In 1951, Rod Serling left the security of his full time job to become a free lance storyteller. His medium was primarily television – which, at the time, was in its very early stages. Storytellers, advertisers and the FCC were in a battle to determine the boundaries in which television would operate.
The interview posted here took place between Serling and Mike Wallce in 1959 – just before the premiere of Serling’s popular TV series, The Twilight Zone. The interview focuses in on the role that money and pleasing the public had played in dictating the freedom that Serling had (or didn’t have) as a script writer.
The principles discussed here, very much reflect the conversations held in many church communities around the world. Conversations about what we should or should not say or do; whether or not the question of palatability and relevance is even an important one; and being true to one’s mission despite external pressures to do something different.
So the question for us – as artist’s, speakers, creative directors, teachers – is “are we remaining true to what we have been called? Are we delving into the depths of the good and bad, the easy and difficult, or are we crafting a new, more palatable work because of internal or external pressures?”
Serling, like all artists, had something he wanted to say. It wasn’t propaganda. It was a desire to use the medium of film to bring things into the light where people had to confront them. But as more decisions were being made by commercial sponsors responding to the criticisms of the masses, Serling was forced to consider “pre-censorship” where ”a writer will shy away from writing those things which he knows he will have trouble with.”
It was at this point when Serling moved from writing 90 minute scripts that delved into social issues of the day – like racism and the role of greed in Hollywood – into creating shorter, entertainment based shows. ”We’re dealing with a half hour show which cannot probe like a 90… which doesn’t use scripts as vehicles of social criticism. These are strictly for entertainment,’ Serling said.
In the interview, Wallace asks if Serling has decided to stop making television that is “important.” Serling’s respons : “if, by important, you mean I’m not going to try to delve into current social problems dramatically, you’re quite right. I’m not.”
Does this mean that Serling was selling out? In response to this accusation, Serling replies, “someone asked me the other day, ‘are you becoming a meek conformist?’ And I just answered, ‘no, I’m just acting the role of a tired non-conformist.” And simultaneously, Serling pushes back. He rejects the idea that “you can’t have pubic success and be artistic.”
So, ask yourself, have you become a meek conformist? Or have you become a tired non-conformist? Are there areas you’ve compromised taking risks and being bold for the sake of how you think people will receive you and your work? Are you pre-censoring yourself?
Or maybe it’s possible that Serling was on to something. A producer who once worked with Serling said, ”Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist but not both.”
But Serling says that, he doesn’t “think calling something ‘commercial’ tags it with a kind of odious suggestion that it that it stinks. That it’s something raunchy. That it’s something to be ashamed of… If you say that ‘commercial’ means to be publicly acceptable, what’s wrong with that?”
After all, it wasn’t the tax collectors and sinners that found Jesus’ message to be offensive. It was the religious elite whose power and authority he undermined and threatened who took the most issue with his message.
Perhaps the overall message is that we must be true to which we have been called. Serling believed that he could create honorable work while maintaining a voice in the hearts and lives of the masses. The ultimate question for us is, “are we being obedient?” and “is our work an honest expression of that which is in us?” Because, ultimately, outcome is not the gauge of success. Obedience is.