From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A variety show, also known as variety arts or variety entertainment, is an entertainment made up of a variety of acts, especially musical performances and sketch comedy, and normally introduced by a compère (master of ceremonies) or host. Other types of acts include magic, animal and circus acts, acrobatics, juggling and ventriloquism. The variety format made its way from Victorian era stage to radio to television. Variety shows were a staple of anglophone television from its early days into the 1970s, and lasted into the 1980s, but are now reduced to the level of the occasional special. In several parts of the world, variety TV remains popular and widespread.
The format is basically that of music hall in the United Kingdom (UK) or vaudeville in the United States (US). Variety in the UK evolved in theatres and music halls, and later in Working Men's Clubs. Most of the early top performers on British television and radio did an apprenticeship either in stage variety, or during World War II in Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). In the UK, the ultimate accolade for a variety artist for decades was to be asked to do the annual Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium theatre, in front of the monarch.
In the U.S., former vaudeville performers such as the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, W. C. Fields, and Jack Benny moved to sound movies, then radio, and then television, including variety shows. In the 1960s, even a popular rock band such as The Beatles undertook this ritual of appearing on variety shows on TV. In the US, shows featuring Perry Como, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope and Dean Martin also helped to make the Golden Age of Television successful.
From 1948 to 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show was one of CBS's most popular series. Using his no-nonsense approach, Ed Sullivan allowed many acts from several different mediums to get their "fifteen minutes of fame." Sullivan was also partially responsible for bringing Elvis Presley and The Beatles to U.S. prominence.
In the UK, The Good Old Days - which ran from 1953 to 1983 - featured modern artists performing dressed in late Victorian/Early Edwardian costume, either doing their own act or performing as a music hall artist of that period. The audience was also encouraged to dress in period costume in a similar fashion.
On television, variety reached its peak during the period of the 1960s and 1970s. With a turn of the television dial, viewers around the globe could variously have seen shows and occasional specials featuring Andy Williams, Julie Andrews, The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John, John Denver, John Davidson, Mac Davis, Bobby Goldsboro, Lynda Carter, Johnny Cash, Sonny and Cher, Bob Monkhouse, Carol Burnett, Rod Hull and Emu, Flip Wilson, Dinah Shore, Lawrence Welk, Glen Campbell, Donny & Marie Osmond, Barbara Mandrell, Judy Garland, The Captain & Tennille, The Jacksons, The Keane Brothers, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mary Tyler Moore, Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Smothers Brothers, Danny Kaye, Buck and Roy, Roy Hudd, Billy Dainty Max Wall or The Muppet Show. Even "The Brady Bunch" had a variety show. Variety shows were once as common on television as Westerns, courtroom dramas, suspense thrillers, sitcoms, or (in more modern times) reality shows.
During the 1960s and '70s, there were also numerous one-time variety specials featuring stars such as Shirley MacLaine, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross and Mitzi Gaynor, none of whom ever had a regular television series.
Contemporary U.S. variety shows
Variety shows began to fade from popularity in the early 1970s, when research began to show that variety shows appealed to an older audience that was less appealing to advertisers; over the course of the so-called "rural purge," several of the early era variety shows were canceled, though newer ones (fewer in number nonetheless) continued to be created and aired for several years after. By the late 1970s, variety shows had mostly ended production, and by the early 1980s, the few new variety shows being produced were of remarkably poor quality (see, for instance, the infamous Pink Lady and Jeff), hastening the format's demise. Since Pink Lady, only a few traditional variety shows have been attempted on television: Dolly (starring Dolly Parton), which ran for 23 episodes on ABC during the 1987-'88 season; a revival of The Carol Burnett Show, which aired on CBS for nine episodes in 1991; and the first incarnation of The Wayne Brady Show, which aired on ABC in August 2001. By that time, the format had fallen out of fashion, due largely to changing tastes and the fracturing of media audiences (caused by the proliferation of cable and satellite television) that makes a multiple-genre variety show impractical. Even reruns of variety shows have generally not been particularly widespread; TV Land briefly aired some variety shows (namely The Ed Sullivan Show and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour) upon its launch in 1996, but within a few years, those reruns stopped. Similarly, CMT held rights to Hee Haw but almost never aired any episodes (current rights holder RFD-TV has been more prominent in their airings of the show). A notable exception is The Lawrence Welk Show, which has aired continuously in reruns on the Public Broadcasting System since 1986.
However, though the format had faded in popularity in prime time, it thrived in late night. The variety shows of this daypart eventually evolved into late-night talk shows, which combined variety entertainment with talk show elements (mainly celebrity interviews). (The Emmy Awards consider the two genres to be closely enough related that they issue the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series to either type of show.) Though only one network (NBC, with its The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and later Late Night with David Letterman) had a successful late-night talk show until 1992, the field greatly expanded beginning with Carson's retirement and the controversial selection of Jay Leno as Tonight's new host. Within ten years, all three of the "Big Three" networks, along with several cable outlets, had late night variety talk shows airing nightly. (NBC, in a cost-cutting move, attempted to bring Leno's show to prime time as The Jay Leno Show in 2009, but affiliates threatened to drop the program after local news ratings suffered, forcing him back to late night within four months of the prime time debut.) Sketch comedy series such as Saturday Night Live, Almost Live!, MADtv and SCTV also contain variety show elements, particularly musical performances and comedy sketches (though only the first of these remains on air as of 2010). The most obvious difference between shows such as Saturday Night Live and traditional variety shows is the lack of a single lead host (or hosts) and a large ensemble cast. SNL has used different guest hosts ever since its inception.
The variety show format also continues in the form of the telethon, which features several hours of variety entertainment. The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon is one of the best known national telethons, and local telethons are also fairly common (as well as one of the few times local stations produce non-news entertainment programming themselves).
In 2004, ABC's The Nick and Jessica Variety Hour attempted to revive the prime-time variety hour as a special for today's generation. It was followed by Nick & Jessica's Family Christmas in early December of that year, though no further specials would be produced after that due to the couple's divorce. NBC's Rosie Live did not fare so well: the series' pilot episode aired the day before Thanksgiving 2008 and, after being panned by critics, would not be picked up. In December 2009, singer Carrie Underwood made her first attempt at a Christmas variety special on FOX.
The Scouting Gang Show performed principally by young people 18 years of age and under in many locations around the world is an example of a variety show format that has endured for over seventy years.
The prime time variety show format was popular in the early decades of Australian television, spawning such series as In Melbourne Tonight, The Graham Kennedy Show, The Don Lane Show, and Hey Hey It's Saturday, which ran for 27 years. Recent prime time variety shows include the short lived Micallef Tonight and The Sideshow.
Another of today's variety shows in Asia is Taiwan's Variety Big Brother. Taiwanese variety shows are infamous for their constant use of artificial laugh tracks even though there is a studio audience. East Asian variety programs are known for its constant use of sound effects and on-screen text displays.
The most popular variety program in Taiwan would have to be the long-running "Super Sunday", known for its fast-paced style and catchphrases. The second half of the program is more emotional with guests finally or attempting to reunite with another (either a celebrity or a friend) by re-enacting the moment (in a satirical manner) and then let co-star and singer Ah-Liang search for the specific person through various locations. It was succeeded by "Happy Sunday", a similar program hosted by the co-stars.
In Hong Kong, variety shows are often combined with elements of a cooking show or a talent competition but end in various results.
Many television specials continue to resemble the variety show format to this day.
- Variety, the Children's Charity, widely known as the Variety Club, a charity operated by variety performers
- Japanese variety show