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From Ed Sullivan to the Muppets: Five Definitive Programs From the Golden Age of the Variety Show

From Ed Sullivan to the Muppets: Five Definitive Programs From the Golden Age of the Variety Show

This post is presented in partnership with Participant Media’s new television network Pivot and its series “HITRECORD ON TV,” premiering January 18, 2014 at 10PM ET/PT with back-to-back episodes.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt describes his upcoming “HITRECORD ON TV,” which will make its world premiere at Sundance this year as what’s only the second television offering to screen in the festival’s history, as a “re-imagined variety show.” The program, in the spirit of Gordon-Levitt’s collaboration-based arts collective hitRECord, will feature short films, conversations and performances — in short, the variety of elements from which variety shows take their name. It’s been several decades since the variety show ruled the airwaves, but it is a television tradition as old as the medium itself, and has been home to some of the small screen’s most important cultural moments over the years. Here’s a look back at five of TV’s great variety shows:

The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971)

The greatest of them all. Although most remembered now for the early 1964 appearances of the Beatles, it bears remembering that Ed Sullivan had been hosting the show for a solid 15 years by that point, and that the legendary appearances by Elvis Presley in 1956 would have sufficed on their own as cultural milestones. “The Ed Sullivan Show” was the scene for so many of these important cultural events because, at that time, to a very real extent, it was the culture — Elvis’ third appearance was seen by over 80% of Americans watching television when it aired. A reminder that no one at the time would have needed, but that we, so far in the future, do, is that “The Ed Sullivan Show” was not just a music show. It resurrected and sustained the tradition of vaudeville in American entertainment, with every imaginable kind of entertainment appearing in each hour-long episode: musicians both classical and popular, clowns, comedians, dancers and dramatic actors performing the classics. At the center of it all was the stoic, eternal Sullivan, representing at his peak the way American culture saw itself, and gradually over time representing the shadow of what that culture had been. Even now, and even in the reduced context of his association with Elvis and the Beatles, Ed Sullivan was American popular culture, for a very long time.

Your Show of Shows (1950-1954)

Where “The Ed Sullivan Show” was the present and the past, “Your Show of Shows” lit the way to the future. It’s no exaggeration to say that the next quarter-century of American comedy sprang forth from “Your Show of Shows” and Sid Caesar’s subsequent TV programs. Co-star Imogene Coca was a legendary comedienne in her own right, though it was fellow cast member Carl Reiner who would have the most lasting impact, still working in film today at the age of 91, and who as a film director launched the career of Steve Martin, to say nothing of his own son Rob, the veteran comic actor and filmmaker. The writing staff of “Your Show of Shows” included Reiner, as well as Mel Brooks and Neil Simon at the beginning of their legendary careers. Contrary to popular belief, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart never actually wrote for the program, but for other Sid Caesar shows it made possible, meaning it’s only one step removed from launching those august figures as well. Of course, “Your Show of Shows” didn’t make all these people famous for nothing. It was a bridge between the old vaudeville tradition and popular culture to come, with the crack writing staff incorporating narrative into the old, random structure, and innovating with the freedom afforded a medium that had yet to decide intractably what it was. When television comedy arrived at an identity, the one it assumed was largely due to this revolutionary program.

The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978)

Before landing her own show, Carol Burnett had been bouncing around TV and Broadway for a few years, an undeniable talent in search of a hit. It was also — not that any era has ever been effortless for women performers — not the easiest time for a female entertainer seeking to headline her own show. One rara avis in that regard, Lucille Ball, took Burnett under her wing in a mentor capacity, offering to build a sitcom around her, but Burnett held out for something less conventional, and in 1967 her variety show was born. Burnett overcame the resistance of the network — who didn’t think a woman was up to the task of spearheading a popular variety show — to preside over a decade of wildly successful television, with collaborators like (at various times) Vickie Lawrence, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner and Dick van Dyke. By the time the show had run its course, “The Carol Burnett Show” had become one of the most popular programs in the history of television, and a landmark for women in comedy, cementing its star’s credentials as an all-time great.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1969)

What began as a variety show like many that had come before, featuring the bright, talented siblings Dick and Tom Smothers, in short order became one of the more important forces in the budding counterculture of disaffected youth increasingly skeptical of the society their parents had created. That “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” aired opposite the long-running Western “Bonanza,” an institution among that older generation, only added to the us-against-them sentiment. The brothers Smothers used their outwardly square appearance to their own advantage, getting away with far more subversive material than they would have with longer hair and more languid (not to say stoned) speech patterns. Being sharp, funny dorks made them seem, at first glance, relatively harmless. But a closer look revealed fairly revolutionary material, mocking racism and the war in Vietnam. Occasionally, there were more obvious acts of defiance, like inviting the Who on to smash their instruments and blow up their drum kit; Tommy Smothers was only rattled by how loud and messy the explosion of Keith Moon’s drums was, not that it blew up. Like any program that defiant, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was not long for television. That it lasted three seasons is a small miracle, and a sign, perhaps, of just how unpopular and archaic the self-deluding mainstream entertainment industry actually was. In any case, it shall always be remembered for its boldness, its daring, and, most essentially, for being really funny.

The Muppet Show (1976-1981)

Bringing things full circle, the Muppets made their first televised appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a total of 25 times between 1966 and 1971. They also popped up on the landmark children’s program “Sesame Street,” and on a number of standalone specials, so that by the time “The Muppet Show” debuted, they were already well established in popular culture. “The Muppet Show” was, at once, a variety show in the Ed Sullivan tradition (one that dutifully traced its ancestry back to vaudeville) and a commentary on the same, a post-modern whirlwind of references, reflexivity and good old-fashioned silliness. The Muppets beat with the ancient, eternal heart of showbiz, and are a testament to the pure joy of putting on a show to entertain people, with which it never allows all the clever breaking of fourth walls and metatextuality to interfere. Despite only airing for five years, the Muppets’ seamless transition into film, and the subsequent non-Muppet work of Jim Henson, lent an air of the eternal to “The Muppet Show.” Even Henson’s tragically premature death was no impediment to the Muppets’ legacy, as they, and the “creature shop” that bears his name, live on in Henson’s name, as much as any the soul of pure entertainment.

Indiewire has partnered with Pivot and its new series “HITRECORD ON TV.” The series offers a new take on the variety show, hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who directs countless artists from his global online community — hitRECord — to create short films, live performances, music, animation, conversations and more. Each episode focuses on a different theme as Joe invites and encourages anybody with an internet connection to join him and contribute. The series debuts on Saturday, January 18, 2014 — find out more here.

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