Life in the Box: Humor and Humanity
Henny Youngman was the comedian who memorialized the phrase, “take my wife… please!” Come to find out, his wife would laugh along with the crowd at his jokes, even though he made her look, well, not as smart as the rest of us. Maybe like Gracie Allen, she was really the smarter of the pair.
But as I was saying, there’s humor in that turn of phrase. Maybe that’s why television documentarian John Beyer used it in his film about automobiles, traffic, and, well, not the smartest of city planning. “Take Des Moines… Please!” tells the story of how hard it is to get from the suburbs to downtown. Or, actually how simple it is, because you only have two choices: “drive your car, or your wife’s.”
The film aired in early 1972, and earned a national Emmy Award for community service the following year. A local columnist said, “Funny documentaries on transportation problems… are hard to find.”
The columnist, Donald Kaul, also noted that the film contained incisive analysis, as well. Humor and insight, both? That takes a wise writer with a witty brain. And, from all accounts, John Beyer had both.
I never met John, although I was touched by his genius in many ways during my time at Iowa Public Television. He left for a career in New Orleans, making the “Great Chefs” cooking and jazz series, three years before I moved to Iowa. John was always called by his last name, and “Beyer stories” were always told in a tone of voice that I would describe as fond. Maybe fondness tinged with humor and a tad of envy. Everyone wanted to be like him.
I’ve just started collecting articles about the “pre-history” of Iowa Public Television, which was once a small-time School District-owned TV station, from 1959 to 1969. As it moved out of the classrooms and into the state’s living rooms, the single station became a “network” of one, until other stations were slowly added. But it was already getting national attention for some Ford Foundation-funded children’s programs that set the groundwork for “Sesame Street.”
There was a strong professionalism there, and station leader John Montgomery convinced Beyer, who was making commercial and public television documentaries in Milwaukee and then Cleveland, to return to Des Moines. Beyer had Iowa roots, as did his wife, so they returned.
Montgomery gave Beyer a chance to work on whatever topic Beyer wanted. What producer wouldn’t jump at that offer? The pay might not have been the greatest, but the freedom made up for that.
Independent producers know that working within a broadcasting or other entity makes telling the truth a bit difficult, and that it’s rare to get full reign over the content. There are too many critics and funding sources to please. But the advantage of working within a system is that you don’t have to pay for all the equipment and crew out of your own pocket. It was an ideal setting for Beyer, and he set out at a run. He madly set a pace of four documentaries a year. And, he kept up that pace for a decade.
On the humorous side of things, a Thanksgiving film of his told a story from the perspective of the turkeys. A Christmas story in a department store was duplicitously suspicious of consumerism. Just watch the Santa Claus scenes at the end for a look into the children’s brains.
Most of Beyer’s stories aren’t going for the laughs, but all embrace some element of shared humanity. Gentle stories were told of girls in an “unwed mothers” home. Middle-class women alcoholics spoke of their situations in another story. And a team of football players waged “war” across the state, and by the way, they were all deaf.
He also looked at small town and rural life, not just urban problems. His first documentary in 1969 took the cameras to a very small town which had seen better days. The town, ironically, was called Promise City, and that was the name of the doc.
Beyer chose topics that interested him: stories of human beings. Beyer admired the women in the alcoholism story, and said they told very personal stories, and it took “guts.” He said, “The guy who’s not normally seen on TV has a lot to say.” And he looked for the “excitement and reality of people.” He attempted to keep the cameras and technology away from the story, to listen to folks like a fly on the wall. In the editing booth, he had a light touch with narration. And his superb use of music colored the scenes in just about every doc. He chose music from many genres, but leaned toward pop hits of the 1960s and 70s.
I haven’t watched all of Beyer’s more than 40 documentaries, but give me time… I’ve only just compiled the list this month. I submitted it to the American Archive, where many of his films have been digitized and are freely shared (view only). The Archive is now in the process of making a Beyer “collection” so that finding and viewing them will be much easier. I’ve got a few links listed here, and will update to the collection link when it gets finished.
Back in the 1970s, the television documentary wasn’t unheard of in prime time, but was seen as a “Special,” never a regular series, except in Iowa, where you could watch the “Beyer doc.” These days, you pretty much have to go online or to cable television to see a documentary. People are still making them, but the costs are so high that only the most dedicated filmmakers can jump through all the hoops with grants or “Go Fund Me” accounts to get one story told in a lifetime, much less four per year. And who knows if, after all that effort, a film will ever be widely distributed.
Now that I think about it, I don’t know anyone other than John Beyer who produced around 40 half-hour or hour-long documentaries in their lifetime, much less in one decade. There might be someone out there, but I haven’t yet found them.
I admire this person I never met. Beyer died in New Orleans in 2002, having produced many jazz performances and cooking shows, two of his passions, for WYES-TV from 1980 and on. He had a remarkable career, was the envy of many of my co-workers who attempted to walk–or film–in his shoes, and left a legacy of storytelling that can still bring a smile or a tear.
Take a look at “Take Des Moines… Please” and maybe a few other of his stories. I think his work is unique and artful. Besides that, it’s good for the soul.
Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site.
1972 Take Des Moines… Please (If you don’t watch the whole thing, at least skip to the last 5 minutes or so… ending with a montage to the tune of “Downtown” sung by off key and warbly 60s pop singer “Mrs. Miller”)