Let's discuss "Variety Shows"

Remember the heydey of the “Variety Show”? There were tons of them:

The Flip WIlson Show
The Dean Martin Show
The Frank Sinatra Show
The Red Skelton Show
The Osmands
Sonny and Cher
Donnie and Marie
The Captain and Tenille
The Liberace Show
The Johnny Cash Show
The Carol Burnett Show

Any others?

Basically, these were just Vegas shows on TV. A celerity with talent would come out, exhibit some of that talent, do some comedy skits with a guest star or two, maybe have a musical guest to sing a duet with or something, and then the show would end.

What was the last one on the air? I seem to recall the Barenaked Ladies tried one a couple of years ago, but I never saw it. What was the last really successful one? I’m thinking maybe Carol Burnett.

What was your favorite? I used to enjoy the Carol Burnett show. Harvey Korman and Tim Conway were consistently funny. For some reason, I used to really like Dean Martin’s show, but I was really young then. I really enjoyed his celebrity roast shows.

Can they make a comeback? Are there any stars you can think of today that could anchor a really good variety show?

Didn’t Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey have one?

Oh, I know!

The Christopher Walken Show

I am so there.

The Wayne Brady Show

I enjoyed Viva Variety.


Could there ever be a true Sixties/Seventies style variety show again? No, I’m afraid not. Too much has changed.

Way back when, Ed Sullivan really hoped to appeal to practically everyone in America. He had guests to appeal to practically every demographic group in the USA. In a typical 1965 episode, he might have had the Rolling Stones (to appeal to teens), Topo Gigio the Italian mouse (to appeal to the little kids), a Russian ballet troupe (to appeal to highbrows), a Catskills comic (to appeal to blue collar Jews), and Minnie Pearl (to appeal to the sticks).

Now, for the sake of argument, suppose a latter-day Ed Sullivan tried to do something similar. Suppose he put together an hour-long show with special guests Eminem (for the teens), Raffi (for the little kids), a standup routine by Jeff Foxworthy (for the Southern crowd), a ballet routine by the Dance Company of Harlem, and a comedy sketch featuring guest star Sid Caesar.

Would ANYBODY sit still for a whole hour? Of course not. Attention spans are too short, and there are too many other entertainment options. Kids who want to hear Eminem won’t sit through 50 minutes of stuff they hate just to hear his number, nor will highbrows sit through Eminem and Jeff Foxworthy just to see the ballet number.

A “variety” show can work only to the extent that all of the components are tailored to appeal to the same demographic group. The musical artist, the comedians, at al. must all appeal to the one group of viewers the show is designed to attract.

Carol Burnette’s show was my all time favorite and next to that that Red Skelton. “Good night and God bless.” I thought the Dean Martin show was fun but I recall my mom thinking it was terribly scandalous.

Remember (From Miami Beach!) The Jackie Gleason Show. Jackie drinking his cup of “coffee” at the end of the show and those hot-cha-cha June Taylor Dancers doing the kaliedescope thing for the overhead camera.

astorian you hit the nail squarely. It makes me sad for American culture that we can’t seem to enjoy anything that isn’t over the top or “extreme” and that lasts for more than a few minutes.

You forgot a couple shows:

–The Ed Sullivan Show - I think when people recall variety shows, this probably the first one that comes to mind. It ran for 23 years and, if it’s remembered for nothing else, it will be for introducing the Beatles to American television audiences.

–The Andy Williams Show - There were a couple incarnations of this show that ran, interrupted by a two-year hiatus–from 1962 to 1971. The one I remember ran from 1969 to 1971 and had a surprisingly eclectic selection of musical guests. It also featured a guy in a bear suit who was constantly mooching Andy for cookies.

I don’t think there’s been a prime time network variety show that’s lasted more than one season since Barbara Mandrell’s about 25 years ago. Dolly Parton tried one on ABC around 1986 but it only lasted a season.

As for whether they’ll come back I really doubt there’ll ever be another successful variety show on American television. The interests of today’s audiences are too fragmented for one TV show to appeal across all demographics. Also, variety shows are very expensive to produce and, even if they have a long run, fare poorly when they’re rerun in syndication. Finally, I think the high level of cheesiness and low quality of most variety shows in the 70’s doomed the variety show. All too often, variety shows during that time were hosted by musical acts like Donny and Marie Osmond, the Mandrell sisters, and Tony Orlando and Dawn who, frankly, had no business doing comedy (let alone music). A lot of us who were around during the 70’s still shudder at the memory of seeing Donny Osmond or Tony Orlando trying to be funny in some lame comedy skit on their shows.

No mention yet of Pink Lady and Jeff?!

Judy Garland had one of the finest variety shows (except for the horrid bits with Jerry Van Dyke) that lasted less than a season. CBS put it up against Bonanza.

I don’t think the Osmonds had their own variety show separate from Donny and Marie. IMDB shows an Osmond Christmas special but no regular series. They were regulars on The Andy Williams Show.

Nick and Jessica’s show was I think a one-off. I watched some of it and rather liked it, although some of that enjoyment came from Nick Lachey’s being shirtless through many of the sketches.

Variety shows most likely won’t come back unless someone does it with a huge sense of irony. The earnestness that went along with the last round of such shows (Donny and Marie, Captain and Tennille, Brady Bunch) just wouldn’t fly today.

