Television underwent tremendous change between 1950 and 1970, as the medium transitioned from a novelty into a dominant form of expression.
For Meenasarani Linde Murugan, Ph.D., the period is a gold mine for her primary research interest: representations of performances of race and gender on television.
Murugan, an assistant professor in communication and media studies, is working on a book that looks at the interactions between performers of color and the white program hosts on variety shows during that period. She’s interested in the ways racial issues were discussed, both explicitly and in more subtle ways.
Although much research has been done on the transition from radio to early television and how that affected representations of ethnicity and masculinity, Murugan maintains there’s more to be learned. Her research casts a critical eye at shows such as the Tonight Show, and program hosts such as Dinah Shore, Flip Wilson, and Carol Burnett.
“Variety shows articulated a kind of cosmopolitanism that served to expand existing constructions of gender and race in the postwar period,” she said.
In addition to viewing old TV clips, Murugan examines archived memos to learn how television producers, hosts, and executives were talking at the time about different guests. While hosts were overwhelmingly white, persons of color were often featured as guests especially for musical performances.
For a brief period, she said, there was a rivalry between Steve Allen, one of the first hosts of the Tonight Show, and television variety show legend Ed Sullivan. Allen considered himself to be more hip than Sullivan; he played jazz piano on the show and he invited many African Americans as guests.
“[It was] one of the ways in which Allen thought he was more sophisticated,” she said. “It was a very interesting use of those performers’ names to give himself credibility.”
“I think that [posture]is a tension we all still see today, when people say things like ‘but some of my best friends are black.’ On the one hand, he is giving these performers a platform in a very segregated entertainment sphere. But at the same time, it lends credibility to his show.”
Murugan’s research also explores tensions inherent in the fact that variety shows were filmed in New York or Los Angeles, where white audience members and performers of color often mixed, but were broadcast nationally. Regions such as the South were less accepting of such fraternization.
“The variety shows had the opportunity to break down those walls, and at the same time, a lot of times when they did that, hosts got hate mail,” she said.
It wasn’t just about the viewers, however. “It was really about advertisers,” she said. “If they were going to sponsor the show, then they didn’t want to lose a possible customer market.”
Murugan said she found revealing instances of solidarity, beyond hosts simply hosting performers of color. Allen, for instance, once devoted an entire show to a conversation with African-American comedian Dick Gregory about what it means to be a black man in the United States.
“Most of the time it’s just the two smoking cigarettes and having a very candid conversation,” she said. “And then they come back from a commercial break, and Steve Allen addresses the studio audience and the camera. He basically says ‘You know, some of you might be upset by what we’re talking about, but I don’t care.’
“There’s something about the candidness of that interview that I appreciated; Allen knowing that people might feel uncomfortable with what they’re talking about but realizing it’s still important to have the conversation.”
Ultimately Murugan said she hopes to better understand the terrain in which such instances of solidarity took place. While it requires one person to sacrifice a certain amount of privilege, does that have to happen in every episode aired on television?
She said that there are a lot of questions about how today’s political changes will affect popular culture. But when she began working on the book in August 2015, the rhetoric of inclusion was strong.
This embrace is sometimes seen as a recent development, but as examples from variety shows illustrate, the truth is more complicated. Television has been diverse, Murugan said, it just hasn’t been equal.
“It’s not just about having people of all colors on a show. We still want more diversity and want it on a very surface level.”
“But then we’re not really interrogating what’s the nature of that interaction. I think we also need to talk about issues of power,” she said.