Variety shows, also known as variety arts or variety entertainment, is entertainment made up of a variety of acts including musical performances, sketch comedy, magic, acrobatics, juggling, and ventriloquism. It is normally introduced by a compère (master of ceremonies) or host. The variety format made its way from Victorian era stage to radio and then television. Variety shows were a staple of anglophone television from the late 1940s into the 1980s.
While still widespread in some parts of the world, such as in the United Kingdom with the Royal Variety Performance, and South Korea with Running Man, the proliferation of multichannel television and evolving viewer tastes have affected the popularity of variety shows in the United States. Despite this, their influence has still had a major effect on late night television whose late night talk shows and NBC's variety series Saturday Night Live (which originally premiered in 1975) have remained popular fixtures of North American television.
The live entertainment style known as music hall in the United Kingdom and vaudeville in the United States can be considered a direct predecessor of the "variety show" format. Variety in the UK evolved in theatres and music halls, and later in Working Men's Clubs. British performers who honed their skills in music hall sketches include Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, George Formby, Gracie Fields, Dan Leno, Gertrude Lawrence and Marie Lloyd. Most of the early top performers on British television and radio did an apprenticeship either in stage variety, or during World War II in Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). In the UK, the ultimate accolade for a variety artist for decades was to be asked to do the annual Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium theatre, in front of the monarch. Later known as the Royal Variety Performance (from 1919), it continues today. In the 1940s, Stan Laurel revisited his music hall days when he performed at the Royal Variety show.
In the United States, former vaudeville performers such as the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, W. C. Fields, and Jack Benny honed their skills in the Borscht Belt before moving to talkies, to radio shows, and then to television shows, including variety shows.
Variety shows were among the first programs to be featured on television during the experimental mechanical television era. Variety shows hosted by Helen Haynes and Harriet Lee are recorded in contemporary newspapers in 1931 and 1932; because of technical limits of the era, no recordings of either show have been preserved. The genre proliferated during the Golden Age of Television, generally considered to be roughly 1948 to 1960. Many of these Golden Age variety shows were spinoffs of previous radio variety shows.
From 1948 to 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show was one of CBS's most popular television series. Using his no-nonsense approach, host Ed Sullivan was instrumental in bringing many acts to prominence in the United States, including Elvis Presley and The Beatles. The Lawrence Welk Show (1955-1982) would go on to become one of U.S. television's longest-running variety shows; based on the concept of the big band remote from the old-time radio era, it was already one of the last shows of its kind when it debuted and far outlasted all other big-band centered broadcast series by the end of its run.
Other long-running American variety shows that premiered during this time include Texaco Star Theatre (1948-1956), Cavalcade of Stars, later titled The Jackie Gleason Show (1949-1955), The Garry Moore Show (1950-1967, in various incarnations), The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-1955), Your Show of Shows (1950-1954), The Red Skelton Show (1951-1971), The Dinah Shore Show (1951-1957), The George Gobel Show (1954-1960) and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show (1956-1963). Perry Como also hosted a series of variety shows that collectively ran from 1948 to 1969, followed by variety specials that ran until 1994.
In the UK, The Good Old Days—which ran from 1953 to 1983—featured modern artists performing dressed in late Victorian/Early Edwardian costume, either doing their own act or performing as a music hall artist of that period. The audience was also encouraged to dress in period costume in a similar fashion. Other long-running British variety shows that originated in the 1950s include Tonight at the London Palladium (1955-1969), The Black and White Minstrel Show (1958-1978), The White Heather Club (1958-1968) and Royal Variety Performance (an annual event televised since the 1950s).
Popular American variety shows that began in the 60s include a revival of The Jackie Gleason Show (1960-1970), The Andy Williams Show (1962-1971), The Danny Kaye Show (1963-1967), The Hollywood Palace (1964-1970), The Dean Martin Show (1965-1974), The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978) and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1969). 1969 saw a flurry of new variety shows with rural appeal: The Johnny Cash Show (1969-1971), The Jim Nabors Hour (1969-1971), The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (1969-1972) and Hee Haw (1969-1992).
