience member. For the sake of example let’s say it was a woman complaining about her husband’s smoking habit. I don’t recall his exact words, but they went something like this:

In California, I believe on Mount Palomar, there is a powerful telescope that can see to the edges of our solar system. They are constructing a new one which will let us see far beyond our own system into other universes. [More details and punch line omitted.]

My question is: Do you know which program this was, what year and what the actual quote was?

Quote Investigator: The readily available and searchable records for early television programs are poor. But there is a report of a joke delivered by Kaufman during an episode of the television program “This is Show Business” shown on the CBS network that conforms to your outline. The earliest account QI has located appeared in a memoir by the talk-show host and television personality Dick Cavett.

George S. Kaufman was a panelist on “This is Show Business” at least twice during its initial run, and the Internet Movie Database indicates that the series was first televised between 1949 and 1954 [IMSB]. Guest stars visited the show and sang, danced, or performed in some way. In addition, they were supposed to present a personal problem for the panelists to discuss. The singing sensation Eddie Fisher stated that the difficulty he faced stemmed from girls that refused to go out with him because of his youth. The following elaborate response from Kaufman is in Cavett’s 1983 book [ECGK]:

Mr. Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars to twenty-four times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed in the world of astronomy until the development and construction of the Mount Palomar telescope.

The Mount Palomar telescope is an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope.

Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to see my interest in your problem.

Cavett indicated that he was using his memory to reconstruct the wording used by Kaufman decades earlier. Unsurprisingly, human memory is imperfect. In 2010 Cavett retold the anecdote in a New York Times online article, and the quotation attributed to Kaufman is quite similar; however, the wording differs in several places.

Unless a transcript is discovered QI thinks that the exact phrasing is probably lost. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Combining the Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Telescopes Still Won’t Be Enough