NBC Bets on Maya Rudolph, Martin Short to Revive a TV Mainstay

With the buzz around Beyonce’s “Lemonade” still fresh, many people have been asking Maya Rudolph to do her popular impression of the singer just one more time. Will she? “It’s got to be right,” the comic actress says in her best Beyonce voice. “It’s got to be just a little sour, and just a little bit sweet.”

Rudolph may find her moment next week, when she and actor Martin Short – known for everything from “SCTV” to giving voice to “The Cat In The Hat” on PBS – tackle an interesting mission. On May 31 at 10 p.m. on NBC, the pair will launch “Maya & Marty” a six-episode exploration of what for  a younger generation of viewers will be a new frontier: a variety show, complete with special guests, singing and comic sketches. Not everyone could hold their own under such circumstances, but Short and Rudolph can do more than just get laughs. They can sing and dance, too. “They just take the audience when they get out there, and they’re not getting off until they win,” said Lorne Michaels, the guiding force behind “Saturday Night Live” who is overseeing the effort.

In a different era, ABC, NBC and CBS would try their hand at this genre all the time: “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,” “Pink Lady and Jeff” and “The Brady Bunch Hour.”  At that time, however, audiences had only limited viewing alternatives.  As “Maya & Marty” debuts, however, couch potatoes have an infinite variety of alternatives.

If there’s pressure on Short and Rudolph, they aren’t showing it. “We are attempting to create a loose party,” said Short, during an interview with the duo held at NBC’s headquarters in New York. On the show’s opening night, Jimmy Fallon, Tom Hanks, Miley Cyrus and Larry David will guest star (new celebrities are likely to appear each week), while “Saturday Night Live” veteran Kenan Thompson will take part across the series.

“I think there’s a real audience for it,” said Michaels, the executive producer of the series as well as much of NBC’s late-night schedule, including “SNL.” “It was such a staple of television, really for the first 30 or 40 years. And then I think elements of it are in shows like ‘Dancing With the Stars’ or ‘The Voice,” where they have that feeling – they are all just based on performance.” Other examples: “Glee,” some of the elements of today’s late-night talk shows, and “America’s Got Talent.” Today’s TV viewers have plenty of comic variety, said Michaels, but musical variety is rare.

“Maya & Marty” is the latest in a series of attempts by NBC to devise new formats aimed at bringing audiences to the TV screen for live viewing. The network hopes the combination of A-list guests and the sight of Rudolph and Short moving from song to sketch to who-knows-what over the course of an hour will be so compelling that viewers will want to see the show as it happens, noted Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and late-night programming at NBC Entertainment, rather than storing it on their DVR to watch days or weeks later.

Across NBCUniversal, there has been an emphasis on surprising programs that almost dare an audience to tune in to see if the people involved can pull things off: a live broadcast of “The Wiz” or “Best Time Ever,” a show that sent Neil Patrick Harris hurtling through songs and stunts – all live. USA recently announced it would increase the number of hours of live wresting it shows each week.

NBC’s dip into musical variety has been gradual. While Michaels and Short both cite the “Carol Burnett Show” as inspiration, no one seems eager to evoke something like “The Starland Vocal Band Show,” a variety series featuring David Letterman and the combo behind “Afternoon Delight” that aired on CBS in 1977. “When I was younger, I loved watching awards shows to see what people were doing and wearing, to see them in that different place” Rudolph explained. “That’s really more the feeling of it today – but it’s current as opposed to feeling like a retro idea. Once that idea is taken away, that this is something from the 1970s, what’s left is just music and comedy.”

Perhaps the references to older examples in the genre, whether they be Ed Sullivan and Sid Ceasar or The Captain & Tenille or Donny and Marie, are moot. Telegdy, the NBC executive, suggested the rising generation of TV viewers has no recollection of these programs and would not use them as a ready comparison. Besides, NBC has tried to revive the genre several times in the more recent past, with Barbara Mandrell in the 1980s or Rosie O’Donnell in 2008.

Rudolph has taken her time with her entry into the milieu She took part in a pilot, “The Maya Rudolph Show,” that aired in 2014 and featured Chris Parnell, Sean Hayes, Kristen Bell, Andy Samberg and Fred Armisen as guests. Rudolph and Bell made up the words to a would-be “Frozen” sequel. Parnell sang a lullaby to a new daughter. And Rudolph found herself in the middle of a sketch set on a boardwalk in which vendors tried to sell her nuts and clams. You can figure out the rest for yourself!

The show did well, noted Telegdy, reaching 7.2 million people –  buoyed by having “The Voice” as a lead in.Rudolph said she didn’t want to rush right back into making more episodes, and Michaels noted the pilot had participants consider the balance between comedy and music. When Rudolph appeared on camera with Short during last year’s 40th anniversary celebration for “Saturday Night Live,” their chemistry provoked new thoughts about working up a recalibrated variety-show formula, Michaels said.

The pair took a trip to a cottage Short maintains in Canada, with a group of writers in tow as well as Steve Higgins, a “Saturday Night Live” producer who doubles as a sidekick of sorts to Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s “Tonight Show.” Executives decided to move the show to New York, said Telegdy, to make better use of Michaels’ talent connections.

What will viewers see over the next six Tuesdays? Short and Rudolph aren’t tipping their hand – or simply want to let their creativity lead them from week to week. “Maybe by show five we’ll have a clue as to what it’s all about – and that’s healthy,” said Short. Going in with preconceived notions might ruin interplay with the line-up of guests for the week, the two suggested, or eliminate interesting ideas worth pursuing.

They are certainly up for reprising characters made famous on “Saturday Night Live” and elsewhere, but only if there’s something new and funny to do with them. Already, promos for “Maya & Marty” have shown Rudolph doing an impression of Melania Trump and the pair singing at the piano. But the real appeal of the show is that anything might happen in front of a live audience (though the show will be taped). “If we can have that looseness and that ‘what’s going to happen next’ feeling,” said Short, “that would be fantastic.”

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