So it seems that both the TV and movie genres have decided that everything old is new again, and remakes, re-dos and revamps of all sorts are the hot thing. Plus, people seem to be zeroing in on the ’60s to the ’80s in particular for their revival fodder.
In addition, it seems that network TV is in the doldrums, big-time. The formerly bankable reality genre seems to be dying a slow, torturous death. Obviously, they’re in need of something to give them a kickstart.
Maybe it’s time to put two and two together and revive that old staple of old-time TV, the variety show. Now, for those of you under a certain age, variety shows were a hodgepodge of entertainment. In their most classic form (see The Carol Burnett Show), you had a regular company of comedy players who would perform skits, sometimes topical, sometimes just silly. You also had guest stars, usually standup comics and singers, who did their thing between the skits (and sometimes participated in them).
There was a second type of variety show – The Ed Sullivan Show being the best example – where a host just brought on act after act of all different types. Rock bands, standup comics, classical musicians, opera singers, circus acts, scenes from Broadway musicals, you name it.
These shows were insanely popular during your parents’ and grandparents’ day. The Sullivan Show alone is credited for introducing most of the biggest acts of the Baby Boomer era into American living rooms – even though bands like The Rolling Stones and The Doors bucked the producers’ efforts to censor their songs.
So what caused their decline? For one thing, the shows were seen as corny and old as the entertainment scene was getting young and hip – you had your edgy acts on there, for sure, but they were still dominated by vaudeville-style humor and lounge-style music. Cable TV came along and offered true variety in programming – if you wanted rock and roll, you could get it right away without having to sit through stuff that was more your parents’ style.
In addition, Saturday Night Live came along, co-opted the old variety format and made it truly edgy, with topical and satirical humor and up-and-coming bands. Suddenly, Donny and Marie with musical guests the Captain and Tennille just looked flat-out boring next to The Not Ready For Prime Time Players (we’re talking the likes of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray) with musical guests Devo.
So, variety faded away – but didn’t die entirely. Type 1, the sketch comedy show, still survives in the form of the aforementioned SNL (although many people claim it now seems as corny and old as traditional variety did back in the day). Type 2, the parade of acts, is survived by the talent competition show, especially America’s Got Talent.
Now, then, how do we revive this old saw and make it palatable for a contemporary audience – and, indeed, a potential ratings magnet? The answer – put type 1 together with type 2, and give it a little bit of bite.
Get yourself a genuinely funny comic to host, someone a little quirky, a little edgy, but not flat-out offensive. Conan O’Brien might be your man here. Have a regular troupe of comics who perform topical humor sketches, with some recurring characters – I’m envisioning one of the regular sketches being something along the lines of a live-action King of the Hill.
Between them, you bring on your talent – and we mean all kinds of talent. Rock bands, both established and up-and-coming. Standup comics. Dance troupes. Cirque du Soleil-type acrobatics. Don’t be afraid to think global. Bring on the punk-style ballerinas from Russia, the K-pop boy bands, some French artist who does speed-painting in time to music. You could even show short animated and live-action comic films between the acts, thus giving young filmmakers a break.
Above all, keep everything original, fresh and a bit challenging. The last thing in the world you want to be seen as is old-hat, bland and overly wholesome, like the variety shows of old were in their sunset years.
Follow all this, and you’ll end up with something people will want to tune in just to see what’s going to happen next – true Must-See TV. Maybe network TV will never draw the same amount of eyes to a single channel as it did in the Sullivan days, but a new-school variety show may be just the thing to get people tuning in those old three networks again. – Bonnie Walling