Boston’s most radical TV show: What’s Happening Mr. Silver?

This entry is part 23 of 23 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection

Excerpts from The Boston Globe – 3/1/2018

If you were watching WGBH on February 7, 1968, in a house with two TVs, you were in luck.

That Wednesday night, without warning, viewers were invited to take part in a radical experiment. Instructions appeared on the screen: “Gather two television sets in the same room. Place them 6 feet apart. Turn one to Channel 2. Turn the other to Channel 44.”

On the left screen appeared a young British man named David Silver, who proceeded to interview theater director Richard Schechner. This footage was in black and white. On the right television, tuned to Channel 44, Silver materialized in full color, adding commentary to the interview unfolding on the other screen, putting himself down as a phony. Elsewhere in the show, home viewers watched agog as the young British invader played Ping-Pong across screens, the tiny white ball magically zipping between two unconnected boxes in their living room…

For two years, twice a week, What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? transformed home televisions into portals for a psychedelic fever dream, uninterrupted by commercials or common sense…

(Producer/Director FredBarzyk had been) looking for a way to take the avant-garde sensibility he had fallen in love with in college and apply it to television…

Silver recalls Barzyk’s vague but exciting proposal from their first meeting: “We’re gonna set up a situation in Studio A and you’re just going to do things, and hopefully they’ll like you.” …

There were certainly experimental films that approached the level of absurdity found in Silver and Barzyk’s creation, but the difference was that this program snuck into people’s homes twice a week — and not just in Boston. What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? appeared on 13 partner stations across the United States. Andy Warhol may have been the superstar of the experimental film world, but even he had to convince the public to seek out his movies. For Barzyk and Silver’s form of madness and intuition, you didn’t even have to leave your couch.

From Fred Barzyk

One of the most influential episodes of “What’s Happening Mr. Silver?” was John Cage and his controversial composition “4 minutes and 33 seconds.”

In that piece, which we staged in the middle of a very busy Harvard Square, Cage sits at the piano, takes out a stopwatch and plays nothing. At the end of the allotted time, he stands up and bows. The confused crowd applauds. Cage smiles from ear to ear.


Anything you heard during that time, whatever noise, should be considered music. So, I reasoned that any crazy image that appears for 29 minutes of a TV broadcast, is also a TV program. ANY IMAGE AND IN ANY ORDER. That was the underlying construct for that one show. We were all shocked when “Madness and Intuition” won the 1968 “NET Award for Excellence for the Contribution to Outstanding Television Programming.” The plexiglass Award sits on my desk today.

None of this could have happened today. It could only have happened in those crazy 1960’s.

From David Atwood

As I remember there were three movements to the piece: keyboard closed, keyboard open, keyboard closed.

From Jack Caldwell

Wow! And I was there. WGBH – What a ride. What a privilege … and always, thank you, Hartford Gunn – for creating the stage and allowing magic to happen.

6 thoughts on “Boston’s most radical TV show: What’s Happening Mr. Silver?

  1. I was very honored when Fred asked me to be the Art Director of the show. I designed the Logo and the button. I’m still honored to have been a part of TV history.

  2. Olivia and Fred….a happening no matter what. Olivia the sweetest and most playful person I met during my early WGBH years. Mr. Silver shook the firmament with results and courage. Thank god. Fred? Well, he was always Freddie Berzerk to us BU scholars who all loved being on his camera crew. On one live show we ended up with cross cables and panic. It was all worth it. I want to do it again. Dolly on a 75mm OK Fred.

  3. I was friends with Olivia Tappan — we called her Wink — in college in the early 1960’s. She was very lovely, a free spirit and fine guitarist and singer. Glad to see her name mentioned in some of the WGBH posts!

  4. I am grateful STILL to Hartford Gunn and Mike Rice (neither of whom were exactly revolutionaries) and of course Fred and Dave and Olivia for letting me loose in the best station on Earth. I remain totally honored that I’m a member of the WGBH family.

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