Born of the vaudevillian era, TV variety programs carried the traditions of comedy, song, dance and sketch performance into America’s living room and into a new era of entertainment. This genre of television programming pushed the boundaries of social satire and challenged the pace at which shows progressed.
“They would say, ‘Slow it down,’” says director George Schlatter, who produced “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” “I’d say, ‘No, people will understand it.’ They’d say, ‘But they’ll miss the jokes.’ I said, ‘So what? there’s another one coming along in just a few moments,’” he says.
From Ed Sullivan — whose stodgy on-air presence belied an unmatched ability to spot and highlight talent — to the socially conscious Smothers Brothers, variety programming mirrored the tastes of the day and introduced America to the latest, greatest talent. Often the shows centered around music and live performance, where anything — good or bad — could happen live for a whole nation to see.
In the 1970s, the variety show format began to fade from prime time. Audiences were more fractured than ever with the advent of the remote control and cable television. Today, elements of variety program exist on late night TV formatting and on some of the live performance shows such as “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars.” Despite several attempts to revive a contemporary variety hour, few stars have found success.
“The Ed Sullivan Show”
For 24 seasons, “The Ed Sullivan Show” entertained America with its electric line-up of new talent and seasoned entertainers. The show’s brilliance is largely attributed to its unlikely host, Ed Sullivan. A gloomy looking man with hang-dog jowls and the inability to remember people’s names, Sullivan displayed a keen eye for talent and had his hand on all details of the popular show. Audiences forgave Sullivan’s on-air gaffes because the show was so entertaining. Sullivan was especially concerned about promoting good taste. He rewrote jokes, re-arranged talent and adjusted costumes to make sure they were up to his standard.
“[Ed Sullivan] had a particular … genius, because it was a radar type of thing,” says entertainer Pat Boone. “He knew what the audience would like to see and hear, and he brought it to them.”
“The Carol Burnett Show”
Premiering in 1967, “The Carol Burnett Show” featured the versatile Carol Burnett alongside a host of regular sidekicks such as Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, Vicki Lawrence and Tim Conway. During its long run, the show won 25 Emmy Awards, and the secret to its success was Burnett’s willingness to let other members of the ensemble cast shine.
“I remember Harvey [Korman] saying, ‘You have no idea because most stars are very selfish. They’ll have things rewritten to where they get the joke lines, and they will not be supportive of you,’ says Lawrence. “And I think one of the most important things that I learned from Carol is that you are as good as the people that surround you.”
“The Carol Burnett Show” is famous for its skits that parodied popular culture, especially films and dramatic televisions shows.
“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”
While it was short-lived, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” left an indelible mark on American television history. The sibling comedic duo, the Smothers brothers, performed folk songs that often dissolved into on-air humorous bickering. Traditionally, Tommy Smothers, the eldest of the siblings, played a jealous, slow-witted character. In contrast was his younger brother, Richard “Dick” Smothers, who portrayed a condescending, smarter sibling. The chemistry between the two was electric, and the brothers’ variety show debuted in 1967, a tumultuous time in our history.
“Vietnam and Kent State and the Chicago riots of the Democratic Convention and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King: All this happened while we had a television show,” says Tommy Smothers.
The brothers went on the air hoping to be relevant, but they had no idea how much ire they would stir — not from American audiences, but from TV executives and politicians. With the help of talented writers and performers such as Steve Martin, Rob Reiner and Albert Brooks, the show took political satire to a new level that hadn’t been broached on television before. Despite high ratings, the show was cancelled in 1969.
“It was very emotional to be fired when you knew you hadn’t done anything wrong except exercise freedom of expression,” remembers Tommy Smothers.