What about the Smothers Brothers? I was always a big fan of them. Yo-yo Man was pretty awesome.

Smothers Brothers is an excellent choice. But I wasn’t thinking of shows like Ed Sullivan or Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in. Those were more like specialized shows that happened to have an MC. I was thinking more along the lines of people who traded celebrity for a show in which their own talents were showcased along with guests and skits and such.

Another one might be “Playboy After Dark”. Didn’t Hef just sort of riff on being Hef for a while, then he’d have some hep jazz cat come in and do a number and then chat with some cool Hollywood guy? Maybe that’s more of a ‘Tonight Show’ kind of thing.

I remember the Johnny Cash show because my mom watched it every week, so we did too. But you know, all I can remember on the show is music. He and June would sing ‘Jackson’ at the end of every show, as I recall. But strangely, I don’t recall what they did betweeen the opening monologue where Johnny would come out and say, “I’m Johnny Cash” and then the show would start, and the end number. Total blank. Did they just sing, or did they do comedy sketches, or what?

Oh, and I think a variety show can still work. Wayne Brady seems to be doing okay. Maybe not one that appeals to all audiences, but one that can hit the average prime time audience okay. I’m just having a hard time thinking of a star that has the chops for it. Wayne Brady is a great example of what you need - he can sing, he’s funny as hell, he can dance, he can do impressions, and he comes across as a nice guy. An all-around talent.

Who else out there today could anchor a variety show?

I agree with those whose take is that that type of show would barely work (if it all) these days where a good percentage of TV viewers have access to dozens or hundreds of channels, many of which are focused on a fairly narrow demographic. About the only channel where such a thing might fit would have to be either something on the order of Comedy Central or one of the rerun oriented things like Nickolodeon or TVLand.

One of the missing ingredients from those old shows are the “clean” comics who could make people laugh without demonstrating their mastery of a 12-word vocabulary, 11 of which most sailors and truck drivers may not know. If those comics still exist, they are probably hidden away in Vegas or the Catskills and only bring out their wares for the over-50 types who would travel to see them.

Another missing ingredient would be the specialty acts that only prosper in a Vegas environment. Jugglers, ventriloquists, circus perfomers, tumblers, acrobats, Cirque de Soleil type people. Cirque de Soleil has a hard enough time getting air on Bravo or PBS.

Just recently I saw the brilliant Beyond The Sea in which it was observed that the advent of arena staging brought an end to the night club act. I can buy that. The end of the 60’s-70’s exuberance over multi-talented performers, along with the loss of innocence of TV’s 3-network power structure, coupled with the expansion of high-energy stadium-filling 120 DB sound and strobe lighting (with accompanying herbal accentuations), rendered the format of the variety show (which, in my mind, was the death dance of Vaudeville) as obsolete as silent movies and player pianos.

We can still see an occasional Sammy Davis or Bobby Darin sized multi-talent, but their audience probably expects to find them only in out-of-the-way venues, and certainly not on TV. Hell, these days expecting a perfomer to be able to sing without abundant melisma and Celine Dion overdone theatrics is almost too much to ask. (See American Idol for proof.)

Tastes change, sad to say. Old things become unneccessary or undesirable. Mark my words: twenty years from now the younger audience of today will be longing for the “good old days” of rap, Regis, Ricki Lake, and reality shows.

Would the Muppet Show count? They only had one guest per episode, but they would run the gamut from Alice Cooper to Peter Sellers to Raquel Welch to Bob Hope. (Season 1 DVD set comes out in 3 weeks, btw.)

And while I suppose we’re talking specifically about prime-time shows, the current crop of late night talk shows have become something of an offshoot of the variety format, with fewer boring celebrity interviews and more stuff like Stupid Pet Tricks and 4-year-old political columnists.

No one’s mentioned the show that I look back on with the greatest fondness.

Sha Na Na.

God, I loved Sha Na Na.

Bowzer, where are youououou?


/runs away

Zeldar alluded to the real reason why variety shows would not work now, and it’s converse to the reason they did work back then.

Back then, if you wanted to see the Rolling Stones, and you didn’t live near one of the 10 venues they were appearing live at, you only saw them on Ed Sullivan. They were too big for the smaller music-oriented shows such as Bandstand. Therfore you sat through the comic and the dancers to catch that one-in-a-million glimpse.

Today, you not only have multiple shows featuring the lastest mega-rock star, you have several channels devoted to it.

A hip hop fan would not sit through the Russian Ballet and a juggler to catch a 3-minute lip-synch performance of 50 cent when he can turn on MTV and see 50 cent all day long, mixed in with all the hip hop he can stand.

It’s the plethora of channels, not the short attention spans of today’s population that spelled the doom of variety shows.

I also wonder - do families watch TV together any more? Back in the 70’s, the typical family had only one TV, there was no internet or video games. The typical family activity was to sit in the living room and watch TV together. So shows that offered something for everyone were popular. Variety shows did just that.

Today, I’m not sure families typically watch TV together. Most households have more than one TV. Most have computers and video games. So entertainment has fragmented and now targets everyone in the family individually. Therefore, no need for variety shows.

From Miami Beach. . .it’s. . . The Jackie Gleason Show

Sammy Spear and his orchestra

The June Taylor Dancers

Frank Fontaine

The Honeymooners skits

I did too. For those who don’t remember this, it was a variety show spoof more or less, with several of the people who are on ‘Reno 911’ now.