One negative consequence of the fractured pop audience is the disappearance of the variety show from TV.
Variety programs, themselves a near copy of an earlier era’s vaudeville shows, were a staple of prime time from the early days of TV through the 1980s. It’s hard to believe but they were once just as common as reality shows are today.
The success of “Your Show of Shows” — a sketch show with music and other entertainment that featured Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca — was a pioneer of the format. Others included “The Ed Sullivan Show,” specials starring Bob Hope, “The Hollywood Palace” and star vehicles for Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason, Glen Campbell, Sonny and Cher, Flip Wilson, Perry Como, Andy Williams and dozens more.
One of the best was “The Carol Burnett Show” which ran from 1967 to 1978 and continues today in reruns. Burnett would perform a monologue, sing a song then go to skits that featured her guest of the week interacting with Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and others. At the end of the show, she would come back out to perform her theme. Just think of the number of costumers, writers and musicians a show like this could employ.
A show with a much smaller budget but sometimes even bigger laughs was “Hee-Haw,” hosted by Roy Clark and Buck Owens. Instead of a Hollywood soundstage, the jokes came from a barn, cornfield, barber shop and other set pieces. George “Goober” Lindsey appeared on the show from 1971 to 1993, an eternity in the variety business, and other continuing performers included Grandpa Jones, Junior Samples, Lulu Roman, Archie Campbell, Minnie Pearl and Misty Rowe.
There are many other examples of the format but even today when watching repeats of “The Muppet Show,” “The Lawrence Welk Show” or “Donny And Marie,” the viewer can get the idea: music, comedy, guests. It was a very successful part of TV history.
Today, although the prime-time variety show has apparently died, it lives on in the other dayparts; gabfests such as “The View” often feature performances alongside cooking segments. Variety is mostly the province of late night shows, perhaps the best place to see new talent in music and comedy.
What is the last variety show on TV? Live from New York it’s “Saturday Night Live.” Each week, SNL features a “cold open,” a monologue, several sketches, musical performances, a pretend version of the news and much more. At the end, the cast comes back out to thank the audience and say goodnight. Even the vaudevillians would recognize their creation lives on with SNL.