Variety shows- gone but not forgotten
“Nothing like our show, and I might add other variety shows at the time, could ever see the light of day today because the networks just wouldn’t spend the money... And because there are so many cable competitors, they are not going to take a chance. And sad to say today’s audiences might never know what they are — so here’s to reruns and YouTube.” Carol Burnett.
What happened to variety shows? For the first 25 years of television, they dominated the airwaves, bringing forth such big names as Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Bob Hope and Carol Burnett. But starting in the 1970's, they began to die out, and by the turn of the century they were completely gone. Shows like Saturday Night Live, which is more of a sketch comedy show, and America's Got Talent, which is more of a talent contest, are all we have left today of this once fascinating genre.
What defines a variety show? To put it simply, it was a show that combined singing, dancing, and comedy segments into an hour-long show. Variety shows would typically be hosted by one or two talented stars who would bring on A-list celebrities of the time to join in songs or sketches, depending on their unique talents. I recently did a binge of a number of popular variety shows from my childhood, and the large number of famous celebrities from my youth that I saw on these shows was great fun to watch. I'm not sure if people who didn't live in that time would appreciate the shows as much as I did, but it's a shame that the format didn't survive. We need more outlets for comedians besides cable specials, and more outlets for singers than Spotify. These shows exposed large numbers of Americans to celebrities for the first time- from the Beatles to Tiny Tim.
Why did they die? The only thing I keep reading about was the money and the big changes in viewership. Back before 1980, there were only three networks, and they were willing to put a lot of money into shows like this because the ratings were enormous. With the advent of cable television and later streaming services, it became nearly impossible to draw the ratings that paid the bills back when there were fewer choices. Variety shows required expensive sets and costumes, great writers, and A-list celebrities, none of which were cheap, and they were expected to churn out 30 or more episodes a year. Reality shows are now popular and very cheap to make, and even scripted dramas and comedies have survived with fewer episodes being made per year.
The death of reality shows has changed the landscape of television. These shows were mostly upbeat, funny entertainment. This light entertainment is harder to find today, in an age of dark police procedurals and dramatic reality shows. As SNL has discovered, it is hard to laugh during dark times for society, but oh so therapeutic.
Some of the humor was topical, meaning it doesn't translate too well for today's audience, and like most media from the past, some of the attitudes towards race and gender don't play so well today. Very few variety shows have survived in reruns today, with the main exception being the Carol Burnett Show, but even that show is edited and not seen in its original length. Some are available on DVD, and some episodes can be found online with internet searches.
Here, then are my six favorite variety shows from this binge, along with their most popular scenes from You Tube.
The Carol Burnett Show 1967-1978
The Carol Burnett show is the gold standard for comedy/variety shows. It won dozens of Emmy Awards and many Golden Globe awards for its acting and writing. It dominated Saturday night television for over a decade, though it never quite made it to number one in the ratings.
Burnett rose to fame on Broadway and got the offer to host her own variety show in 1967 at the young age of 34. She was great at physical comedy and her show was one of the first to showcase a female lead performer. She cultivated a great group of writers and a talented crew of cast-mates that included Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, and Vicky Lawrence. Korman and Conway were excellent physical comedians as well, and their sketches remain a highlight from the show decades later.
One of the secrets of the show that made it so entertaining was that it was taped twice in front of two different audiences. The first taping was scripted, while the second one made room for ad-libbing and creative new directions. Then the producers would splice together the funniest versions of each sketch and run it later when the show aired. Burnett and her cast weren't afraid to look silly and to break character when things got too absurd and funny. Tim Conway was a master at getting his cast-mates to crack up on camera, as seen from the video below.
The Carol Burnett Show lasted 11 seasons and could have gone for more but Burnett decided to end the show and go out on top. It survives today in syndication and on DVD, though usually in truncated versions leaving out the more dated stuff and musical numbers. One sketch from the show, called "The Family" featured the cast as a bunch of mean-spirited people who were always trying to screw with each other, only to fall into their own traps. That sketch morphed into a popular sitcom, Mama's Family, that aired after the Carol Burnett Show ended its run.
The Ed Sullivan Show 1948-1971
Arguably the biggest showcase of popular culture for over two decades, the Ed Sullivan show dominated Sunday nights with an amazing mix of performers. Some of the guests on Sullivan's show would rise to superstardom- like the Beatles, Elvis, or the Rolling Stones. The show featured a large variety of performers, including Broadway casts, classical musicians, magicians, ventriloquists, puppets, singers, and many comedians.
Reading the list of stars who got their start on Sullivan shows the power of this one man, who many considered stiff and awkward when he was on stage introducing acts. But he had a good eye for talent, and like Johnny Carson who followed him, he introduced Americans to a wide range of talents during his time.
In an age when black performers rarely got much exposure on national television, Sullivan showcased future stars like Diana Ross and the Supremes, Sammy Davis Jr, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Richard Pryor, and The Temptations. He also launched Jim Henson and the Muppets, an unusual act that wouldn't have gotten far without the national attention that Sullivan afforded.
But the show is probably the most famous for the many musicians it showcased on its national stage- most famously the Beatles, who became a nationwide sensation after showing up on Sullivan in 1964. Sullivan was in the forefront of the rock and roll revolution of the 1960's, showcasing The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, Hermans Hermits, and the Doors in addition to the Beatles.
Sullivan admittedly had little talent himself, and was usually limited to introducing and bantering with the acts, but Americans loved him and the show enough to keep it going for 23 seasons. It only ended in 1971 because of the famous rural purge of CBS that ended the Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry RFD, and Green Acres.
The show is very hard to find on streaming or broadcast television, but DVD's do exist that include the Beatles and some of the other best moments from the show.
Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In 1967-1973
Laugh-In was a silly, psychedelic sketch comedy variety show that coincided with the rise of the hippie movement, from which it took its name. Oddly, the weakest part of the show was the two hosts, straight man Dan Rowan and goofy womanizer Dick Martin. Their bits have not aged well. The strongest part of the show is the rapid-fire jokes that the main cast members shot off for nearly an hour. Those bits still hold up, except for the more topical ones.
The sets were brightly colored, and the costumes were a bit over the top, especially during song and dance bits. It was a whole new feel that fit the times. While the Smothers Brothers took on politics head-on, Laugh-In took only gentle jabs at political figures during an admittedly unsettled time in American history.
Laugh-In launched the careers of several big stars, including Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, Tiny Tim,and Judy Carne. It also provided a showcase for many celebrities of the time to make quick, often uncredited cameos for a five second joke appearance. It arguably influenced the close 1968 presidential election, since Richard Nixon made a surprise appearance to say "Sock it to me", while Hubert Humphrey refused.
The show lasted six seasons and had a talented cast that turned over several times. The only regular cast members to stay all six seasons were Ruth Buzzi and Gary Owens, plus Rowan and Martin. All six seasons are available on streaming services and DVD, and I recommend the 100th episode, where many of the old cast members come back for a reunion.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour 1966-69
When is a variety show not a variety show? Can pure entertainment aspire to social change? Most of today's music and comedy tries to stay in safe zones, playing to agreeable audiences. Tom and Dick Smothers somehow managed to present a clean-cut folk music comedy act while at the same time trying to push against the censors at CBS and the establishment behind the Vietnam war that was raging at the time.
This show was funny but also courageous and ahead of its time. Many of the counterculture rock acts that were too daring for Sullivan made their way onto the Smothers Brothers set. Tom Smothers played the stupid, goofy member of the duo perfectly, milking his confusion perfectly. In reality, he was the leader and soul of the show, while his brother Dick was just along for the ride.
I've already written about this show once- (click here). It's that good.
Your Show of Shows 1950-54
One of the earliest variety shows, Your Show of Shows was an important milestone in the evolution of tv comedy. The show featured Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and Carl Reiner doing live sketches on a weekly program in prime time. This is the exact format that Saturday Night Live copied 20 years later that lives on today.
Caesar was a giant of his time, and he helped launched the careers of people like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart (creator of MASH), and Carl Reiner (who based his time on the show for the premise of the Dick Van Dyke Show).
Sketches from the show can be found online or on DVD, but entire episodes remain hard to locate, though they have been preserved on Kinescope.
Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour 1971-77
During the heyday of variety shows, several musical acts tried to enter the mix of comedy and variety, including Dolly Parton, Captain and Tenille, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Glen Campbell. Talented musicians can put on a great musical segment, but can they act in a sketch or banter with other celebrities? In my opinion the couple that best pulled this off was Sonny and Cher.
The married couple of Sonny and Cher Bono had some number one hits such as "I've Got You Babe," and it became evident to many that Cher was the more attractive and talented of the two. Through most of the show the duo's marriage was on the rocks, with both of them having affairs- yet they continued to perform together with a comic chemistry that made the show popular. They divorced in 1975, tried to go solo in their own variety shows, and came back together in 1976 to try once more as a divorced duo.
Sonny died in 1998, but the two remained in touch and Cher read the eulogy at his funeral. The show is hard to find but snippets remain online and on DVD.
Will variety shows ever return? It's likely they could only evolve in the rare time of three networks and wide viewership. People under 40 likely know very little about them. But they were an interesting phenomenon that dominated television for 25 years. Singing, dancing, and sketch comedy live on, but in more specialized niches. Putting them all together was a thing to behold, in the dozens of variety shows and in even more variety specials. At least curious future generations can enjoy what's been preserved from the past.