Thursday, November 06, 2014

Neil Patrick Harris to host a variety show

Mega-talent Neil Patrick Harris has announced he will soon host a variety show live on NBC. Variety shows used to be a mainstay of American primetime programming, but over the last thirty years or so have gone the way of the dinosaur, disco, and Fotomat. Can NPH revive the form? If anyone can it’s him.

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 host was a former gossip columnist named Ed Sullivan. No one has ever had less charisma and polish than this guy.  Ed was a middle-aged awkward lummox with no neck who slurred his words, and would either clutch himself tightly like he was holding his gall bladder in, or gesture wildly at inappropriate moments. Imagine Frankenstein hosting a network television show.

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.

63 comments:

MikeK.Pa. said...

It will be interesting to see if NPH can pull it off. Curious who the target audience is and what the format will be (lots of sketches or just lots of acts). Ed Sullivan was a must see - and a must be on - with the introduction of the Beatles to America probably the height of Sullivan's popularity. There were other shows that tried to capture Sullivan's magic (the show's, not his), like The Hollywood Palace, with limited success. Show formats are like ties. Hold on them long enough and they come back in style (i.e. Ted Mack, Arthur Godfrey begetting American Idol and The Voice).

Terrence Moss said...

My only concern about the show is that it's based on an existing foreign format. The broadcast networks don't have a great track record of successfully adapting foreign formats and NBC isn't exactly patient if it takes a few months for audiences to come on board.

Other than that, NPH is perfect for the variety format. Better this than a reality show -- which everyone with even a faint of a name can get these days.

Carol said...

I have faith in NPH. I just hope the network doesn't yank it the second they get nervous. Everything else aside he has a huge and varied fanbase, so people will watch, and, as Ken said, he has the talent to pull it off.

@ Terrance Moss - I agree about the bad track record of turning British shows into American ones, but I'm hoping since it's kind of a universal theme, it will work this time.

(The next thing NPH needs to do, by the way, is a romantic musical starring opposite John Barrowman.)

Johnny Walker said...

Totally agree. If they can pull this off, it'd be great for TV... but if you think about it, what was "America's Got Talent" if not the amateur version of this?

Hamid said...

You guys are lucky that it will be hosted by the talented Neil Patrick Harris. It's based on a UK TV show called Saturday Night Takeaway, which is hosted by a pair of annoying clowns known as Ant & Dec. Just be glad they're not doing the US version.

DBA said...

It's funny because it seems like NBC has been trying to bring back the variety show for a few years now. Someone there must have a soft spot for them. Rosie O'Donnell did that one special. Last year they did the Maya Rudolph special, both intended to be back door pilots but went nowhere. NBC just keeps on trying. Although I think if any has a shot of working it's one with NPH.

ODJennings said...

I'd like to think that the spinning plate guy has been patiently waiting, honing his craft, maybe passing it down to his children and grandchildren, his faith in the eventual return of the variety show format never shaken.

Anonymous said...

DIdn't they try it with Wayne Brady?

RockGolf said...

Anyone remember TV series by Tony Orlando and Dawn? Donny & Marie Osmond? Starland Vocal Band? Pink Lady & Jeff?

Anyone?

Anyone?

rockgolf said...

Wait! This is based on Saturday Night Takeaway? How closely?

The episodes I've seen have 90s boy band reunions, 6-year-olds interviewing politicians, sob story giveaways to one audience member, and the only really funny bit, where they get a minor celeb to put in an earbud then instruct them to do strange things with other people.

Can't see that translating.

emily said...

From Vanity Fair:
Joe E. Lewis, whose wit outlived his liver, put it best: Ed Sullivan was a man who could brighten a room simply by leaving it. What Sullivan did, Fred Allen claimed, could be done by a pointer dog—if meat were rubbed on the performers. But don’t mind the peanut gallery: reliable Ed, as stiff and graceless as an undertaker, stood stage center for nearly a quarter-century as the master of ceremonies of cathode-ray civilization.

http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/features/1997/07/ed-sullivan-199707

Scooter Schechtman said...

You...punks! don't understand how horrible those variety shows were. Andy Williams, the King Family Singers, etc. The syndicated Carol Burnette Show reruns kindly cut out the "variety" part of the show and we can all be grateful for that. If this new version is faithful to the old, we'll get Steve Buscemi singing some old Madonna "standard".

darms said...

Did the remote control kill off the variety show?

ODJennings said...

>we'll get Steve Buscemi singing some old Madonna "standard".<


Don't tease me. The only thing that could improve that would be if somehow it turns out that Buscemi plays the accordion.

