I recently watched 2081, the short film based on Kurt Vonnegut’s celebrated short story “Harrison Bergeron,” and while it’s a well-made, well-intentioned piece of work, it suffers from the fact that the story doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to support even a half-hour film. Vonnegut’s story about an equality-obsessed future in which individual strengths are neutralized with artificial handicaps — noise-generating headphones for people with high IQs, weights and chains for the strong or the agile, etc. — is a vignette, a quick satirical dash. The story’s slightness has worked in its favor: what played as a jab at conformity in 1961 is now beloved by libertarians packing their bags for a John Galt getaway weekend.
As it turns out, “Harrison Bergeron” has been filmed before, most recently as a 1995 made-for-cable movie and most memorably as part of Between Time and Timbuktu, a March 1972 episode of NET Playhouse that is one of the great lost television productions of the early Seventies. The script was a deliberately baggy collection of scenes and characters from various Kurt Vonnegut works. The framing device had poet Stony Stevenson (William Hickey) winning a jingle contest and getting the first prize: a rocket launch into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum that sends him through alternate universes, skimming across Cat’s Cradle, “Welcome to the Monkey House,” and Happy Birthday Wanda June. I always thought this dramatization of “Harrison Bergeron” got the most juice from the least amount of running time, corny video effects and all.
I’d love to watch the whole thing again, but for some reason Between Time and Timbuktu is one of the few bits of pop culture to remain unreleased on either video or DVD. The show aired at roughly the same time I was reading Cat’s Cradle, still my favorite early Vonnegut novel (I have no favorite later ones), and it featured two of my favorite radio personalities:
Do Bob and Ray have any kind of a following anymore? Between Time and Timbuktu came out at a time when you could still hear about the trials and tribulations of Mary Backstayge on WOR radio, with Jean Shepherd playing his kazoo five evenings a week.
A few years after Between Time and Timbuktu, Bob and Ray released a hardcover collection of their skits called Write If You Get Work. With Vonnegut providing the introduction, and Mad magazine stalwart Mort Drucker providing the illustrations, the book lacked only Jean Shepherd to serve as a one-stop shop for my cultural preoccupations at the time.