Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The TV Activist, Pt. 3 - Variety & the Spites of Life

I know, I was going to finish up the 3-D series.  (Come to that, I was going to finish up the series of TV posts, too.)  But in the world of blogging, there is the cardinal rule that a good overexposed viral video is just too sweet to pass up.

And as at least half the Internet has seen by now, last Sunday on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars", Olympic gold gymnast Laurie Hernandez danced with partner Val Chmerkovskiy, costumed as Disney's Dewey and Scrooge McDuck, in a themed tribute to the 1987 DuckTales cartoon theme.
Naturally, the Scrooge McDuck fan in me had to sit up and take notice.  Well, curse me kilts.
Like most other soullessly corporate-synergized viral Disney plugs on ABC (ahemonceuponatime), the number may in fact have been simply just trying to stoke 80's-nostalgic hype-machine fires for a new inferior '17 DuckTales cartoon reboot premiering on DisneyXD, but why nitpick over details?--Like anyone watches XD apart from the Marvel shows anyway, at least after they cancelled the first Avengers series, Tron: Uprising and Doraemon.

But nostalgia, corporate plug, or just imaginative variety number, if there's a column-long lesson to be learned from it, it's one question a lot of TV fans have wondered about for decades, but never really put their finger on answering:  
Thirty-five or forty years ago, we'd be seeing this on a top-rated network variety show.  (Or even a modest little embarrassing six-week summer-replacement network variety show.)  And whatever happened to the network variety show, anyway?

The first answer that comes up is the glaringly obvious one:  "Whatever happened to it" was Carol Burnett and Kermit the Frog.  The two iconic "last" 70's TV-variety staples that set the bar so high, no human achievement could even hope to duplicate them in a lifetime.  When they left in 1978 and '81, if "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Muppet Show" didn't retire the TV variety show's jersey like Babe Ruth's #3 hanging in Yankee Stadium, nothing could.  (And second attempts to try and give Carol and Kermit new shows in the 80's and 90's have long since been forgotten.)

Another was networks' continuing El Dorado search to try and explain why Ed Sullivan had had such a hold on the American TV public in the 50's and 60's, and whether lightning could ever strike twice.  The answer, of course, was that Ed Sullivan in the 50's had brought "Toast of the Town" over from radio, where he had already been famous as one of Broadway's leading entertainment-news reporters--If anyone in New York knew which new acts were in town to find that week, whether a Broadway show, a new nightclub comic, or four British lads, Ed knew from experience where to find them and find them first.
Networks, however, didn't quite grasp the subtleties, thought Sullivan's appeal was how incongruously "boring" and un-entertainer he seemed by comparison, and searched for the next "unlikely" network host for the next anything-goes vaudeville-act variety series.  Dick Clark briefly had a short-lived variety series in the late 70's, and in 1975, ABC gave us "Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell".  Guess which NBC show premiering that same year had to temporarily change its title to satisfy Legal.

Entertainment also fractured with the rise of pop culture in the 80's:  We no longer needed to see a popstar guest on a prime-time show to sing their hit song, or even see the show's host (try to) cover it for them.  With pop music becoming more of an industry again in the early 80's--where it had been stuck in TV's mainstream influence in the 70's--stars were now too expensive to appear on a mere network.  Paul McCartney, for example, found it easier (and networks found it much cheaper) to simply stay home and send the show his new idea of an artistic short film of Wings singing their latest hit, instead of appearing as the week's guest star in person.  You probably know where that idea led to, and by 1982-'84, if you looked for a singer's latest hit, it just didn't make sense to look anywhere else.  If you got your music, you got it from the source, and the cable network's VJ's were in "your" music culture enough to find it for you.

We also no longer needed singers or athletes pretending to be sketch-comedy stars to fill out an hour, either:  Like 70's SNL's stock of ex-Toronto and Chicago Second City performers who had to compete with ABC and Cosell's "Prime Time Players", comedy culture had two attacks of creative sabotage in the 70's.  One from the new club culture of angry Nixon/Ford-era political satire and underground Improv-club creativity, and the other from the New British Invasion of silliness when the first PBS airings of Monty Python became Friday night's best-kept cult secret with 12-24 yo's.
When reliable comfort-food variety shows like Donny & Marie eventually found their writers trying to fan-copycat their way into Python's new meta-verse of abandoned sketch premises, stream-of-conciousness segue links in place of punchlines or blackouts, inexplicably silly non-sequitirs and fourth-walling about their own existence as comedy sketches, the writing was on the wall even for the big stage-laffs of Carol Burnett dressing up in window curtains.

