Pioneers of Television
I watched this segment both as a fan of the genre (who grew up imitating various variety show hosts in my backyard the way other kids play-acted their favorite comic book heroes) and as a historian who has looked extensively at variety content within other media. Seen through the first lens, Pioneers of Television's rich mixture of compelling oral history...
...and well selected clips brought back a wealth of memories, including helping me to discover the roots of long-standing family expressions in the catch phrases of half remembered variety show sketches. Seen through the second, the series raises questions about where the television variety program came from and what has happened to it since its decline from prime-time prominence.
The show traces some of the key personalities and programs which shaped the history of variety television -- starting with Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle in the 1950s and ending with Flip Wilson and Tony Orlando and Dawn in the early 1970s. The variety show is understood here as entertainment that could be enjoyed by families sitting down together watching on shared sets or early on, perhaps by entire communities (as suggested by stories told by Dick Cavett walking down the streets of middle America and hearing every household listening to Arthur Godfrey or by Tim Conway of watching Milton Berle as part of a crowd assembled outside at hardware store display window).
Because such series needed to appeal to a mass public, they were a focal point for negotiations over what did or didn't constitute mainstream culture. Some of the most interesting segments center on these behind the scenes struggles to determine what could reach the air -- Ed Sullivan policing Florence Henderson's cleavage, advertisers refusing to support the Nat King Cole Show for fear it would alienate southern affiliates, the different strategies by which the Smothers Brothers Show and Laugh In responded to the 1960s counterculture.
Given the genre's personality centered nature, the episode focuses on the hosts and guest stars (the differences, for example, between Milton Berle who leaped into every performance and Carol Burnett's more ensemble approach, the differences between comedian-centered and music-centered programs, the ways that Godfrey's neighborly charm was undercut by his on-the-air firing of a supporting cast member).
One of the things which excites me the most about this series as a whole is that its producers have collected oral histories from more than a hundred key figures who shaped the early history of American television. This series will take its place alongside Forgotten Broadway and other recent documentaries which have come in just in time to preserve the memories of a dying generation of American showfolk and to reintroduce their best performances to a generation too young to have experienced them first hand. As a historian, I'm hoping that the producers might make the interviews as a whole accessible to researchers (perhaps through turning the raw footage over to a leading archive) or perhaps releasing them as podcasts that might be accessible to a larger public.
The series's specific focus on television history makes it hard for the producers to fully explore the ways the variety show operated as a point of intersection with all of the other branches of the American entertainment industry. Around the edges, the program references Sullivan's background as a columnist writing about Broadway, Berle's vaudeville training, Godfrey's holdovers from radio practices, Flip Wilson and Jonathon Winter's nightclub experiences. Writing in 1930, George M. Cohan (of Yankee Doodle Dandy fame) proclaimed that variety (he meant vaudeville) had served for more than half a century as "a regular mine, a reservoir, a proving ground" for the legitimate theater and for cinema. If Cohan had lived longer, he would certainly have stressed the number of variety performers who found their way onto American radio and later onto American television.
The strong influence of vaudeville is implicit here in the discussions here of Sullivan's balancing of programs to include everything from washboard bands to Orson Welles performing Shakespeare, in the attempts to mix different styles of entertainment to appeal to different segments of the audience. But there's no mention of how popular such variety shows had been on radio and how the genre does or doesn't change when these hosts and formats crossed over into television. The variety shows being recalled here emerged at the intersection of shifts in broadcasting, stage, night clubs, and the recording industries, each of which provided not only the hosts but the guest stars and the writers which enabled this genre to thrive in the early decades of network television, each using television as a vehicle to publicize new and emerging talent.
The episode also stops short from trying to explain why the variety show (or even the variety special which lasted somewhat longer) has largely disappeared from American television. Sid Caesar suggests that the introduction of the remote control lowered viewers' willingness to watch anything that didn't directly satisfy their immediate tastes and interests. He may be partially right that the variety show was hurt by a move from a mass audience (at a time when the Milton Berle Show could command a 95 share of the viewing public) to niche audience (in an era of multichannel cable, digital video recorders, boxed DVDs, and digital downloads. The variety show offered diversity within a single program. Today, we find variety across multiple networks and platforms.
But vestigial elements of variety survive. If the episode had paid more attention to amateur variety competitions, an important sub-genre which goes back to Major Bowles on radio and Godfrey on television, we would see the clear links to contemporary series, such as So You Want to Dance, Dancing with The Stars, Americas Got Talent, and of course, American Idol. Such talent competition series fuse aspects of the game show and the variety traditions, even if they are now lumped into the larger category of reality programming. Consider some of the similarities:
--These shows are often performed live, much like the earlier variety shows.
--These shows are much more likely to be watched as they are aired than other contemporary programming, helping to create that sense of a national audience.
--These shows are more likely to be watched in a social context, whether among family members or roommates.
--The performances provide music, while the judge offer recurring comic characters.
-- Such programs combine classic old songs with emerging performers, much like the repertoire of Tin Pan Ally standards which were the stock and trade of variety show musical numbers.
--Such programs offer constant shifts in style which move up and down the taste hierarchy -- ballroom dancing one week, hip hop moves the next.
--Hosts like American Idol's Ryan Seacrest play much the same functions that Ed Sullivan performed on his program, introducing the performers and warming up the audience between acts.
That said, it is hard to imagine the variety show genre -- in its classic formats -- re-emerging. Few contemporary performers have the personalities or range that the classic stars developed through vaudeville in the 1930s and 1940s or the night clubs of the 1950s and 1960s. Stand up comedy itself no longer aims for a generalized audience but in a Post-Lenny Bruce, post-identity politics world, speaks to subcultural tastes and minority interests. The classic songs sung on variety television were designed to accommodate a diversity of voices, while contemporary songs are tailored to the vocal ranges of specific performers. And perhaps most importantly, there is no longer the circuit where gifted guest stars could move from program to program, further honing their variety skills and developing their own followings. Pioneers of Television demonstrates both the particular chemistry which might emerge between some hosts and guests (such as that between Jim Neighbors and Carol Burnett or between Jonathon Winters and Andy Williams) and the ways that some performers might perform across the range of programs (here, suggested by scenes featuring Jack Benny interacting with Ed Sullivan and appearing on Laugh-in).
For those who would like to read more about the American variety tradition, you might check out the following books:
Aniko Bodroughkozy, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the youth Rebellion (Duke University Press, 2001)
Bambi Higgins, Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America (Rutgers University Press, 2007)
Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (Columbia University Press, 1992)