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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar
America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Wertheim, Arthur Frank. "The Rise and Fall of Milton Berle." In,
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Burnett Show; Ed
Sullivan Show; Original
Amateur Hour; Sullivan,