Charles H. Bryan said...

@RockGolf I remember each and every one of them, especially the Starland Vocal Band show, because it featured one of my favorite comedians, David Letterman.

The Starland Vocal Band. "Skyrockets in flight/Afternoon delight." One godawful single and they got a show. A summer replacement show, but still, they got a show.

And I think Pink Lady and Jeff was just way ahead of its time. It'd be a deep-cable/youtube sensation today. Maybe it is. I haven't been keeping up.

LouOCNY said...

There are several reasons Sullivan survived so long.

For one thing, by the 60's he had been around show biz 40 years, and seen EVERYthing, so he knew exactly who to book, when to book them, how to get people interested in the show whenever they did. For example, when the Stones first came to America in June 64 without a real hit single, Ed and people passed on them. The next time they came over, they had a couple of fairly successful hits - book those guys! Not only that, but after their appearance, Ed sends the band very nice notes on good they were, how he had never seen such excitement, etc. However, Ed also made a point of telling the regular press, that they were dirty, disgusting, and would never have them on again! Ed knew EXACTLY what was going on, and how Andrew Oldham was working the Stones publicity at the time. Guess what - the next Stones tour in early 65, not only did Ed have them on again - he made them the centerpiece of all British show, with them playing THREE different times! Ed was very, very sharp that way.

One thing also - Ed never took himself all that seriously. Him an his producer Andrew Solt, would CONSTANTLY have on just about every comedian who did Sullivan impressions - Will Jordan, Gorshin, Rich Little...even George Kirby. If he was the Mystery Guest on What's My Line, he would do stuff like bring an ape mask and ham it up. He even agree to play himself in the movie version of BYE BYE BIRDIE. I think deep down a lot of people realized that he was almost deliberately pushing his ego down to downplay his role on the show, and let the stars themselves shine, and it came off as awkward.

fred said...

"Imagine Frankenstein hosting a network television show... roflmao!
But so true! Why did Ed do that crap? It was like facial expressions from hell! Was that a medical condition?

jbryant said...

In line with what LouOCNY wrote, Sullivan was also a good sport in his two appearances on THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW.

Mike McCann said...

Regarding this "format" that NPH's company licensed in conjunction with NBC: what makes it different from Sullivan or Hollywood Palace? What is the new, contemporary element?

If an existing variety series were to be licensed for English-speaking US TV, why not Sabado Gigante? While you could never imagine Ed Sullivan interacting with non-celebrity audience members or contestants in its interactive/game show elements, NPH would be great. He's quick witted and likeable in a Bob Barker/Bill Cullen-ish way. People love the guy. Sabado Gigante was the format I kept waiting to see adapted.

Oh Ken, one small clarification. Ed Sullivan was not a former gossip columnist. He was still a working newspaperman all during -- and even for the three years after his show left the air (before his death from cancer in 1974). While i am sure he had assistants and ghost writers do more of the heavy lifting as time moved on and the years took their toll, Ed's "Little Old New York" was a must-see in the New York Daily News. I'm not sure if he was nationally syndicated or ever appeared in the LA papers.

tim said...

The variety of the Sullivan show was tolerated by the same audience that listened to Top 40 radio - where you could hear Elvis Presley, Ferrante & Teicher,Ed Ames and Leapy Lee if you didn't change the dial.

Chris said...

The great Ernie Kovacs said it best: "Imitation is the sincerest form of television."

Todd Everett said...

It won't be a '60's style TV variety show without a song and dance number by Jack Albertson?

And who (well, pretty much everybody) can forget The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour, which might as well have used old Sonny & Cher show scripts?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brian Phillips said...

Sullivan was pretty shrewd, too. He heard a performer (maybe Shelley Berman) do a routine and Sullivan said, "Have the character talk to his mother", the performer resisted and Sullivan said, "Have the character talk to his @*%&@#! mother!", so the performer relented and it improved the bit.

To LouOCNY: I agree. Also, when Will Jordan imitated him, Sullivan came back on stage and people giggled because it sounded as if Sullivan was imitating Jordan! Sullivan got unnerved, to great comic effect. "I don't wanna sound like THAT guy!", he blurted out.

The Hudson Brothers had TWO variety shows, one for adults, another for kids. TV Guide in a "close up" boasted that they were "...a combination of the Marx Brothers and the Beatles." In retrospect they had the Beatles harp-playing capabilities and the Marxes penchant for 60's beat music.

By the way, yes, I recall the Starland Vocal Band having a variety show. One bit had a guy sitting on a throne making comic proclamations.

