Redefining Entertainment

Known by many as "the conscience of Hollywood,"
Norman Fleishman believes entertainment can change the world

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Media (IC#23)
Originally published in Fall 1989 on page 22
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

For most people, the mass media is primarily a source of two things: information and entertainment. Most media criticism, activism, and empowerment work focuses on the information end – but what is "entertainment"? Is it merely a diversionary "opiate of the masses" – or is it the most powerful force in mass communications?

The latter, says Norman Fleishman, a long-time media activist who makes his home in Hollywood. Entertainment forges a unity out of diversity, makes possible an instantaneous change in mass consciousness, and suspends the defenses of those who might not otherwise be willing to hear a particularly important message – among other things. For these reasons he has been working quietly behind the scenes for years (through his non-profit organization, Microsecond) educating Hollywood writers about important social and environmental issues. If after reading this interview you feel inspired by his call for "a show for the world," write him at PO Box 2602, Malibu, CA 90265.

Alan: You’ve been called by some people "the conscience of Hollywood." How did that role evolve for you?

Norman: Well, I grew up on the streets of Hollywood. I sold newspapers, I shined shoes, and I went to lots and lots of movies. I went to Hollywood High School, and I think I was influenced in my early years by the work of Joe McCarthy, who was not the conscience of Hollywood.

I was around the progressive movement as a child, so I agreed with McCarthy only about one thing: that the storytellers were the most powerful people in the world. He went after the storytellers – had many of them blacklisted in Hollywood – because he felt their power. In a sense I followed in his footsteps, only I’ve taken the opposite tack. I do what I can to assist and support them, to inform them and inspire them if I can, by way of these meetings I’ve held over the years.

I remember seeing the movie The Grapes of Wrath when I was ten or eleven, and hearing Paul Robeson sing and speak when I was a child. I was also aware of the civil rights movement, so both entertainment and social causes influenced me very much. But I never watched television.

The first time I ever really saw television, other than just seeing a flash somewhere, was when I was working for the Ethical Culture Society in St. Louis. We got a television from my wife’s parents, who won it in a gas station lottery and shipped it off to us. They didn’t have one and didn’t want one, so we picked it up, took it home, and turned it on. Five minutes later John F. Kennedy was shot.

We just sat there, transfixed.

For the first time we were experiencing "entertainment" in the sense that I use it now, which is from the Latin derivation meaning "to hold in oneness, to grip in reciprocity." It comes from the same background as "whole" and "heal," "a welding into oneness" – that’s what it was for us and for the hundreds of millions who experienced that tragedy together.

The process of that – seeing something like that happen in such an incredibly dramatic way – was so moving to us that I can’t even express it, except that it changed my life. I began to respect entertainment and to work with it.

I had started the first vasectomy clinic in the country at Planned Parenthood in Houston, and when I moved back to Hollywood to run Planned Parenthood here, I got to know Norman Lear. He had done the two-part episode of Maude where she gets an abortion as an older woman, which was just amazingly powerful. My wife Diana and I and another friend had co-authored a book on vasectomy for Doubleday, and I was very interested in popularizing that. I got to kidding around with Lear about it, then I gave him some information, then I had a meeting at his home, and then he did an episode of All In The Family where Meathead – Michael, the son-in-law – got a vasectomy almost right on the show. The last thing on the show was the doctor bending over him and saying "Okay, let’s boogie!"

It was funny, it was powerful, it was a tear-jerker, and the performances and the writing were brilliant. After the dress rehearsal Diana and I ran up and hugged Lear and said, "If you can do this and make it that funny and that powerful, television can do anything."

Alan: When a message like that gets beamed out there, what happens? What are the concrete results?

Norman: That’s a very good question, and the best answer I can give you is to ask you why hard-headed corporate executives will pay millions of dollars for a few seconds of television exposure. They do it because it changes people’s behavior. If that happens in thirty seconds, what do you think happens in an hour – especially if a show is extremely powerful (say, about child abuse) with brilliant actors and great writing, and people are crying when they watch it?

I can only ask the question. I have this faith in entertainment, and it’s grown stronger every day since the instant we saw the Kennedy assassination. It’s gripping and moving, and it creates a new identity just in that instant – and I think that things are so bad in the world that there’s only time for a miracle. I think entertainment holds that miracle in its power.

Alan: I’ve heard you say before that the facts alone aren’t enough.

Norman: We know the facts – we know it would be great if people would conserve energy, drive less, and so on. Saying the facts, or making emotional appeals, somehow doesn’t work. Look what’s happening with alcohol and drugs.

Alan: "Just say no" doesn’t work.

