Understandably, entertainment executives keep trying to make the charismatic “Saturday Night Live” veteran Maya Rudolph a bigger star. Less understandable are an array of efforts to revive the variety show, a genre of entertainment perhaps left best to prior eras in TV history.
Let’s face it, variety shows thrived when viewers didn’t have a lot of other options, but now anyone with a TV, smartphone or laptop has hundreds of different kinds of programs at his or her disposal every minute of the day. It’s easy to create one’s own grab bag of entertainment — the networks don’t have to do it for us.
And yet they keep trying, especially NBC, which aired “The Maya Rudolph Show” in 2014 and cast the actress as a talk-show diva in the ever-morphing sitcom “Up All Night” a few years earlier. Last year’s variety offering, “Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris,” flopped, perhaps because it continually reeked of flop sweat. Now NBC is back at it with “Maya and Marty,” but if its debut episode was supposed to convince America that variety shows truly deserve to re-establish themselves on the entertainment scene, well, it didn’t successfully make that case.
Part of the problem was that it’s hard to figure out why Martin Short and Rudolph were shoehorned into the same program. They didn’t spend much time together on screen, aside from a reasonably entertaining opening skit starring Tom Hanks, and a couple moments of chatter at the start and end of the hourlong program.
One trait the performers have in common is a tendency to play big, brassy, larger-than-life characters, but all too often, the writing for them wasn’t nearly as sharp as it needed to be. The end result was often a lot of bombast and noise but not too many laughs. “Maya and Marty,” in many ways, is a ham sandwich with an extra helping of ham.
Friends got to mug for the camera too: Steve Martin stopped by briefly, Miley Cyrus (an alumni of another variety-adjacent show starring Bill Murray, Rudolph and others) sang a tune, and Kenan Thompson was just one “SNL” veteran who stopped by. In a show that already had possibly too many commercial tie-ins and product placements, Thompson did a Steve Harvey impression in a skit that mocked the network’s “Little Big Shots” while also not so stealthily promoting it. In that parody, Short and Jimmy Fallon played a set of twins who engaged in toilet humor while offering up painfully overwrought overacting.
The best that can be said of “Maya and Marty” is that although that particular skit made me long for the sweet release of death, not all of it was that painful.
Hanks was a good sport about his heroic image in that opening skit, in which he played an astronaut who’s actually a secret slacker. A later bit that starred Rudolph as a ditzy, stone-faced Melania Trump veered a little close to her classic Donatella Versace impersonation, but it was reasonably amusing.
But most of the sketches in “Maya and Marty” came off like uninspired “SNL” cast-offs, the kind of thing that either airs ten minutes before the show ends or gets cut after the dress rehearsal.
A pre-taped showcase for Short’s obsequious interviewer character, Jiminy Glick, had him interviewing Larry David, and that featured a few spontaneous, laugh-out-loud moments, but like many of the other sketches, it ran too long. As for another of the hour’s low points, at this point, parodying Ken Burns’ documentary style, the subject of one interminable skit, feels like shooting long-dead fish in a very shallow barrel. Savion Glover and the cast of “Shuffle Along,” who closed the show in a rousing fashion, were a sight for sore eyes: The kind of clatter produced by their tap-dancing was intentional, precise and highly enjoyable, in marked contrast to much of what preceded it.
Every variety show is going to have some dead spots, but what’s disconcerting about the first episode of “Maya and Marty” is that the team behind the show thought that these sketches were the strongest ones they had in their arsenal. If these bits were the pick of litter, I can only imagine what’s on tap for next week. But I would prefer not to.