Variety Shows of the 1970s
Part Two: the lasts gasps of the genre...

by Billy Ingram

By 1976, the half-hour TV variety show was becoming the norm on CBS. Network execs hoped that perhaps the length of the show was the reason musical-variety programs were no longer in favor with viewers.

Looking for a pop act with youth appeal (that desperately needed TV exposure), CBS casts its eye toward The Jacksons in 1976. The group had fallen on hard times, this was after the Jackson 5's big hits ended in 1974 and before Michael Jackson's Off the Wall album changed the face of music five years later.

The entire Jackson family was present for the TV production except Jermaine who had a solo record contract. Even little sister Janet was in full force and Michael was a lot more open and friendly back then, too—even though he was totally against the idea of a TV show from the very start.

"We shouldn't do it," Michael argued with his siblings, to no avail. "Look at Tony Orlando. Look at Cher. It's going to really hurt our sales." He claimed to hate doing dumb comedy skits with canned laughter and dressing in silly outfits but was ultimately talked into going along because the family needed the money CBS was offering.

"We're the Jacksons!" Michael chirped to open the first episode. "All of you who were expecting the Osmonds, do not adjust the color on your set." The series scored some impressive ratings despite the fact that the variety show genre was becoming passé by the mid-'70s.

A comedy skit from the Jacksons summer TV show:

Sonny BonoGuests for the four-week run included Ed McMahon, who played W.C. Fields to Janet Jackson's Mae West, and Sonny Bono, who appeared in a comedy sketch about the tabloids. This was one of Bono's last network guest-shots—just three years earlier he had the biggest show on television, now his career was grinding to a dead stop.

Much to Michael's chagrin, The Jacksons was brought back in January of 1977 but failed to catch on as a regular series and was cancelled due to abysmal ratings in March of that same year. Michael accepted some of the blame, saying in part; "I'm not a comedian. Is it really entertaining for me to get up there and crack a few weak jokes and force people to laugh because I'm Michael Jackson, when I know in my heart I'm not funny?"

In spite of Michael's dire predictions, mere weeks after The Jacksons left the air, the brothers were back on the charts with the hit tune, Enjoy Yourself and sister Janet Jackson, the TV show's breakout star, was well on her way establishing a solo career. She was discovered by producer Norman Lear on the variety show and, after auditioning, joined the cast of Good Times a few months later.

Sheilds & YarnellWith more misses than hits over the last decade, CBS went out on a limb during the summer of '77 and signed Shields and Yarnell, who were known for their San Francisco sidewalk mime routines. They brought their street improv sensibilities to television, proving to be popular guest stars on various variety shows.

Given their own half-hour in July, 1977, CBS naturally wanted the usual glitzy, big name guests but the couple preferred instead to host the street performers they formerly worked with. They developed several popular characters for TV, most notably portraying an off-the-beat robotic couple.

A bit from The Shields & Yarnell Show via You Tube:

Shields and Yarnell was the hit CBS was looking for and the show was renewed for mid-season. Brought back in January up against Laverne and Shirley, it sank like a stone and the couple broke up shortly thereafter, both awkwardly attempting solo careers.

Keane Brothers ShowIn keeping with the smaller stars—smaller shows thinking, CBS launched The Keane Brothers in August, 1977. The fresh-faced, talented (but not terribly well-known) Keane brothers were the Justin Beibers of the '70s but without the hit albums and millions of fans.

John and Tom Keane (age twelve and thirteen) hosted this thirty-minute variety show on Friday nights at 8:30, hoping to capture some of the Donny and Marie viewers. The brothers were seen on skateboards in the show's opening, that was fairly unusual.

Regulars were impressionist Jimmy Caesar, the Anita Mann Dancers, and the Alan Copeland Orchestra. This production was mostly an excuse to show off the musical talents of the boys and to prepare them for fleeting teen idol fame.


Also that summer, The Starland Vocal Band headed one of the oddest (but considered by many to be one of the best) replacement shows, taped on location around the country. Regulars included David Letterman, Jeff Altman (Pink Lady and Jeff), and political satirists Mark Russell, Peter Bergman, and Phil Proctor.

Mark Russell did basically the same act on this CBS show that he does now in his PBS specials. Bergman and Proctor were revolutionary '60s underground comedians (Firesign Theatre) that provided more bite than would be expected in a program hosted by the one hit wonders that gave us the God-awful Afternoon Delight single in 1976.

That was the last summer replacement variety show until the summer of 1988, when the Smothers Brothers hosted a four-week run on CBS and that was the last until The Wayne Brady Show premiered in the summer of 2001. The Brady program won its time period easily and was a shoo-in for a midseason slot but ultimately wasn't renewed. History repeats.

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