Norman: I have a theory – actually it’s not mine, it’s Aristotle’s, but I’ve believed in it for thirty years or so. He says there are three elements in communication, and persuasion in particular: The first is "pathos," the emotional appeal, and that doesn’t work very well. The second is "logos" – the logic and facts – and that doesn’t work well either. The third is all-powerful, and that’s "ethos" – the character of the speaker, the power of the self. The root of the word "ethic" is the Greek word for character. Character is what is going to change this world, and that’s really what’s at the heart of entertainment.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that after thirty years of speaking he was most proud of one fact: that he didn’t have a single follower. What came from me, he said, was not to bring people to me, but to bring people to themselves. Great entertainment does that. It binds the group together, but it brings people to themselves. It supports personal unity and the power of the self.

Alan: So how can we bring that power of entertainment to bear on the major crises facing the world now?

Norman: I think those who are trying to change the world need to do something like what comedy writers do. They sit together in a room. They know that a gag isn’t enough, and that they need to come up with great humor. So they brainstorm, and they bounce it around, and somebody will say something and it won’t work, and then finally something catches everybody’s attention and they work with that a little while. And then finally somebody comes up with an idea, and there’s silence. Then one of the writers will say, "It’s in the room" – meaning we still don’t have it, but it’s here somewhere, and let’s find it. We need to work this hard to find something that’s going to grab people.

We’ve got enough material about the Earth now that I feel like "It’s in the room." But we need to be humble enough to know we don’t have it yet – that we need to work for it rather than doing what we do all the time, which is appealing to the people who already agree with us. That’s real easy: we just say the code words, or scream at the people who disagree with us. It’s tough to find a creative way to reach the mainstream. That’s where entertainment comes in, because entertainment has to reach for the middle. You need to be funny, or you need to be powerful, or you need to reach for the tears. Great writing can change the world.

Let’s take smoking as an example. If you talk to a big group – which I’ve done a lot in the last year – you find a recognition that a miracle has happened. Not long ago it was just fine to smoke in somebody’s house, in their car, and certainly in a big group. But in the last year I’ve had big meetings – 100, 200 people – where there was not a single smoker over a period of hours. UCLA is becoming a totally non-smoking institution. How did that happen?

Well, one thing that stands out in my memory was that Yul Brynner television ad where he says something like, "When you see this ad I’ll be dead. I’m dying of lung cancer caused by being an inveterate smoker." Talk about character! This is ethos pure and simple. It was advice from the grave, and it was powerful. Once I spoke to a big Unitarian church, and many people got up to say how that ad moved them.

Of course, you can’t reach people who aren’t ready to be reached – but the middle is ready to be reached, certainly when it comes to saving the Earth. We need something to allow them to manifest what’s already in them.

And entertainment can do it. Entertainment is the most powerful form of communication in the world. It throws your defenses to the winds, you’re captured, you’re part of it by definition. You go someplace else and come back, whereas if somebody’s lecturing or giving you facts in a documentary, your mind produces little responses. Somebody pushes, you push back. Entertainment isn’t pushing, it’s attracting – it takes you inside a new world.

Alan: What makes it so powerful?

Norman: The most powerful ingredient is simply the sharing of experience. For instance, in Roots you got to know people. They happened to be slaves, but you left that show with an experience of them as people. It’s the ability to get beyond that schismatic, separating energy that makes good entertainment, and I’d like to see social reform move toward that. I hate to sound anti-scientific – I’m not – but I know that if you just give facts, you’ll find somebody else with another set of facts, and you end up screaming about the facts for hours.

Alan: Instead of the truth.

Norman: Which is the experience of people. And people will respond. You know, in 1977 there was a serious water shortage in San Francisco, and the city was scared. They said "We’re going to have to cut back 50%" – which was an unheard-of goal in a short period of time. But when I arrived for a visit about two months later, they had done the unimaginable – they had cut back 65%.

I’ll never forget the three days I spent in the city. Everywhere you went, people were laughing and joking and having fun. They wrote poems about flushing the toilet. The city was on a high, and I don’t think we’re going to do what needs doing without that spirit. What they’re doing now in cities with water shortages is enacting rules and punishments, and even sending people out with spotlights to see if people are watering their yards. That’s not going to work. What works is excitement and fun and entertainment, in that sense of people being held in oneness, in wholeness, in healing. The city of San Francisco was excited that summer, and it was a remarkable example of what I mean by entertainment. Rules and facts are fine – but unless you involve people in that new way, it’s not going to work.

Alan: There’s a curious meeting point here between that spirit of entertainment that you talk about, and the work that Joanna Macy does on the fear and denial that people often have when they confront a difficult issue [IC #22]. When people do move through the fear and denial, they often come into that place of joyful excitement.

Norman: I love Joanna’s work, and yes, there is that meeting point. To go beyond something, you have to go through it. Listening to yourself is a way to manifest character, and so is listening to someone else. I think the 12-step programs are another bona fide miracle – there are 1,400 Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups in L.A., and if you go to any of them you see people sharing their experience for the first time. Being real means sharing your character, being yourself, and letting other people be themselves. It’s getting down to the fear – and doing that releases the greatest power on Earth, which is the power of just being ourselves. I’d like to see that kind of sharing on television.

