The variety show, born out of radio by way of vaudeville, has always been one of the most popular TV genres — and one of the hardest to get right.
Says Dick Van Dyke, who guested on dozens of shows and won a 1976 Emmy for his own short-lived “Van Dyke & Company”: “With a sitcom, all you have is a situation, and you spend all week trying to find where the funny parts are. But a variety show is all segments — the sketches, the songs and dances. It’s hard, hard work, let me tell you.”
The First Wave: Vaudeville Rules
From the beginning, Emmy recognized the importance of that hard work in satisfying the medium’s insatiable appetite for programming. The very first Emmy, 1949’s “Most Outstanding Personality,” went to variety performer Shirley Dinsdale and puppet Judy Splinters. Soon after, TV’s pioneers started lining up for their honors, Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater,” Red Skelton and Ed Sullivan among them.
Vaudeville so dominated the medimum that for a while it was called “vaudeo.” Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” won twice, “Caesar’s Hour” once, and the comic’s team enjoyed multiple wins and noms. Drawn to TV because “you could use your body, voice, face; you were free to do whatever you wanted,” Caesar boasts that “we gave them 39 90-minute live shows a year, not 22 like today: long and short sketches, guest stars, musical numbers, the works.”
The famously demanding boss held court in the writers’ room where future legends Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon would pitch him ideas. “The material is what you’re gonna bank on, so it has to be right,” he explains.
As for Caesar’s fabled rep company of Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howie Morris, “All of them could take the ball for themselves — a very easygoing team, no arguments, no jealousy. I saved my arguments for the writing room.”
It’s difficult to overstate Caesar’s impact on the variety stars who came after. His brand of timeless humor — “we told the truth” — influenced a generation of performers. Van Dyke says, “I was nailed to that set every Saturday night,” and aspiring comedienne Carol Burnett once gave away prime theater tickets: “I figured ‘My Fair Lady’ was going to be around awhile. But if you missed one of Sid’s shows, it was gone forever.”
The Second Wave: Glad to Have This Time
Though Emmy honored series from the get-go, not till the second decade did it consider specials, and the winners have always been an eclectic bunch: Fred Astaire recitals, Leonard Bernstein Philharmonic concerts, Bob Hope Christmas shows and the all-star retrospective “Fabulous Fifties” were notable honorees. (Caesar and company returned to nab a win as late as 1967.)
During the golden age of variety series, the ’60s and ’70s, multiple Emmys went to the essentially musical Andy Williams, the psychedelic, lightly satirical “Laugh-In” and the groundbreaking “The Flip Wilson Show.” But no single name sums up the era better than Carol Burnett, whose series were nominated virtually every year since 1963’s “Carol & Company,” and won in ’72, ’74 and ’75.
“It was like doing a live musical comedy revue every week: 50 Bob Mackie costumes, 20 live musicians, 12 dancers and a guest star,” Burnett recalls. And of course her fabled stock company, modeled on Caesar and her debut series, “The Garry Moore Show” (Emmy winner in 1962): “My motto was: Let everybody shine, because that’s the best way to look good.
“When you’re a little kid and play in the sandbox, or pretend to be someone else, you’re doing it for the fun and not for any ulterior motive. That’s why people get into show business, to continue having fun. I always told our cast that we were there to have fun, then to entertain the 300 people in the live audience, and transport it out to the audience at home. It was about that f-word: fun.”
The Third Wave: Music and Satire
“There was a time,” Burnett continues, “when there were nine shows on at once. And we all admired each other. Sometimes our writers would go do blackouts on ‘Laugh-In,’ and then they’d come over to do longform on our show. But it became really expensive, and shows got canceled. And the ‘suits’ never understood what vaudeville was or could be, so they didn’t get replaced.”
By the mid-’70s, variety series were in such short supply that for two years, only a pair of nominees could be rustled up, and the results were symbolic. In ’75, it was Burnett vs. Cher, and as usual the Queen of Variety won.
In ’76, it was Burnett vs. “Saturday Night Live,” and the crowning of the new kids ushered an eclectic approach to variety that’s lasted to this day. Like “Your Show of Shows,” “SNL” was appointment television: 90 minutes of weekly live entertainment featuring a stock company. But it was latenight, not primetime. There was no dancing to speak of; one musical guest; and as Van Dyke notes, “Compared to the early days, they were much more satirical, definitely political; they called it ‘cutting edge,’ although I think at times they go over it.”
Since the mid-’70s, Emmy’s “Outstanding Specials,” with only a few exceptions, have largely been either awards shows (the Tonys, Oscars, Kennedy Center Honors) or concerts (Barbra Streisand, Cher, Elaine Stritch, Motown salutes). Music and class aplenty, but not much vaudeville there.
On the other hand, latenight comedy has predominated in Emmy’s “Variety, Music or Comedy” series category. “The Tonight Show,” under Johnny Carson and then under Jay Leno, brought home the bacon. David Letterman’s “Late Show” copped the trophy in 1994 and for five consecutive years afterward (1998-2002). And “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” has won in all four years since. Funny latenight stuff, for sure, but again, not vaudeville — not traditional variety.
Will the traditional form amalgamating comedy, music and dance ever see a resurgence? “I’d be surprised if it came back,” Van Dyke says. “Today the model is Jon Stewart, which I see as a political cartoon. And it’s the reality shows, that ‘Dancing’ thing and ‘American Idol,’ that satisfy people’s desires for variety now.”
Burnett’s more optimistic. “Young people see our reruns and ask, ‘Why don’t they do your kind of show again?’ They really want to see it. I think (someone like) Marty Short could do one. And I kept thinking: Why doesn’t Bette (Midler) have our kind of fun instead of doing a sitcom? But they’d have to scale it way down because of the cost, which would be prohibitive today.”
“Hey, you never can tell,” says Caesar. “It could come back.”
And should true variety ever return, the Emmy category will be ready to welcome it — as it did Caesar, awarded his first trophy the day his son was born.
“I always said, the day I married my wife was my luckiest day. But that first Emmy, and my son, was the happiest.”