Tuesday, August 9, 2011

10 FAVORITES (41) - Variety: The Spice of Life!

10 FAVORITES returns this week with one of my most anticipated topics: Variety Shows!  While I love the laughs a great sitcom gives me and I enjoy the emotional pull of fantastically written drama series, the Television genre I can truly lose myself in is that of the Variety Series.  It is the genre that most easily transitioned from radio onto to TV when the medium first became the rage.  And for a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed that Variety shows were what Reality shows are today.  It seemed everyone from Cher to Glen Campbell to Donny and Marie had a Variety show.  So, today I want to look back with great fondness on the shows that defined the Variety genre and talk about my absolute favorites.  Here are: 


The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart is one of the funniest, smartest and most honest men in Television, so there is ample reason why the Comedy Central News-parody series is always top-rated.  With his biting wit and his killer writing staff, Stewart and Company (a Company that included people like Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert and host of others that are too many to list!) make audiences feel comfortable having a laugh in times when economic uncertainty and world unrest can bring even the happiest person down.  It is no wonder the show has won the Emmy Award for Best Variety Series for the past eight years (and it is poised to win a ninth time come this September!).

The Texaco Star Theater
A list about the Best Television Variety Shows would be absolutely incomplete without acknowledging the contribution of "Uncle Miltie."  Milton Berle was one of the biggest stars of Television in its very early days.  He was such a star that he is considered the reason many people even bought Television sets.  Always funny and never willing to back down from shaking things up (see Elvis below!), Berle became known as "Mr. Television."

The Ed Sullivan Show
This show was another staple show for people's households.  Every Sunday night at 7PM, people would sit down together and watch the master showman himself, Ed Sullivan, and his "really great shoe!" (No, that's not a misprint! That is really how he pronounced the word "show.")  So many careers were started on The Ed Sullivan Show from comedians to magicians to puppeteers to dancers to Broadway stars.  And who could forget the countless Pop music acts that became known thanks to their appearances on Ed Sullivan.  From The Beatles (below) to The Supremes to The Rolling Stones to The Beach Boys to many many others, you were a nobody in showbiz unless you did the Sullivan show back then.

The Sid Caesar Shows (Your Show of Shows & Caesar's Hour)
These two shows run together in my mind because of the brilliance that was Sid Caesar.  He was a master character comedian.  He could literally play anybody.  In the hands of his crack writing team, Caesar was given free range to do all he could do.  And what a crack team!  At one point or another, his writing team included the likes of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen.  And looking at the work each of them did since, it is clear the impact Caesar had on their lives and careers.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Growing up in the 1980's, Johnny Carson was the King of Late Night.  There was no one like him in terms of delivery and in terms of personality.  His reign on The Tonight Show lasted from 1963 (taking over for Jack Paar) to 1992 (when Jay Leno assumed his throne).  And in those almost 30 years, Carson defined the Late Night Talk Show like no other.  Whether he was doing his famous "swami" bit or entertaining an animal from the San Diego Zoo or just chatting with a famous celebrity, Carson worked hard to make it look easy and we just loved him for it.

The Carol Burnett Show
If Carson was the King of Late Night, then Carol Burnett was the Queen of Sketch Comedy.  Her weekly "live" shows were some of funniest things to watch on Television in the 1960s and 1970s.  Burnett and Company (which included Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and the late Harvey Korman) delivered notable scenes highlighted by their genuine laughter at their own antics.  Each week, audiences would watch just to watch them crack up!  Plus, who could forget Ms. Burnett's infamous Bob Mackie gowns?!?

Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Out of the explosive late 1960s came one of the most enduring and influential Variety shows of all-time.  Comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hosted an array of talented comic actors (which included Ruth Buzzi, Joanne Worley, Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson and Lily Tomlin) who were just as wild as the Counterculture Movement was.  From the Party scenes to the "Quickies" to the "Sock It To Me!" to infamous wall-with-doors, Laugh-In was the powerhouse fun that the late 1960s needed.

Monty Python's Flying Circus
Britain's legendary series inspired so many on both sides of the Atlantic.  The amazing writing and performing team that consisted of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin had some of the best and most memorable comic sequences.  Who can forget the notorious "Parrot Sketch" or the hilarious "Self-Defense Class" (below) or the famed "Spam" sequence?  Plus, no one expects "the Spanish Inquisition!"

Saturday Night Live
What can I say about SNL?  It is still running after 35 years and going strong.  From it's early days with its original "Not Ready for Primetime Players" (pictured below, sorry no video!) to its days with Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers or Will Ferrell or Tina Fey or--I better stop or this post will be way too long, SNL has become the definition of Variety Series.  It is a master class for the up-and-coming Comedy star.  And you're probably saying to yourself: "If this isn't #1, then what is?!?"  Well, look below...

The Muppet Show
Those of you who read 10 FAVORITES a couple months ago are not really surprised that this series could beat SNL to #1.  My father said that at times it almost seemed like a parody of Variety shows.  But when you think about it, what other genre could The Muppets have fit into so easily.  A sitcom would have seemed forced and they don't lend themselves to drama as well (That's a Creature Shop thing!).  Variety was such a perfect fit for them.  There was no one like Jim Henson and his stellar crew (including Frank Oz!) and we will never forget Kermit the Frog or Miss Piggy or Fozzie Bear or The Great Gonzo or The Electric Mayhem.  We loved them all and would sing-a-long with the famed theme song (below) every week.

These were (and are!) best Variety shows TV ever had to offer and they truly are great representations of what the genre is all about.  In the weeks to come, more 10 FAVORITES and keep looking for our new column GOLDEN PLACES, which will rotate with 10 FAVORITES.

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