In 1970 and 1971, the American TV networks, CBS especially, conducted the so-called "rural purge", in which shows that appealed to more rural and older audiences were canceled as part of a greater focus on appealing to wealthier demographics. Many variety shows, including long-running ones, were canceled as part of this "purge," with a few shows (such as Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show) surviving and moving into first-run syndication. Variety shows continued to be produced in the 1970s, with most of them stripped down to only music and comedy.
Popular variety shows that ran in the 1970s include The Flip Wilson Show (1970-1974), The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (1971-1976, in various incarnations), The Bobby Goldsboro Show (1973-1975), The Midnight Special (1973-1981), Don Kirshner's Rock Concert (1973-1981), The Mac Davis Show (1974-1976), Tony Orlando and Dawn (1974-1976), Donny & Marie (1976-1979) and Sha Na Na (1977-1981).
Entertainers with weekly variety shows that ran for one season or less in the 1970s include Captain & Tennille, The Jacksons, The Keane Brothers, Bobby Darin, Mary Tyler Moore, Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton, Shields and Yarnell, The Manhattan Transfer, Starland Vocal Band, and the cast of The Brady Bunch.
By the late 1970s, nearly every variety show had ended production, in part because of audience burnout; the highest-rated variety show of 1975, Cher, was only the 22nd-most watched show of the year.
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By the early 1980s, the few new variety shows being produced were of remarkably poor quality (see, for instance, the infamous Pink Lady and Jeff), hastening the format's demise. Since Pink Lady, only a few traditional variety shows have been attempted by major networks: these include Dolly (starring Dolly Parton), which ran for 23 episodes on the ABC during the 1987–'88 season; a revival of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour from 1988 to 1989; a revival of The Carol Burnett Show, which was broadcast by CBS for nine episodes in 1991; and the first incarnation of The Wayne Brady Show, which was telecast by ABC in August 2001. On cable, Showtime's The Super Dave Osborne Show served as an exception to the genre's declining fortunes, airing successfully from 1987-1991, with star Bob Einstein winning a CableACE Award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series in 1992.
By the 21st century, the variety show format had fallen out of fashion, due largely to changing tastes and the fracturing of media audiences (caused by the proliferation of cable and satellite television) that makes a multiple-genre variety show impractical. Even reruns of variety shows have generally not been particularly widespread; TV Land telecasted briefly some variety shows (namely The Ed Sullivan Show and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour) upon its beginning in 1996, but within a few years, reruns of most of those shows (with the notable exception of The Flip Wilson Show) stopped. Similarly, CMT held the rights to Hee Haw but telecast very few episodes, opting mainly to hold rights to allow them to air performance videos from the show in its video blocks. The current rights holder of Hee Haw, RFD-TV, has been more prominent in its telecasts of the show; RFD-TV also airs numerous other country-style variety shows from the 1960s and 1970s up through the present day, in a rarity for modern television. Another notable exception is The Lawrence Welk Show, which has been telecast continually in reruns on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) since 1986. The Danny Kaye Show returned to television in 2017 with reruns on Jewish Life Television (and, in the case of a one-off Christmas special, the Christian-leaning network INSP); JLTV also carries other classic comedy/variety series by Jewish comics in its schedule. Digital multicast network getTV shows variety shows on an irregular basis. The Spanish language variety show Sabado Gigante, which began in 1962, and then moved from Chile to the United States in 1986, continued to produce and broadcast new episodes on Univision until its cancellation in September 2015.
At least one national variety show continues on national radio: Live from Here, a musical variety series hosted by Chris Thile. It has followed three formats over the course of its history, the first and longest being that of A Prairie Home Companion; founding host Garrison Keillor created the series in 1974 as an homage to rural radio variety shows, featuring sketch comedy based on radio dramas of the old-time radio era, complete with faux commercials. (The other format, The American Radio Company of the Air, also hosted and created by Keillor, was set in a more urban environment and likewise was based on old-time radio; its short run in the late 1980s eventually morphed into a revival of A Prairie Home Companion). Live from Here, which was established in its current format in 2016 and took on its name a year later after losing the rights to the A Prairie Home Companion name, focuses mainly on musical acts.
Fox's Osbournes Reloaded, a variety show featuring the family of rocker Ozzy Osbourne, was canceled after only one episode had been telecast in 2009. More than two dozen affiliates refused to telecast the first episode of the show. This series had been slated for a six-episode run.
NBC has made repeated attempts at reviving the variety format since the late 2000s (its last successful series in this genre, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, left the network's schedule in 1982) . A pilot episode for Rosie Live was telecast the day before Thanksgiving Day in 2008 and, after receiving middling ratings and extremely poor reviews, was not picked up for its originally planned run in January 2009. In May 2014, NBC aired The Maya Rudolph Show, a variety show starring SNL performer Maya Rudolph. Like Rosie Live, the broadcast was intended to be a one-off special, but with the possibility of additional episodes depending on its performance. The special won its time slot, due mainly to a strong lead-in, and spawned the May 2016 premiere of Maya & Marty, adding fellow SNL cast member Martin Short. Earlier that season, NBC aired Best Time Ever, an adaptation of the British variety game show Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway starring actor Neil Patrick Harris which was ultimately unsuccessful.
Starting in the 1950s, some entertainers became associated with variety television specials that would reoccur on a regular basis, in some cases for decades. Such entertainers included Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Andy Williams and Mitzi Gaynor. Many of these were Christmas variety specials, which often showed the star in a set meant to look like their home, welcoming singers and other guests to perform duets of Christmas songs. The popularity of these Christmas shows outlasted that of weekly variety shows. In 1973, for example, even as variety shows were starting to fade in popularity, variety Christmas specials hosted by Williams and Como both attracted an enormous 40% of the American television audience. Christmas variety specials' popularity continued into the 1990s, before starting to wane in the 2000s. Nevertheless, the tradition has continued. Entertainers who have hosted Christmas variety specials in the 21st century include Kid Rock, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, Carrie Underwood, Lady Gaga, Michael Buble, Bill Murray and Gwen Stefani.
Though the format faded in popularity in prime time, it thrived in late night. Night-time variety shows eventually evolved into late-night talk shows, which combine variety entertainment (primarily comedy and live music) with the aspects of a talk show (such as interviews with celebrities). The Emmy Awards academy considers the two genres to be related closely enough that, until 2015, the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series was open to any of these types of show; in 2015, the academy separated late-night talk shows and sketch comedy series into separate categories.
During Johnny Carson's tenure on The Tonight Show on NBC from 1962 to 1992, the show dominated late night ratings, and the other networks attempted late-night talk shows only sporadically. This changed with Carson's retirement, and other networks began to air their own talk show competitors, starting with Late Show with David Letterman on CBS in 1993. As of 2014, late-night talk shows vary widely on their resemblance to the original variety format, with Jimmy Fallon's incarnation of The Tonight Show putting heavy emphasis on sketches and stunts, while shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert put more emphasis on desk chat.
The Richard Bey Show combined the variety show with the tabloid talk show, not only having its guests talk about their problems but also having them participate in absurdist games, and Sally Jesse Raphael was known for occasionally having music and fashion in the show, especially drag and gender-bending performances.
Sketch comedy series such as Saturday Night Live, In Living Color, Almost Live! (and its successor Up Late NW), MADtv, and SCTV also contain variety show elements, particularly musical performances and comedy sketches. The most obvious difference between shows such as Saturday Night Live and traditional variety shows is the lack of a single lead host (or hosts) and a large ensemble cast. SNL has used different guest hosts ever since its inception.
Televised talent shows have a variety show element, in that they feature a variety of different acts. Examples of talent shows that feature entertainers from a broad variety of disciplines include Star Search, which had a run in the 1980s in syndication and a run on CBS in the early 2000s during the reality television boom; The Gong Show, which reached its peak in the 1970s but has had occasional revivals since then; and the worldwide Got Talent franchise.
The variety show format also continued in the form of the telethon, which feature variety entertainment (often music) interspersed with appeals for viewers to make donations to support a charity or cause. The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon was one of the best known telethons in the US, but it too was eventually canceled after several years of shortening (originally over 21 hours, by the time of its last telecast in 2014, by which point Lewis had been gone from the telethon several years, it was down to two hours). Another popular telethon, for United Cerebral Palsy, ended its run in 1998 shortly after the death of its founder and figurehead, Dennis James. Likewise, only a handful of long-established local telethons remain.
The prime time variety show format was popular in the early decades of Australian television, spawning such series as In Melbourne Tonight, The Graham Kennedy Show, The Don Lane Show, and Hey Hey It's Saturday, which ran for 27 years. Recent prime time variety shows include the short lived Micallef Tonight and The Sideshow.
Another of today's variety shows in Asia is Taiwan's Guess (variety show) and 100% Entertainment. East Asian variety programs are known for its constant use of sound effects, on-screen visuals and comedic bantering. Many of the shows are presented in a live-like presentation in a fast-paced setting, with scenes repeating or fast forwarded.
Another popular variety show in Taiwan is Kangxi Lai Le, a talk show with variety show elements. The hosts and guests were associated with variety shows. Famous for its bantering, which was written before tapings.
The first Chinese variety show to become a major success was Hong Kong's Enjoy Yourself Tonight, which first aired in 1967 and ran for 27 years. In Hong Kong, variety shows are often combined with elements of a cooking show or a talent competition but end in various results.
Variety programming has remained one of the dominant genres of television programming. While Japanese variety shows are famous abroad for their wild stunts, they vary from talk shows to music shows, from tabloid news shows to skit comedy. The prominent use of telop on screen has created a style that has influenced variety programming across Asia. One of the most popular variety shows in Japan includes Downtown no Gaki No Tsukai.
In South Korea, the hugely popular show Infinite Challenge, has been broadcast by MBC from 2005 to 2018, was a new model of this, called "Real Variety Show". It combined comedy and variety scenes including unscripted stunts. Although many variety shows have existed in Korea long before the broadcast of Infinite Challenge, this program has given a rise to a new page in the history of Korean variety shows by introducing unscripted stunts. As a result, other broadcasting channels such as KBS and SBS have followed its path and introduced programs such as 2 Days & 1 Night and Running Man. These types of Korean variety shows are grabbing foreign interest of countries such as Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and even the United States bringing on a new type of the Korean wave globally.
Variety shows are a huge part of daily life in the Philippines, with all of the major networks running their own variety shows usually during lunchtime and can be on the air for between one and a half hours to three hours. The most notable Philippine variety show is the longest-running Eat Bulaga, which premiered in 1979 and has aired on RPN, ABS-CBN, and GMA Network in the succeeding years. Recently many other TV networks are different formats of variety. It's Showtime has shown great popularity and interest to Filipino viewers.
Siempre en Domingo premiered in 1969 with Raúl Velasco hosting. It became Mexico's longest-running variety series, remaining on Televisa until 1998. Other long-running variety shows, most of which have been Televisa productions, have included La Carabina de Ambrosio, Anabel, Al Fin de Semana, Silvia y Enrique, La Parodia, Muevete, Desmadruga2, and Sabadazo.. Most, if not all, of Televisa's variety shows have aired in other countries, including the Univision networks in the United States.
In Venezuela, the best known variety show is Súper Sábado Sensacional. Originally established in 1968 (as Sábado Espectacular) on Radio Caracas Television, the show moved to Venevision in 1970 and was renamed Sábado Sensacional. In 1990, "Súper" was added to the title, and is how the show is currently known today.
The Spanish-language variety show known as Sábados Gigantes (forerunner of the U.S. Sábado Gigante) began in 1962 with Don Francisco and lasted into the 1990s. His daughter, Vivianne Kreutzberger, currently hosts the program under the title Gigantes con Vivi, while Don Francisco has hosted the U.S. version since April 12, 1986 until the end of the show's run on September 19, 2015.
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