David Letterman HATED that gig.

Anonymous said...

Deja vu all over again.

When the shift to television occurred, NBC pulled out the stops for The Big Show with Tallulah Bankhead, a big budget radio variety show.

The paradigm shift occurring in television must be almost complete.

Keith

Brian Phillips said...

Found it!

From Kliph Nesteroff's page:

http://classicshowbiz.blogspot.com/2010/11/interview-with-shelley-berman.html

Shelley Berman: " I did a routine in which I portrayed my father talking to me and I'm asking him to give me one hundred dollars to go to acting school in New York. It's played with a mild Jewish dialect and you can see the [father] not [understanding] what the heck it is this son of his wants to do. Eventually you see the love of the man for the boy. It was a nice routine.

When I did it on Sunday morning, there was a line in which [Ed Sullivan] came to me and said, "When you say 'write a letter' why don't you say write a letter to your mother?" He knew [my routine] over stayed my time, but here he's asking me to extend a line. I couldn't believe it. I'm trying to tell him and he says "Write a letter to your mother. That's what I think you should say. That's what I want you to do." I said, "It will extend the piece!" Then all of a sudden he stood up and he pointed at me and let me know in no uncertain terms "WRITE A LETTER TO THE MOTHER!" Oh my God. I thought, "This guy is going to hit me." It made the whole routine a lot sweeter and a lot better. Incidentally, when I did that routine that night, it was the first time I'd ever seen a standing ovation from a TV audience."

LouOCNY said...

Simply- the WEIRDEST:

http://youtu.be/fFPOot4hhB8

Absolute proof there were a TON of drugs going around Hollywood in the 70s (check out the eyes of both Greg...er..Barry Williams and Chris Knight.

gottacook said...

"Predictor," I will try to state this as politely as I can: Anyone who uses "gay lifestyle" as you do doesn't know what he or she is talking about. There are as many different lifestyles among gay people as among straight people, and lots of people in "flyover states" (like everywhere else) have learned that their neighbors or siblings who are gay live lives that are far from "exotic." Jeez.

gottacook said...

Keith: NBC tried to revive The Big Show in early 1980. I saw one episode and it was simply awful - Dennis Weaver (late of NBC's McCloud) was featured in a wretched production number all about the glories of country music, and that was about all I could take.

Josh said...

Neil Patrick Harris...thinks he's better than you.

Well, he's definitely better than you.

VP81955 said...

To clarify a few things, Sullivan was an entertainment columnist for the New York Daily News -- and while Broadway (and radio) was his primary beat, he occasionally traveled to Hollywood to report on film happenings.

He indeed was known nationally, since the News syndicated his columns to its big sister, the Chicago Tribune. (In the 1930s, Sullivan's column promoted an annual "King and Queen of Hollywood" contest, with readers casting votes. Clark Gable and Myrna Loy were the initial winners, and while the event went on for several more years, the "king" title became identified with the rather modest Gable.) Ed also wrote for several fan magazines during the '30s.

Sullivan had a long and fierce feud with Walter Winchell of the New York Mirror (Hearst's tabloid equivalent of the News). Winchell had more influence than Sullivan, probably because he wrote more on politics and non-entertainment matters. Thankfully, the feud ended before both died in the early 1970s.

B Smith said...

What do you get when you read Levine
You get a blogger who makes a blunder
'Bout Bobbie Gentry being a one hit wonder
I-I-I-I'll never point this out agai-i-i-in
I'll never point this out again

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
gottacook said...

Predictor: You have many beliefs, but they seem to be those of someone who has no gay family members (as I do) or acquaintances. There is no unitary "gay kingdom" with "gay fads" just as there is no unitary "gay lifestyle" - and it's curious that right after you agree that gay people have various lifestyles, you then use "the gay lifestyle" twice more!

Maybe (upon rereading your two posts) your problem is the media presentation of what you call outrageous gay behavior - how else would you know about it? - but there's at least as much media presentation of outrageous straight behavior. Of course the media (cable TV etc.) will not have stories about folks who live more quietly.

Ken, my earlier message was not intended as troll-feeding, and I apologize for my apparently having done so. I am not a particular fan of NPH but agree that if anyone can host a variety show today, he can.

Phillip B said...

Count me as a fan of variety shows, which can be endlessly mined for moments of truly weird television. I'm with Grandpa Simpson who once asked - "Why are all the variety shows in Spanish?"

My favorite variety show pilots featured Mama Cass and Donna Summer. I remember the producer of the Mama Cass show being congratulated on working with a star who was "largely immobile." The Donna Summer Show featured the "Bad Girls" to handle the skits - including Debra Lee Scott and Twiggy.

