Once a primetime staple, genre remains relevant today under a new names

The first era of television was when variety shows made huge impressions, when an entire nation gathered in front of a glowing tube to watch the latest antics and acts from the likes of Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Ed Sullivan.

Fifty years later, the once-bright star of variety shows and their charismatic hosts is outshone by a galaxy of cable channels and audiences that consistently have spurned the genre for the past 20 years.

While audiences roll their eyes and programming execs immediately dismiss the idea of reviving the format, some suggest that auds are already watching variety shows — minus the moniker.

“People are almost afraid about calling it a variety show in front of me because they’re afraid it’ll upset me,” says Jimmy Kimmel, co-host and head writer of Comedy Central’s “The Man Show.” While the beer-swilling, woman-ogling half-hour is not a traditional variety show, “if you had to describe it, it would be a variety show.”

While few productions call themselves variety, the list of shows that borrows elements from the classic format is lengthy. Musical acts and comedians frequently appear on talkshows from “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” to “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” Comedy and music still mix on “Saturday Night Live” and “Mad TV,” and cable brings on even more recent varieties of variety, from “The Man Show” to “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” which has since appeared in a U.S. version on ABC.

Not what it once was

Despite the presence of variety elements in some shows, the genre’s star has fallen drastically from the prestigious position it held in the early days of the TV universe.

TV’s first variety show was the Berle-hosted “Texaco Star Theater,” a show so popular it was rumored the water pressure in New York dropped by half after each week’s show ended because so many people waited until it was over to use the bathroom, says Jeffrey Sconce, assistant professor of the USC School of Cinema-TV, who teaches small-screen history.

The awkward host Sullivan became an unlikely star and was one of the first demonstrations of TV’s star-making power.

“It’s hard to imagine a more uncharismatic guy,” Sconce says. “(But) someone who’s in your home every week … clearly became sort of a beloved national figure.”

The variety show was in many ways at its peak when John, Paul, George and Ringo played “Sullivan.” The counterculture generation was looking for its own brand of hip entertainment and the procession of middle-of-the-road acts and increasingly stiff comedy sketches that dominated variety shows seemed dull.

The split between older and younger audiences was never more apparent than on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” infamous for its stars’ clashes with CBS for poking fun at politics and religion.

For all the publicity surrounding the conflict, the brothers were not consciously trying to push the variety show into new territory.

“We were just there at that time when there was hardly any choice; everyone had to have a position then,” says Tom Smothers. “Huge things were happening and we just reflected it.”

Demographics, improved audience measurement, and more cinematic and relevant narrative shows began to push out variety in the 1970s. But networks were reluctant to give up on the durable format and gave a show to any celebrity who wanted one in the hopes of finding a way to keep the genre a hit. But the new efforts had none of the sharp writing talent of the earliest shows, relying more and more on nostalgia for old Hollywood guests and feigned familiarity to keep auds.

The list of disappointments is nearly as long as the list of hosts: the Captain & Tennille, Tim Conway, Tony Orlando & Dawn, the Brady Bunch, Mac Davis, Julie Andrews, McLean Stevenson, Rich Little, Tom Jones, Liberace, the Carpenters, the Jacksons, Johnny Cash, Sammy Davis Jr., Ben Vereen, Bill Cosby, Bobby Darin, Dolly Parton, Howard Cosell, Richard Pryor and the Muppets.

The last remnants of variety survived the 1980s in the comedy-music mix of “Saturday Night Live” and the bizarre stunts of “Late Night With David Letterman,” both so hip no one dared think of them as variety. MTV stole away the music audience, and the remote control and cable helped make watching TV an interactive variety show.

Variety’s last shot at network primetime was a Smothers Brothers revival that aired during the writers strike in 1988-89, a show whose moderate success was not well understood by CBS.

“We did a series of six, then they’d come back and say we need six more,” says Tom Smothers. “That went well, but it was not considered something they wanted on. ‘Write us a sitcom, boys,’ they’d say.”

Smothers, who still tours with his brother Dick, says variety is thriving today in places such as Las Vegas and in concepts like Cirque du Soleil. As a matter of fact, it’s nearly everywhere except on TV.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that a nice, pure variety show would go well today,” Smothers says. “The lack of shows now is that the programming people don’t believe in it and it takes some strong personalities to turn these shows into hits.”

But Sconce says there appears to be little interest in experimenting with the genre.

“If anyone can invent the hook that makes it play today, then sure,” he says. “You’d see Fox or WB try it first before the remaining majors tried it again.”

Kimmel agrees there is life in the format — if it’s updated for today’s auds.

“Back then, people were just excited to see celebrities. I think people got kind of tired of that or accustomed to it,” Kimmel says. “It’s really not enough to just show up.”

Smothers says any revival faces a tough fight against the prejudices of programmers and audiences.

“It might be audience taste because everyone’s got their clickers. That’s kind of a variety show,” he says. “Variety is in the very form of the media itself.”

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