The Variety Show Is Dead! (Maybe) Long Live the Variety Show!

Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. The Dean Martin Show. The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. The Bobby Darin Amusement Company. The Carol Burnett Show. Donny & Marie. The Gong Show. Hee Haw.

For a happy century, “variety” endured as one of the very few entertainment genres to survive the arc from stage to screen, from radio to television.

Starting in the 1880s, variety reached its first artistic and popular peak in the form of vaudeville, where “something for everyone” served as both sales pitch and organizing principle.

The genius of vaudeville was that it could incorporate absolutely any type of act that might attract a crowd. Comics, singers and dancers always formed the spine of an evening’s bill of fare, but the same show might stir in jugglers, acrobats, talented animals, ventriloquists, impersonators, a séance, amazing feats such as sword swallowing, fire eating, contortionism, trick shooting, nails hammered up the nose … If someone might pay to see it, it found its way into a vaudeville act.

Though vaudeville was already waning by the 1920s, the 1930s brought the asteroid that did vaudeville in.

The Great Depression left millions without the price of a ticket in their pocket. What little fun money Americans had they spent at the movies, which — with the advent of talkies — delivered vaudeville-style music and comedy for fewer pennies and did so year-round. Music and comedy on the radio, meanwhile, were free. Vaudeville couldn’t compete.

By the start of World War II, vaudeville’s curtain had fallen.

Or had it?

As dinosaur DNA flies on in birds, so vaudeville’s genes survived in radio, many movies and, most of all, television. From its first fuzzy glow, TV provided a habitat for aging ex-vaudevillians, who bequeathed to the new medium vaudeville’s surefire “something for everyone” commercial ethos, rebranded as “variety.”

Beginning in 1948, vaudevillian cum radio star Milton Berle birthed TV variety with Texaco Star Theatre, built on his old slapstick routines (as well as routines shamelessly swiped from other performers) and always featuring a well-balanced stew of comedy, music and novelty acts.

The staggering popularity of Berle’s show — on some Tuesday nights it locked up as much as 97 percent of the viewing audience — defined TV as a variety medium. Throughout the ‘50s, similar shows, all hosted and programmed by vaudeville refugees, debuted in quick succession, including Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, The Jackie Gleason Show and The Red Skelton Show.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, as the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement and the youth movement upended American culture, TV variety mostly chugged along as if nothing had changed—except for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which swaggered onto the airwaves in February of 1967, just in time for the Summer of Love.

While adhering to the tried-and-true variety template, Tom and Dick Smothers tried to match their content to the times, inserting sly political satire in songs and sketches and permitting their comedy and musical guests to do likewise. The show’s 1969 cancellation for poking the censors delivered a commandment from the Network Gods: Thou shalt not court controversy.

Most subsequent shows complied. Hosts eventually traded tailored suits for bellbottoms and grew out their sideburns, rock ‘n’ roll bands crashed onto the bill, and comics took gentle, network-approved jabs at touchy subjects, such as Watergate or race relations. But variety’s bones changed none, propping up the same flesh of family-friendly jokes, songs and sketches they had worn since Berle.

Toast of the Town, eventually rebranded The Ed Sullivan Show because that’s what everyone called it, hung on all the way to 1971. By that time, The Carol Burnett Show had debuted — built on the same essential ingredients but with an emphasis on sketch comedy. Carol shared the ‘70s variety landscape with Flip Wilson, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Captain & Tennille and the Muppets.

One show had more music and less comedy, some had opening monologues and some didn’t. But the format never really varied: vaudeville on videotape. Variety shows were quick and cheap to produce —so long as the host wasn’t greedy — and could earn more ad revenue than more expensive shows, such as sitcoms. The networks couldn’t make enough of ‘em.

For a time, it seemed that anyone who achieved even a whiff of fame was issued a show, the tone adapted to the host’s public image but the programming philosophy stolen straight from Uncle Miltie. Country singer Mac Davis had one, as did Richard Pryor, as did John Denver. Fifties nostalgia band Sha Na Na had a show. The cast of The Brady Bunch had a short-lived variety show, famously featuring a fake Jan.

Sonny & Cher had a popular variety show when married, then another after their divorce, then separate his & hers shows, and finally a revival of their original two-hander — all in the six years from 1971 through 1977.

Shortly after the second incarnation of The Sonny & Cher Show proved that the beat does not go on indefinitely, TV variety finally limped off the stage. The Carol Burnett Show tugged its final ear in ’78. Burnett later tried to revive it twice and failed twice. Hot off her hit sitcom, Mary Tyler Moore hosted two variety series in the late ‘70s; neither lasted a full season. Tom and Dick mounted a comeback and discovered they had not been missed.

By the mid 1980s, the variety show’s broadcast day had ended.

Or had it?

Sturdy, long-running shows such as Saturday Night Live and America’s Got Talent carry the TV variety banner today. While the form is different now — narrower, less flexible, more predictable — the basic elements of variety persist in these and other shows, including some of the late-night talk shows.

The cast of Shout! The Mod Musical, opening Aug. 17.

But 80 years after vaudeville’s demise, variety fans are turning their attention back to the stage. Jukebox shows such as Shout! The Mod Musical, returning to the Straz in August, reveal their vaudeville DNA in a deft mix of song, comedy and storytelling, and also revive the pleasures of enjoying the performance live and in-person.

Peruse the seasons of local theaters and you can always find heirs to variety, such as Shockheaded Peter, which just closed its Straz run. The colorful show featured a macabre-but-funny brew of live standup, sketch comedy, songs, dancing, storytelling, puppetry and arial silks acrobatics—Ed Sullivan meets Edward Gorey.

A scene from Jobsite Theater’s Shockheaded Peter.

But don’t think variety is back. Variety never left. You just really need to get to the theater to enjoy it. Come see a show. And tell your usher Uncle Miltie sent you.

Ned Averill-Snell is longtime writer and editor that has a flair for the dramatic and comedic as co-founder of Tampa Repertory Theater and when on stage for Jobsite and other local companies. He also is the author of the mystery novel “Small Professional Murder.”

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