In the most desperate days of NBC Lorne Michaels was asked to revive "The Big Show" in primetime - as if anyone in the late '70s remembered the radio show. Each episode had a pair of guest hosts which often meant some odd matches - but gave us the chance to see Bob Newhart and Don Rickles work together, and a rare American appearance of the Two Ronnies.

vicernie said...

the act that was on the Sullivan show most often was a pair of sketch comedians from Canada, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster. while many people thought their comedy "low-brow" they often brought in classical themes like "Rinse the blood off my toga" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdrzQNvI24w

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ken Levine said...

This is a fun blog, not a place for gay bashing. As much as I enjoy a good debate and lots of comments, I am putting an end to that thread right now. I won't tolerate that nonsense and if you disagree you are welcome to find another blog.

Ken

Victor Velasco said...

Perhaps Ed's best (or worst) was his introduction of The Supremes as 'the three colored girls' (!) Have a little hope for NPH; if this show gets promoted right, it could bring a few fragments of audience together, then a few more and...ahh, who am I kidding?

There was a musical variety show in the early 90's with David Sanborn that combined acts like Conway Twitty and The Residents; I liked it but the fact that I can't remember the name just reinforces the notion that variety shows may just work only in theory these days.

Steve Bailey said...

Regarding Ed Sullivan, you wrote, "Imagine Frankenstein hosting a network television show." I still remember a "Tonight Show" sketch where Johnny Carson did a take-off on the Frankenstein story, and when they uprighted and uncovered the monster, who did it turn out to be but Ed Sullivan!

Johnny Walker said...

Yikes. Ken, there's one more anonymous comment above yours.

Fritz Walcov said...

Variety television in the 60's worked as well as it did because TV was still in its infancy. It was still raw and innocent. Vaudeville wasn't as distant a memory as it is now. Today's generation can get all the variety it wants off of the internet. I don't think it has enough patience to watch a variety tv show unless it's a contest.

Rosariorose9 said...

Is alright? Alright!

Albert Giesbrecht said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James said...

The greatest variety show of all was Sid Caesar's various incarnations, if only for the writers' rooms.

ScottyB said...

Yes, I was born in 1960 -- so I've seen pretty much every incarnation of variety show that's been mentioned. Even the one from The Hudson Brothers. It was all just ... ugh.

But still, I'm interested to see what NBC considers "variety". Back in the day, we were enthralled by European plate-spinners who spoke broken English and roller-skating monkeys on Ed Sullivan's show because back then, TV variety shows were the only place to see stuff like that. Now, surfboarding one-legged cats are all over YouTube and network news programs every day.

Still, no matter what it turns out to be, Neil Patrick Harris has way more charisma and personality than Ed Sullivan. You could air a half-hour of him just sitting on a folding chair telling made-up stories he pulled out of his ass at the moment and it would be quite entertaining.

ScottyB said...

Shields & Yarnell. 'Nuff said.

Pat Reeder said...

I hope this succeeds, and not just because the current generation needs to develop longer attention spans. For all the "Brady Bunch Variety Hour" and "Pink Lady and Jeff" disasters, there were also a few jewels like "The Danny Kaye Show." I caught a rerun of that recently. It had Danny doing sketches and musical numbers, a song with a young Michelle Lee, a long dance segment with his pal Gene Kelly, etc. Just an incredible hour of TV, and he did that every week.

Besides, variety shows gave us the chance to see big celebrities display the talents they lacked. If you love that as much as I do (I even co-wrote a book about it), click on my name to visit my Hollywood Hi-Fi website, watch the record review videos, and see if you can find the hidden clip of Humphrey Bogart singing.

Anonymous said...

Well, Ed was IT as far as entertainment went back then. Him and the Ponderosa. Let's hope they bring Topo Gigo back and not use Triumph, the Insult Dog. LOL I am not a big NPH fan. I think he has been way overexposed the last couple of years. Can't turn on a TV without seeing him.
Janice B

Pat Reeder said...

Janice B: You don't have to choose between Ed and the Ponderosa if you want to hear celebrities displaying their musical "talents." Just buy the albums by the "Bonanza" cast:

http://www.hollywoodhifi.net/bonanza.html

Cap'n Bob said...

It might fly but I have my doubts. All I ask is that they don't have Topo Gigio. And speaking of mangled introductions, the first time Rich Little appeared on Sullivan he was introduced as Little Richard.

