Variety shows were among the most popular primetime shows in the early years of American television. Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle was so popular for its first two or three years in the late 1940s and early 1950s that restaurants closed the night it was on, water usage plummeted during its hour, and in 1949, almost 75% of the television audience watched it every week. Whether emphasizing musical performance or comedy, or equal portions of each, the variety genre provided early television with the spectacular entertainment values television and advertising executives believed was important to its growth as a popular medium.

Variety shows almost always featured musical (instrumental, vocal, and dance) performances and comedy sketches, and sometimes acrobatics, animal or magic tricks, and dramatic recitations. Some had musical or comedy stars as hosts, often already known from radio or the recording industry, who displayed their talents solo or with guest performers. Others featured personalities, such as Ted Mack or Ed Sullivan, who acted emcees and provided continuity for what was basically a series of unrelated acts. This genre, was produced by both networks and local television stations. Some of the most popular musical variety programs, such as The Lawrence Welk Show and The Liberace Show, began as local productions for Los Angeles stations. The form has its heritage in 19th century American entertainment--minstrel, vaudeville, and burlesque shows--and the 20th century nightclub and Catskills resorts revues (where such talents as Sid Caeser, Imogene Coca, and Carl Reiner were found).

These forms of entertainment emphasized presentational or performative aspects--immediacy, spontaneity, and spectacle--over storyline and character development. Performers might develop a "persona," but this character mask would usually represent a well-known stereotype or exhibit a particular vocal or dance talent, rather than embody a fleshed-out character growing within the context of dramatic situations. The vaudeville show, which had achieved a middle-class following by the 20th century, presented a series of unrelated acts, featured stars or "headliners," in addition to supporting acts. Many of the form's most important stars made the transition to radio or films in the 1920s and 1930s, and some of these, such as Ed Wynn, were also among the stars of television's first variety shows. Two of the most significant "headliners" of vaudeville and stars of radio, Jack Benny and Burns and Allen made a successful transition to television, but while their shows retained aspects of vaudeville and variety (especially Benny's program with movie star guests and the regularly featured singer Dennis Day), they also combined those elements with the narrative features of situation comedy. A less successful radio comedian, Milton Berle, brought vaudeville back in a much bigger way (his and other television variety-vaudeville shows were called "vaudeo") because his performances emphasized the visual spectacle of the live stage impossible on radio.

The spontaneous, rowdy antics and adult humor of Milton Berle, or of Sid Caeser and company on Your Show of Shows, were most popular on the east coast, where they could be aired live (before the co-axial cable was laid across the country), and where an urban population might be familiar with their styles from nightclubs and resorts. As demographics and ratings from other parts of the country became more important to advertisers and networks, as telefilm programming (usually sitcoms and western dramas) became more successful, and as moral watchdog groups and cultural pundits criticized the genre for its "blue" jokes, some comedy-variety shows fell out of favor. The gentle, child-like humor of Red Skelton became more popular than the cross-dressing of Berle, just as the various comic "personas" of Jackie Gleason (such as the Poor Soul, Joe the Bartender, Ralph Kramden) proved more acceptable to wide audiences than the foreign movie spoofs performed by Caeser and company. While Berle and Caeser stayed on the air for most of the 1950s, it was these other comics and their variety hours that made the transitions into the 1960s.

Variety shows emphasizing music, such as The Dinah Shore Show, The Perry Como Show, The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, The Lawrence Welk Show, Your Hit Parade, The Bell Telephone Hour and The Voice of Firestone (the latter two emphasizing classical music performance) had long runs and little controversy. Nat "King" Cole, the first major black performer to have a network variety series, had a great difficulty securing sponsors for his show when it debuted in 1956 and most of the important black musical stars of the time--and many of the white ones as well--appeared for reduced fees to help save the show. NBC cancelled it a little over a year after its debut.

Besides several of the above mentioned shows, The Smothers Brothers Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show (which would leave the air in 1971 after 23 years) found success in the 1960s, even as the prime-time schedule became more and more filled with dramatic programs and situation comedies. The Smothers Brothers Show caused some controversy with its anti-Vietnam war jokes, and the brothers tangled with CBS over Pete Seeger's singing of "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." Ed Sullivan stayed popular by booking rock acts, such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and Carol Burnett continued the delicious spoofing of film that Your Show of Shows had started. But for the most part, the cultural changes in the late 1960s and 1970s overtook the relevance of the variety form. The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Sonny and Cher Show, Tony Orlando and Dawn--all shows featuring popular music stars with a youth culture following--achieved some popularity in the 1970s. Rowan and Martin's Laugh In, a different type of variety program prefigured the faster, more culturally literate and irreverant style that would survive, in limited form, into the 1990s. Clearly more oriented toward satire and sketch comedy than to the music-variety form of other programs, Laugh In in its way it recalled the inventiveness of Your Show of Shows.


The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour

Only one other show from the 1970s, with the focus on the youth demographic, has lasted into the 1990s--NBC's Saturday Night Live. This program, mainly emphasizing satirical comedy and featuring a different host and musical guest or group every week, captured the teen, college, and young adult crowd with a late-night airing (11:30 Eastern and Pacific time). Although periodically critics cry for its demise as the quality of writing waxes and wanes, the show has created film and television stars out of many of its regular performers. Although this network variety show hangs on into the 1990s, the lack of the genre on television despite the proliferation of cable channels, perhaps suggests its permanent eclipse. Now, the viewer with a remote control can create his or her own variety show, switching from stand-up comedy on A and E or The Comedy Central to ballet and opera on PBS or Bravo, from rock and roll on MTV to country music on The Nashville Network (TNN).

-Mary Desjardins


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___________. "Carol Burnett: The Last of the Big-time Comedy-variety Stars. Quarterly Review of Film and Video (Chur, Switzerland), July 1992.

Shulman, Arthur, and Youman, Roger. How Sweet It Was. New York: Bonanza, 1966.

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Wertheim, Arthur Frank. "The Rise and Fall of Milton Berle." In, O'Connor, John E., editor. American History/American Television: Interpreting the Video Past. New York: Ungar, 1987.

Wilk, Max. The Golden Age of Television: Notes from the Survivors. New York: Delta, 1976.


See also Burnett, Carol; Carol Burnett Show; Ed Sullivan Show; Original Amateur Hour; Sullivan, Ed; Special/Spectacular