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Screengrab via Maya and Marty/YouTube

Why the variety show doesn’t work in the digital age

Most variety shows just don’t unite us the way they used to.


Chris Osterndorf


“If at first you don’t succeed, run the idea into the ground.”

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This oftentimes tends to be the motto in television. For proof, look no further than NBC. Tonight, the network will start airing Maya & Marty, a six-episode variety show starring SNL alums Maya Rudolph and Martin Short. 

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Now, in deference to Rudolph and Short, both performers are legitimate comedic geniuses, and deserve vehicles worthy of their considerable talent. And to give NBC the benefit of the doubt, both performers also showed considerable chemistry when they appeared on SNL’s 40th anniversary special last year. And then there’s the fact that Rudolph’s previous variety special, 2014’s The Maya Rudolph Show, did fairly well in its timeslot, despite earning mixed reviews. So, with all that said, Maya & Marty is not, at least entirely, a horrible idea.

Except for the fact that variety shows are dead

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Every network that has tried to revive them over the past few years has failed, and more importantly, growing divisions in popular culture have made them all but impossible prospects for the digital age.

Variety shows undoubtedly hold an important place in the history of American television. In the 50s and 60s, future comedy legends such as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner got their start from comedy legends of the time on programs like Your Show of Shows, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Sid Caesar Show, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. But it wasn’t just comedians who thrived in the variety world. Everyone from television luminaries like Ed Sullivan, to film and music stars like Dean Martin, to idiosyncratic products of their time like Lawrence Welk hosted variety hours. The genre reached its apex in the 70s, with an influx of talented (and perhaps a few not so talented) performers putting their own spin on the format. 

Growing divisions in popular culture have made them all but impossible prospects for the digital age. 

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Flip Wilson broke the color-barrier. Couples like Sonny and Cher, The Captain and Tennille, and Donny and Marie (not technically a couple but close enough) proved that America loved male/female duos. Hee Haw had a country western bent and Laugh-In appealed to the burgeoning counterculture. And then there was the unforgettable Carol Burnett Show, which defined classy sketch comedy for over a decade.

But the late 70s saw the arrival of the so-called rural purge in television, which in theory was about ridding programming with a country setting for hipper, “urban” shows. In short, TV executives axed anything that was deemed too old or too square. Variety shows qualified.

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There were a few attempts to revive the format in the 80s, such as Dolly Parton’s Dolly and the amazingly titled comedy/music mashup Pink Lady …And Jeff. But for the most part, it seemed like the networks got it, and the variety show was laid to rest

Yet for some inexplicable reason, networks keep trying to resurrect the variety show’s corpse over the past decade or so. From 2001-2009, ABC, NBC, and FOX gave everyone from Rosie O’Donnell, to Wayne Brady, to The Osbournes, to Nick Lachey & Jessica Simpson their own variety shows. Each attempt failed. Earlier this year, Neil Patrick Harris’s Best Time Ever was also canceled. A lucky few, like Carrie Underwood, Lady Gaga and Rudolph have had mild success with old-school holiday specials. But the American public seems less than interested in watching variety television week after week.

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With the rise of premium cable and the Internet (and the advent of streaming), the major networks have become more desperate than ever to win viewers back by any means possible. But the first reason why the variety show format hasn’t worked likely has something to do with the show on which Martin Short and Maya Rudolph cut their teeth. 

When Saturday Night Live arrived on television in 1975, it was self-aware in a way like no American program which came before it. It had comedy and music and celebrities, like a traditional variety show. And, of course, it had the whole “live” element going for it. But the point of traditional variety shows was that you knew what you were going to get every week; they were polished, pristine products, which were supposed to be comfortable and relaxing. SNL, by contrast, was messy, and cheap, and dangerous. It’s unpredictability what defined the show, especially early on, and it quickly became clear that SNL was “edgy” in a way that none of the traditional variety shows could match.

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In the years since, SNL has become the grandfather of modern American sketch comedy, and has been overtaken by countless younger, hipper shows. But while these shows put their own spin on the style SNL (and before them, Britain’s Monty Python) pioneered, SNL effectively eviscerated the variety format that came before it.

The problem is that it’s no longer possible to package all this together. And it’s extremely hard to find cultural presences who can unite people of all ages across a variety show’s unpredictable structure. Keep in mind that despite its longterm success, SNL has a fairly narrow demographic. But variety shows exist on the premise that everyone can watch them.

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“Watching this special, you could see why variety shows worked as well as they did, when they did, in the pre-cable era,” wrote TIME’s James Poniewozik after watching Rosie Live! in 2008. “If there were, oh, two or three networks on TV, I could see the appeal of this show. If I watch for half an hour, there just might be something I’ll like! Today, it came off as a more amateurish America’s Got Talent, and finished last in the ratings for its efforts.”

You want your own variety show? Watch some clips on YouTube, that’s your variety show. 

The technology Poniewozik references, from cable and beyond, which is the reason the networks started to lose ratings and get desperate in the first place, is also what makes the sensibility of the variety show so absurd for the digital era.

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The paradox is that all these choices that cable and the Internet gave us ended up dividing the culture into so many disparate pieces, it was no longer merely the way we accessed our media which killed the variety show, but also the reality that media itself no longer had the power to brign us together the way it used to. You want your own variety show? Watch some clips on YouTube, that’s your variety show.

Consider, too, the resurgence of the term culture wars.

The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg writes: “As the new culture war has widened, it has also fragmented, turning less into a clash of great powers than into a series of intractable guerrilla conflicts, marked by shifting alliances and the rapid emergence of new players…” Variety reported earlier this year that since 1999, the number of scripted television series being produced for cable networks alone has risen more than 1,000 percent.”

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With those odds, it’s no wonder most shows can’t unite the American public in this digital age the way TV used to.

In 2013, ABC aired a holiday variety special hosted by The Muppets and Lady Gaga. The Muppets are great. Lady Gaga is great. But there probably isn’t a big enough overlap in their audience to unite mass ratings on a regular basis.

It’s time for networks to learn that giving people a bunch of stuff they like randomly thrown together is similar to creating a stew using carrots, peanut butter, and macaroni: All great ingredients on their own, but guaranteed to leave a weird aftertaste if you try to enjoy them together.

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Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, he enjoys making movies with friends. He lives in Los Angeles.

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