Even the format was changing.  In the old days, variety of the 70's was to give us a "taste of Las Vegas", and just a little of the glitzy thrill of seeing star A-list crooners and comics play to sold-out audiences on the gigantic stage of Caesar's Palace, without having to leave our living room.
But that was in a generation when Vegas was still Vegas, and Dino, Frank, Sammy and the Rat Pack could still dictate what old-school nightclub entertainment happened there and what stayed there.  Nowadays, the "Vegas-style" show entertainment the town's industry had to generate on its own has almost vanished, replaced by the corporate outreach of touring Broadway, Cirque du Soleil, Blue Man Group and recording-contract stars.  Apart from the loyal stage-magicians, only one or two old-school showgirls-in-feathers variety shows still remain, and then, largely for symbolic tourist pageant, to satisfy that particular portion of the audience that, er...still has a thing for glitter-pizzazz, showtunes and showgirl outfits.  If ya know what I mean.
But at least we did get to see the Jabbawockeez, the current sold-out kings of Vegas, win first place on MTV's America's Best Dance Crew.

But the main problem seemed to be what made a variety show:  The celebrities.  Entertainment news first became a new pop industry by '81 and '82, and our culture gradually came to realize, hey, y'know something?...We hated celebrities.  We didn't want to see them show off their rich glamorous sheltered lives behind our backs, on our dollar, and we didn't want to see them in carefully created media images, when we all knew what nasty, self-destructive lunatics they could be offscreen.
At the same time, networks found the rise of the Reality Show was a new miracle for them--As Albert Brooks quipped just before the first Survivor finale, "You've got hundreds of non-union actors beating down the doors to be in your show, for thirteen weeks you can do anything you want to them, and when it's all over, you only have to pay ONE of them!"
When British producers decided to sell America the license for their American Idol spinoff, it solved both problems:  We had variety shows without celebrities--they were just like us, so if they succeeded, you rooted for their starlet dreams like they were your BFF, and if they were bad, you had no problems of conscience gleefully booing them offstage--and since they were not even no-names yet, producers could get them for free.  The concept at first appealed to the dominion of the audience daring the performer to entertain them; the initial sales-marketable appeal of the show was not so much the young singer who rose to stardom, as what Simon Cowell, love him or hate him, would say to the unsuccessful singer who didn't...Another wannabe bites the dust.

The Audition show, while meant to save money, instead became a sort of Bastille revolution against watching celebrities pal with hosts on stage at our poor peasant expense.
In the narcissistic Internet age, audiences now consider it an insult to be mere "slaves" as spectators--It has to be THEIR show, too, like a rock-concert audience, and the camera is now on their reactions and the judging panel's for almost equally as much time as on the performers.  The show must be about them, as the act of being spectators, and provide the fodder for social-media fan-networking as the "power behind the thrones".  They don't want to be the ones simply watching, they want to decide whether new performers continue to "interfere" in their cultural lives enough to determine whether the acts still have a paying career or not.  They want the right to boo performers off or say that if the act was a hit, they were the first ones hip enough to say so, and the performer should owe them that much more gratitude for it.  And if the acts, like the AGT or Idol winners, go on to successful careers, well, it's just a reflection on who was smart enough to spot them first.  Y'know, like Ed used to.

But after a while, it just wasn't enough.  We wanted to see, well, somebody famous who knew how.  We didn't mind washed-up celebrities, if they Thought They Could Dance, or tried to get a job with Donald Trump.
And when the acts on America's Got Talent started showing us performers who could perform again, and even wow us, we started to miss the feeling of being audiences, sitting in a theater and being wowed.
Enter the latest attempt for networks to figure out What the Fifties Did Right That We're Not Doing.  And what everyone's TV-childhood remembered was Mary Martin playing Peter Pan.  The idea of bringing back a live-musical Pan, with or without Martin--with the urgency of an awards show, and nothing LESS than an un-reschedulable live event would convince NBC to give up NCIS for even one night only--became so popular, the network insisted on doing it every year, with The Sound of Music performed live the next year.   (I mean, hey, remember when we were kids, and they used to show the Sound of Music movie every Christmas or Thanksgiving?--The movie, how cool was that?)
That soon led to The Wiz: Live, Grease: Live, an upcoming Hairspray, and even the Rocky Horror Show.  And if they keep at it long enough, NBC or Fox may even become brave enough to show us a musical we DON'T already know by cult-heart.

So now, in searching for that feeling of stage experience on our screens, we've full-circled all the way back to...stage experiences on our screens.
It's too rooted in our TV DNA-memories for us to completely come to grips with as modern audiences:  We want to see entertainers, but we don't want to simply applaud them without getting some credit for it too.  We want celebrities, but celebrities like US, not the psychotic overprivileged ones that act like jerks in the gossip headlines.  We want to see song and dance, but we don't know why anyone would simply sing or dance without a good reason.  We want old-school entertainment, just so long as it's not, y'know, that kind of old.

Although as an Activist, I always hope to see something done, it may simply be that nothing CAN be done for the Variety Show today--There's no ground for it to grow upon anymore.  We want purpose to our vaudeville now, and without the aim of competition and audition, or the need for corporate synergy, there's no missing space left for the genre to fill.  A dozen new automobiles have replaced the reliable old workhorse.
So although competition shows, live-musicals and awards now fill out the top-rated shows, we can search for that empty hole in our cultural memories, but in the end, it seems we may have to say farewell to the innocence of Variety Without Purpose.  
May tomorrow be a perfect day, may it find love and laughter along the way, and may God keep it in His tender care, until He brings us together again.

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