Alan: Is television moving in that direction? Could we eventually see sit-coms about people working to solve planetary problems?

Norman: There’s definitely a receptive environment in the media and in elements of the business community – like Ted Turner. He’s wide open to a good idea. So, what we need are good ideas – and by that I mean really entertaining ideas. The media is there waiting for us. We now have the hookups and setups to reach the entire world.

Once I organized a meeting with Margaret Mead. It was the biggest meeting I ever had, about 600 people, mostly writers and producers in Hollywood. She told that group that the most important instant in her life was the instant she saw the little blue ball – the picture of Earth from outer space. She looked out at this audience of hundreds of writers and producers and she said, "You people that tell the stories are the most powerful people in the world. I want you to hold that little blue ball in your head. I want you to write with that ball in your head."

So we could do a show for the world – a new series, the sharing of experience, or even a show about the work of people like Joanna Macy. But we need to recognize that we can’t do it with schismatic energy. We have to do it with unifying energy.

Schismatic energy is not entertaining. It will help solidify our followers, it will help antagonize and generate anger in our enemies and against them, but it is not the answer. At one of my meetings a few years ago, a writer said that for the first time she had the feeling that it was no longer "us against them," that together we could do it. Somebody else said "Oh, the networks will never buy this," and she replied, "But you know what happens. If we think of one idea good enough, and they buy it, all of a sudden they want six of them."

Alan: What would be the elements of a good idea?

Norman: I believe in popularization. I worked on the Non-Smokers’ Rights campaign, and I found that you could show people films of someone dying from emphysema and while they would be moved, it didn’t stop them from smoking. It wasn’t as powerful – can you believe this – as Brooke Shields saying "Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray." In other words, it’s this fabulous power of empathy, and of something being "in." It’s not "in" to smoke anymore. Nobody says, "Do you mind if I smoke in your house?" They just sneak outside.

So we need to popularize these things that we believe in, and then add the element of entertainment – the gripping, the holding, the entrancing – like the spirit in San Francisco in 1977. Like the spirit that had some people staying home glued to the set to watch Roots, which in some way changed their attitudes. I’m not saying this is an iron-clad plan to change the world, but I do believe in the possibility of transformation.

Not very long ago, the largest group that you could reach on Earth at once for a simultaneous experience was a group that could gather on a hillside. Now you can have a show for two billion or more people, who can watch it and experience it simultaneously. To me that’s the most miraculous change of all the things that have happened in my lifetime.

When we can see ourselves as a planet, we can act as a planet. And that’s why a television show for the world entrances me – because then we could see ourselves as a planet.

Alan: With the exception of Ted Turner, it might take some lobbying of the media to get them interested in such an idea. Does the media respond to that kind of lobbying?

Norman: Well, I organized a meeting in Boston once, and I had Helen Caldicott speak. She was asking people to write their congressmen, and I said "Helen, have you ever written a single writer, producer, or network executive in your life?" And she said "Norman, no I haven’t." Then I asked the audience: "Has anybody here ever done that?" and nobody raised their hand- but everybody in that audience had written their congresspeople.

That same year there were several big handbooks printed on action in the peace movement. They mentioned media, but only in terms of getting something announced on the radio. They never mentioned entertainment. It doesn’t occur to people that they can affect what comes over the television or the movie screen. People just don’t think of it – even though a letter at ABC is worth 10,000 viewers.

Alan: You’re making a very convincing case for people involved in social change and transformation work to become not just media-savvy, but entertainment-savvy. And yet many people in the movement don’t watch movies or television. They think that kind of media is part of the problem. What could convince them to think differently?

Norman: Let me ask you a question: Can you think of a media or entertainment event – not just television or film – that really moved and entertained you?

Alan: The funny thing is that when you ask that, I immediately think of at least ten media events – even TV shows – that made a huge impression on me. And yet I tend to forget just how powerful entertainment has been even in my own life. It’s a blind spot that people working in this area need to get beyond.

Norman: I wonder how many of your readers would be interested in thinking about developing a show for the world, because if one of them came up with a great idea tomorrow, Ted Turner would be ready to do it.

Alan: Maybe we should put the word out in this interview to our readers: those with good ideas for an entertainment of the kind you’re talking about should send them to you.

Norman: They need to find something that could allow the world to see itself as an entity. How can you be responsible, unless you experience yourself as an entity that can be responsible? Otherwise you’re going to be looking to somebody else or to outer space to take care of it. So I think we need a show for the world. I’m convinced there’s an idea out there that could popularize the notion that, as a planet, we are responsible for ourselves. It’s not just facts, and it’s not just emotions. It’s that sense of who we are. It’s our character. That would be an ethical response.

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