The Secret of Variety

Rosie O’Donnell’s variety special last week was a major disappointment even by current NBC standards. Especially since, according to ever-reliable gossip items, Ben Silverman was so certain of the show’s success that he’d already signed her for five more years of variety fun. As every review has already pointed out, the special will be forever associated with the words “dancing food.” Though for me, the defining moment was Alec Baldwin hitting Conan O’Brien in the face with a pie, because it summed up everything that characterizes an unsuccessful variety show: stars from other shows on the network, forced at gunpoint to be there (and looking like they would rather spend their free time doing something else), engaging in very old, very lame jokes.

Does variety have to be lame? I guess that’s the question l keep asking here. Obviously not all variety shows turn out as bad as this one — though it looks like the show was more fun to make than it was to watch, which frequently happens — but even the ones that aren’t bad have traditionally been very corny and middle-of-the-road. That’s part of the variety tradition that networks are trying to bring back, and it’s what makes variety so hard to revive: there’s something inherently… not-so-good about it. This was brought home when I watched Rodney Dangerfield’s first variety special, from 1981 (“It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me”). This special was not your typical lame-o network special; the head writer was Harold Ramis in his comedy prime, and he corralled many of his friends from Second City and other places to work on it, plus Bill Murray as a guest star. And yet while most of the material was well written — as you’d expect — much of it felt forced and, yes, a little corny. It wasn’t the quality of the writing or the effort given by the performers, it was the variety format itself: the banter with the guest star, the short sketches, the let’s-put-on-a-show form. Even when the writers tweak this formula, it still exists and it still makes the show feel like it’s holding everybody back.

There are three ways to get around this problem and come up with a really successful variety show. One is the Ed Sullivan method: just find as much, and as diverse, talent as you can, step back and let them perform for long stretches. Some of the acts will be lame, but when you have a good act, it will be good in a way that a pre-written act simply can’t be; it’s better to have the cast of a Broadway hit performing a great number from their show (back when Broadway shows had great numbers) than to have your guys write a new number for them. Another is the Saturday Night Live method: by having a different host every week, they put the focus on the people who would be the supporting players on any other comedy/variety show, and made the variety show into an ensemble thing rather than a star showcase. And the third is the Carol Burnett method; I’m not a big fan of her show, but it was certainly classier than most variety shows, and part of the reason for that was simply that it had a star who was ideally suited to the format: if you have a star who is really good at singing, clowning, wearing clothes, and bantering with the audience, then the variety format actually makes sense. (I don’t hate Rosie O’Donnell, but obviously she does not fit this description; the variety format called on her to do everything she doesn’t do particularly well.)

Speaking of variety, a DVD has come out called Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years, about the former Fox musical star’s highly successful variety specials from the late ’60s through the ’70s. It would be much more worthwhile if it were actually a DVD of the specials themselves, but it’s just a documentary on how awesome Gaynor was, with people frequently talking over the numbers. (A few complete numbers are included as extras.) Still, it’s an interesting introduction to what variety meant in its ’60s and ’70s heyday: corny humour, glitzy clothes, middle-of-the-road song choices, lots of sexual innuendo and skin but all in a family-friendly way, turning your living room into Vegas. It sort of worked if you had a star who could sing, dance, act, and look good, and Gaynor became the queen of the format because she could do all those things and was the sort of person people just liked to spend an hour with.