During a conversation last night, I found myself reminded again of a television phenomenon that has, really, died: The old-school, star-driven 60s/70s variety show. These shows were a staple of my childhood, and they were the cheesiest, most brilliant thing EVER.
Some of them, of course — The Dean Martin Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour — I was too young to have watched much of, and caught in repeats. They were really wonderful shows. Dean Martin brought a kind of drunken Rat Pack chumminess to the table, and it all fell out in sketches that never quite worked as planned; here were professional actors, playing live, who just couldn’t get through what they were doing without cracking themselves and each other up. The Smothers Brothers were deliciously subversive and clever, in ways that are too rare now; we don’t often trust audiences to be smart enough to keep up with the sort of thing they did anymore. We certainly can’t have the genius that was Laugh In anymore, which is sad.
Others — typically shows headlined by musicians rather than actors or comedians, like Donny and Marie, Sonny and Cher, and Tony Orlando and Dawn — were even stranger. They inhabited their own variety show aesthetic, complete with highly stylized and elaborate signature sets to represent the musical headliners and ample opportunities for their musical stars to showcase their musical products. Of the bunch, Sonny and Cher were probably the best where comedy was concerned — Donny and Marie were cute and wholesome and a bit…dull, in comparison. They were none of them acts of genius, mind you, but there was something awesomely wacky about the whole business that, as a child, I found utterly irresistible. These were the shows where I first enountered, for example, the crazy wonder that is Charo (and if you don’t know who Charo is, you have missed something!).
The last gasp of the really good variety hour, for me at least, was probably the Carol Burnett Show. In this show, we got the silly, actors-cracking-each-other-up nonsense of Dean Martin run by a very, very smart woman. Her audience questions segment was some of the funniest stuff on television, and made it abundantly clear how sharp she really was.
It’s all dated and kitschy now (and it was pretty darn kitschy at the time, too), but the old variety hour was a pretty cool thing to have experienced, and I find myself really missing it. It required certain conditions to thrive, based on a sort of Vegas-in-your-living-room sensibility that has since been replaced with “reality” programming of a more voyeuristically documentary and less personal sort. By the time I was old enough to watch these shows, they were really in their last days as a kind of visual and performance style; their distinguished antecedents, Uncle Miltie et. al., were really nowhere in the minds of most of their audiences anymore. The style of comedy they represent is largely dead as well.
Let’s raise one to the variety hour, folks! And let’s make note of another thing: As goofy as these shows were, the people involved in them often had some serious talent underneath the glitter and the Vegas aesthetic. Charo may be all kitsch as an image, but she rocks the classical guitar like a student of Segovia should: