A Really Big Show by
(211 Stories)

Prompted By What We Watched

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Gathering in the den with my family to watch variety shows was a weekly treat, from The Ed Sullivan Show to Carol Burnett; we ran the gamut. My dad loved sports, but that love wasn’t shared by my mother, so he watched alone…though I often was in the room and now can follow any sport that he watched and am proficient in the language and culture of them. Thank you, Dad.

But the one hour variety shows were the family hour in our household. Just as they ecstatically intoned in “Bye Bye Birdie”: “We’ll be coast to coast, with our favorite host, Ed Sullivan!” As I think back to the variety of acts, the range is astonishing, from Topo Gigio, the man with the Italian mouse puppet, the acrobats, opera singers, Broadway stars, and of course, our first introduction to Elvis, the Beatles, and all the other hip rockers of the day. Ed looked uncomfortable introducing them at the time. And always the introduction of “the really big show”.

Remember That Was The Week That Was?, imported from England, it introduced us to David Frost and was the forbear of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and others who satirize the news of the week while informing us about the weekly events. My family loved watching it and could sing along with the theme song…”oh what a week it was/ that was the unique, week that was!” One could also connect a direct link to Laugh In from this show, but I watched that show only sporadically. It was a huge hit and I came to love it, but at first I found the routines a bit too broad for my taste.

But Middle America loved to see what was happening in the world of entertainment. As the years went on, shows like Carol Burnett offered sketch comedy with her own brilliant troupe. The routines are still funny and the “Gone With the Wind” act is one of the all-time classics of modern TV. Just seeing Carol coming down the steps with the curtain rod across her shoulders can evoke peals of laughter from all of us. We were so glad to have that time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song.

Now the shows have evolved to contests, from American Idol to Dancing with the Stars. I have limited appetite for any of them. Last year I started watching America’s Got Talent. The first rounds reminded me of a cross between Queen for a Day, with all the sudsy back stories and the variety of Ed Sullivan with the twist of a competition thrown in. Much of the “talent” is horrible until the final rounds when things pick up considerably. I was amazed to find one of the acts, Tape Face, a sweet mime with a few clever bits, now has his own show running in the West End in London. I cannot imagine how he could sustain an entire evening with his act, but I guess that is everyone’s dream…to be on a stage somewhere, be it Vegas, TV or London. “We’re gonna be on Ed Sullivan!”

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Ed Sullivan, variety shows, Carol Burnett, family


  1. John Zussman says:

    What an evocative ode to the variety show, which as we now know was an artifact of the days when there were only three channels, so if you wanted to watch TV there were limited options. If an act came on you didn’t care for, you’d wait it out (or go get a snack), knowing something totally different would appear momentarily. Now we’d just tune to one of our 499 other channels or check what’s on the DVR.

    I too loved “TW3” (That Was the Week That Was), especially for the satirical songs written by one of my idols, Tom Lehrer (“Vatican Rag,” “New Math”). I remember the theme song began “That was the week that was / It’s over, let it go!” Good advice for us now.

  2. Suzy says:

    Great story, Betsy! I only remember watching Ed Sullivan the three times the Beatles were on, but That Was The Week That Was was a must-watch in my house. I loved all their skits and songs, certainly a precursor to SNL and other satire shows. I actually wrote to them once because I wanted the lyrics and music for one of the songs they did, and they wrote back a very nice letter telling me they couldn’t send it to me because of copyright. If only we had had youtube then!

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