“Why is Johnny Carson?”
Free Time, a series on New York City’s public TV station WNET, devoted its October 14, 1971 broadcast to Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Jonas Mekas’ performance of excerpts from Ono’s “Of a Grapefruit in the World of Park.” The title was significant. It had been the name of a short story she published in the student newspaper at Sarah Lawrence, and it was very close to the name of her first musical performance in 1961. And then there was Grapefruit (“The greatest book I’ve ever burned”—John Lennon), Yoko’s small-press, limited-edition book of instructions from ‘64, reprinted by Simon & Schuster and stocked, I imagine, in every B. Dalton and Brentano’s in ‘70 and ‘71.
Shortly before this aired, the New York Times reported Free Time was about to return in a “new format.” Perhaps this meant more bohemian, radical fare; another episode from around the same time featured Allen Ginsberg with Bob Dylan, Peter Orlovsky, and Gerard Malanga. All I really know about the show comes from former WNET president James Day’s description in The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television:
[The] original concept was an open studio—anyone with the desire to be seen and heard would be welcome to drop in—but that gave way to the more practical concept of a thrice-weekly, late-night (10:30 P.M. to midnight) live show with a minimum of structure and maximum of provocation. Abbie Hoffman “moderated” a panel on the press; the consuls general of India and Pakistan debated the war in Bangladesh; and Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda aired their unpopular views on the Vietnam War. The show’s tissue-thin budget produced lots of talk: open-ended discussions by Bronx street gangs, New York cabbies, black film producers, women writers, domestic help, telephone operators, and other denizens of a world rarely glimpsed on the tube. [...]
On one memorable evening, Free Time featured the spiritually inspired films of Yoko Ono, including a film consisting only of the movements of a fly on the nipple of a woman’s breast. The attention to the film was broken, however, when her husband John Lennon put in a surprise appearance, set up a ladder, and invited the studio audience to join him in “flying” off the top rung. One hapless “bird” sustained a broken arm.
Several of the broadcast’s pieces—the peeking, the flying, the wrapping—are straight out of Yoko’s 1967 performance in Liverpool. The flying routine (which goes from the 12-minute mark to about 15:40) does not develop quite as Day remembered it. The startling thing is that the broken arm comes early; long after the ladder topples, people are lining up to jump into John’s arms. “Every one a winner,” he says, as he tries to catch them. “Except the one.”
If PBS was still like this (i.e., live, unpredictable, insane, morally instructive, revolutionary), I might even contribute money during the pledge drive. But when they were hard up, it seemed “Dr.” Wayne Dyer was always bloviating, and I was always donating my scorn. How much scorn gets you the tote bag?