Whatever happened to TV variety shows?
Sure, they were cheesy, silly, predictable and full of mush as the host gushed over each celebrity guest star. But they were entertaining, just the solace for weary families at the end of hard day.
Variety shows combine musical acts and comedy sketches performed by guest stars, overseen by one or more permanent hosts. I don’t include most late night TV shows, as those programs are mostly talk and interviews with occasional music and comedy.
The variety show is a direct descendant of the once-popular vaudeville show, the traveling collection of lowbrow comics, singers, bands and other assorted acts that provided entertainment in the days before mass media. Many vaudeville acts later found success in radio, movie and TV.
Variety shows appeared in the earliest days of network TV, from the 1940s and into the 1980s. One of the earliest and most successful was “The Ed Sullivan Show,” running an impressive 23 years from 1948 to 1971.
What made the so work was its vast array of talent for all ages and tastes. If you didn’t like the current act, something different was waiting in the wings. When The Beatles appeared on the show, Sullivan wisely included other acts to placate the parents of the teenyboppers who tuned in for the Fabs.
Unlike most hosts on other programs, Sullivan never performed on his show. He couldn’t sing, act or even tell a joke, but he was a genius at programming talent.
Sid Caesar was another groundbreaker with “Your Show of Shows” (1950 to 1954) and “Caesar’s Hour” (1954 to 1957). Some of his writers, including Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, went on to fame in their own right.
The first female variety show host (hostess?) was Dinah Shore (1956 to 1963).
“The Andy Williams Show” (1958 to 1971) was the springboard for the Osmond Bothers (6-year-old Donny made his TV debut here), who went to host their own TV series and specials.
The golden era of variety shows began the 1960s with “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (1967 to 1975), “Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” (1969 to 1972), and series hosted by Carol Burnett (1967 to 1979), Danny Kaye (1963 to 1967) and Dean Martin (1965 to 1974).
Martin’s show was unique in that in his contract, the entertainer was not required to attend rehearsals but only show up for the taping! Obvious Martin didn’t even look at, let alone memorize, his lines—thank goodness for cue cards.
Variety shows hit the jackpot in the 1970s when almost anyone with a hit record was signed up, including Sonny and Cher (71 to 77), Tony Orland and Dawn (74 to 76), Shields and Yarnell (77 to 78), Donny and Marie (76 to 79), The Captain and Tennille (76 to 77), The Jacksons (76 to 77) and Sha Na Na (77 to 81). Even the Brady Kids got in on the action with “The Brady Bunch Hour” in 1977.
Flip Wilson was the first African American variety show host (1970 to 1974).
One of the most successful variety shows ever was hosted by a green felt frog puppet. “The Muppet Show” (1976 to 1981) became a worldwide smash in syndication. The guest stars played along with the illusion, and the puppeteers put enough humanity into their characters to make them “real.”
For rural folks, “Hee Haw” provided country music, cornball jokes and pretty gals in skimpy outfits. After a mediocre network run (1969 to 1971) the show thrived in syndication (1971 to 1993).
Surprisingly, the longest running variety show ever is Saturday Night Live (1975 to the present), remarkable since the show has always relied on guest hosts instead of one personality; the cast of comics is constantly changing, and the show surpasses the limits of good taste and decency.
With so many hit series, why is the variety show a dead art form?
One answer is the rise of cable in the 1980s and the fragmenting of audiences. Networks no longer had to produce shows that appealed to everyone. The plethora of cable networks gave each age group and interest had its own channel.
The Big Three networks also discovered that reality shows were far cheaper to produce than programs that required musicians, dancers, costumes and big salaries for celebrities and below-the-line union workers.
With YouTube and social media, young performers no longer need exposure on network TV to launch their careers. Then again, is there anyone in Hollywood who would be crazy enough to want to produce a “Justin Bieber Goodtime Comedy Hour”?
Personally, I feel the networks are no longer interested in creating sunny, optimistic, feel-good shows. Most programming today is dark, violent, rough, controversial and graphic.
Maybe someday someone will start up a channel of all-variety shows, re-running the old classics. The world needs some fun and laughter.