Thursday, April 28, 2011


I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together

The other day I had to explain to two 20 year olds who Carol Burnett was. Seriously. There I was at work watching my Carol Burnett Show dvds. Carol, Vicki Lawrence, special guest Ken Berry and the Ernie Flatt Dancers were performing a Ken and Mitzi Welch medly of madrigal songs mixed with "Fascinating Rhythm". Genius. As more and more young people came in to see what this strange number was, I almost lost it. 

"What is this crap?"  "This is stupid!"

I wanted to stand on the couch and scream, "Listen people! This TV show is an institution and taught many of us about singing, dancing and comedy! So watch and learn!"

But I held my tongue. I explained that Carol Burnett was a huge comedy star that had her own variety show on CBS from 1967 to 1978. I was met with the inevitable question, "What's a variety show?"

Just To Have A Laugh Or Sing A Song
I cannot begin to tell you how rage filled my body and how quickly my anger management skills took over. Has the variety show become such a fossil that young people don't even know what the genre means? When I was their age, I knew a lot of my musical theatre and television history and found myself feeling frustrated that these young performers weren't familiar with people who paved the way for them. As I tried to explain what variety shows of the 60s and 70s were, I felt my age. It became clear to me that I measured my life in Carol Burnett sketches and Ken and Mitzie Welch medlies.

I started reminiscing on how variety shows really shaped my life and taught me so much of what I know about performing today.
I think one of the reasons that variety shows were so influential on me was because...well let's face it...they were really gay!  They were the closest thing that I had to a Broadway show in my living room. Every week, new musical numbers and sketches would be transported across the airwaves to young gay children across America filled with sequins, sparkle and fantasy.

Seems We Just Get Started And Before You Know It
Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Lyle Waggoner were masters of sketch comedy. Each brought their unique gifts to the table each week and made it look so easy. Creating fluff is very hard work! It was always a treat to stay up on Saturday nights and see who Carol Burnett was going to be that week: Eunice, Mrs. Wiggins or any number of tragi-comic women that she was so good at embodying. Would Harvey Korman start cracking up at Tim Conway? I loved these people. And I studied them hard. They were my teachers and helped me understand what comedy was.

And then there were those incredible clothes that featured my favorite color--sparkly! Incredible (and often hilarious) costumes would be constructed each week for the amazing cast and fantastic dancers. And behind it all was the genius, Bob Mackie. He designed for many celebrities, but most notably Carol Burnett and Cher.

Years later I got to live out my fantasy of being in a variety show. Okay so it wasn't variety was more theme park at Marriott's (Later Six Flags) Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. But it felt like variety. And check out the fancy costumes. Not exactly Bob Mackie, but pretty swanky. I'm in the second row, fourth from the left.

Comes The Time We Have To Say...So Long

I have already sat shiva for the death of variety shows. America, with it's collective A.D.D. and hunger for reality television, would never accept a resurgence of sequins, songs, dances, sketches and other light entertainment. 

I miss my Carol, my Sonny and Cher, my Donny and Marie, and my Brady Bunch Variety Hour. (Okay maybe not so much the latter...but definitely the other 3.) The variety show is a valid form of television entertainment that is part of the tapestry of entertainment history. Young people (especially performers) should know about this part of history and how it affected American families on Saturday nights in the 70s. I really should teach a class in this-- Carol Burnett 101.
Gotta run and write a medly.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Jeff... we are of the same era, and I also feel very fortunate for the great variety shows of the late 60s and 70s. Carol, Cher, Lucy, Lily & all their co-stars. Conway and Korman =geniuses. Thank heaven for DVDs and old VHS copies and YouTube!