Steven desJardins said...

fred: "Why did Ed do that crap? It was like facial expressions from hell! Was that a medical condition?"

Yes. Ed Sullivan had a form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis, which is very painful, and which caused his vertebrae to fuse together. (I have it too; medicine today is a lot better than it was then, thank goodness.)

Wayne said...

Kids today may have never heard Ed Sullivan's wonderfully garbled intros.
"And now, right here on our shoe, Duke Ellington with his classic 'Take a Train.'"

But his spirit lives on in Joe Biden.

Dana Gabbard said...

Another attempt by NBC to revive variety was in 1990, hosted by Larry King. In the intro he mentioned Sullivan as the inspiration for it. You can read about it at this link.

Who could write/produce/direct such a show? Variety as a format has been dead many years. Mark Evanier used to specialize in writing for them but would anyone at NBC be smart enough to entice him to come on board? He is a big NPH fan and likely would be open to contributing to it.

Jeff baldwin said...

I could watch a full hour of steve buscemi re-enact madonna videos and not even channel surf during commercials for of missing even a second.

Belle said...

This sounds like an interesting idea. I hope it makes it as far as Australia, I'd love to have a look.

On an unrelated note, I was just watching your first episode of MASH, Out of Sight, Out of Mind. I just wanted to let you know how much I always enjoy Hawkeye's speech about what it's like to be blind. It's one of those speeches that's always stayed with me. I was also curious as to how much sight Alan Alda actually had through those bandages, or whether he filmed the episode blind?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

NOOOOOOO! We cannot get away from this guy! He has overstayed his welcome and then he's overstayed his overstayed welcome! He's everywhere!

I mean, I give him credit for not being a washed-up has-been former child star whose succumbed to a life of drug and alcohol abuse *cough*Lindsay Lohan*cough* or mental problems *cough*Amanda Bynes*cough*; he has maintained his image and has made a killer career for himself well into his adulthood... but come on Hollywood, NPH is not you're only asset!

Anonymous said...

"Wayne said: Kids today may have never heard Ed Sullivan's wonderfully garbled intros.
"And now, right here on our shoe, Duke Ellington with his classic 'Take a Train.'"

But his spirit lives on in Joe Biden."


Now that is funny. Just imagine the incoherent, yet unintentionally funny, lines that would come out of Joe Biden's mouth, as he introduced varied acts from around the world. And Scranton (PA) would get a plug every week.

I thought the Carol Burnett show was great, as well as The Smothers Brothers. Otherwise, most variety shows were just OK or lousy. And I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Saturday Night Live, which is a variety show that features a different host every week.

Mr. First Nighter said...

One of the greatest weekly variety shows was The Dean Martin Show. (before the roasts)

Milton the Momzer said...

Wayne Brady had a brief variety show. He made the mistake of having Tim Conway as a guest. Tim taught Wayne a master class in improv comedy.

Doug Thompson said...

Actually Ken, Bobbie Gentry charted 11 songs on Billboards' Hot 100 chart, three of which made the Top Ten. "Ode To Billy Joe" went to # 1 in '67, "Let It Be Be" a duet with Glen Campbell made it to # 36 in '68 and "Fancy" climbed to # 31 in 1970.

Kirk said...

Unless I skipped over it by mistake, nobody's mentioned the first Sonny and Cher Show, which I believe ran from 1972 to 1974. Low ratings didn't kill it--the show was extremely popular--but the couple's divorce. The show was put together by some of the same folks who had worked on The Smothers Brothers, including Steve Martin, a writer who sometimes appeared in sketches. The husband and wife pop duo proved to be surprisingly good at sketch comedy. I'm a bit biased here as it was absolutely my favorite show on TV when I was in the fifth and sixth grade. Other boys my age liked Emergency, I liked Sonny and Cher. After their divorce, they both did solo variety shows. Sonny's bombed right away. Cher's did all right for a while, but eventually lost viewers. Eventually the two got together and did another variety show. Some funny stuff on that one, too, but it was somewhat awkward watching them together. The first show they razzed each other quite a bit, but it didn't matter because you assumed they were deeply in love. Well, not as a divorced couple on that second show. Since they could no longer humorously trade insults, there comedy bits that opened the show just fell flat. Also, Saturday Night Live was on by that time, and that became the hip show to watch.

Mike Barer said...

Variety shows I remember
(from memory)
Jonathon Winters
Dom De Luise
Dean Martin
Jackie Gleason
Sonny And Cher
Hollywood Palace
Howard Cosell(?)
Doodletown Pipers
Jerry Lewis
Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara
Carol Burnett
which ones do you remember?