Thursday, November 06, 2014
From the ‘50s – the ‘70s it seemed that every popular singer or comedian had his or her own variety show. All you needed was a single single on the charts. Bobbie Gentry, a one-hit wonder with “the Ode to Billie Joe” got her own show. John Gary, who never even had a hit, toplined a series.
Among the standouts were THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW (great sketches and cast of regulars), THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW (ditto), and THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS SHOW (all of the above plus a subversive political agenda).
The rest were all pretty much equal. Guest stars, singing numbers, production numbers, monologues. Truthfully, their big appeal (especially in the '60s) was that they were in color.
But one variety show stands out as the most successful and incredibly bizarre. THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.
It is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t seen it because it was so….well, incomprehensible. And stayed on the air for over twenty years.
The format was strictly oldtime vaudeville. Ed stood off to the side and introduced different acts. Talk about variety – these acts ranged from rock stars to comedians, acrobats, opera divas, Broadway numbers, dancers, magicians, and puppets. Ed would also point out celebrities in the audience. He once introduced New York Giants quarterback, Y.A. Tittle as “Ya Tittle.”
A typical ED SULLIVAN SHOW would feature Ethel Merman followed by the Doors, Zippy the chimp, Senor Wences, Abby Lane dancing, classical pianist Van Clybourn, Bob Newhart, Italian singer Rita Pavone, and James Brown.
You’d think that was surreal but no, the real surreal part was that we watched this show every Sunday night. But here’s the big difference between then and now – when there was an act we didn’t like we just toughed it out in hopes that we’d like the next one. Intermittent reinforcement I think we called it back in Psychology class. Today, if you’re bored for two nanoseconds you move on to something else. Viewing patterns have changed drastically since Variety's heyday.
For Harris’ show to work, the audience will have to embrace the notion of “variety” in a highly niche world. Fortunately, NBC has in NPH a host who can do it all. So if he can integrate with the guests (singing, dancing, spinning plates, whatever they do – and probably better) I could see him pulling it off. I hope he can. It would be nice to see something new on television (even if it’s old). And Zippy needs a gig.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM