A Really Big Show by
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Prompted By Variety Shows

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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, Bill Maher, John Oliver 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.

Burnett dressed as Scarlet O’Hara in her mother’s curtains

Now the shows have evolved to contests, from American Idol to Dancing with the Stars. I have limited appetite for any of them. Some years ago, I watched America’s Got Talent for a few seasons. 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. A few years ago, I was amazed to find one of the acts, Tape Face, a sweet mime with a few clever bits, had his own show running in the West End in London. I couldn’t 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
Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  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!

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story, Betsy, as Ed Sullivan was my second favorite variety show back in the day. Plus, having been in “Bye Bye Birdie” in my high school’s summer theater program — and, as was my wont, memorizing every word of it — I definitely remember the ode to Ed Sullivan that was sung in it. In fact, I think you’ve now just made it my earworm du jour.

    And thank you for reminding me of “TW3,” which I watched a lot of with my older brother and his equally more sophisticated Anglophile friends, and which I ultimately came to appreciate myself. I believe it morphed into such shows as “Beyond the Fringe” (or perhaps vice versa) and truly did presage Jon Stewart et al. in terms of satirical political humor.

    Finally, I agree with you about what passes for variety shows today. Moreover, I gather that the “competition” aspect of these shows is pretty suspect. Rather, like the so-called reality shows, which I also hate, they are carefully scripted — including the panelists’ often over-the-top reactions — and that script is usually intended to create a rags-to-riches narrative for the winner. Gimme Ed and Topo over these soap operas any day!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I was in “Bye Bye Birdie” in 10th grade, John (that’s where Patti, John and I all became close friends…well Patti and John became more than friends)! I even got to sing “Hymn for a Sunday Evening”, as I played Randi the younger child in the McAfee household (yes, it is supposed to be a boy – never mind), so that song still rings in my ears too.

      “TW3” was more sophisticated, and perhaps was related to “Beyond the Fringe” (I don’t remember which came first either). I was still fairly young when it was on (we hadn’t moved out of Detroit yet, so under 10 years old, but remember really enjoying it).

      As you point out, there is nothing real about “reality TV”. I never watched much of it; don’t have the appetite, though we did come back for more American Idol with the new judges. Katy Perry actually gives helpful comments and they do seem to coach the contestants in a useful way. Once “America” starts to vote it becomes a popularity contest and therefore pointless, however. The most talented never wins, but can (given the national exposure) go on to have a good career.

      For anyone who has Apple TV+, Jon Stewart came back to TV last Thursday with an every other week show, supposedly more like Jon Oliver’s show – doing a deep dive on one subject. We haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but I look forward to it. I really miss his smart commentary in these dark times.

  4. Thanx Betsy for the recap and reminding me about the very talented Carol Burnett. My husband watches the Me channel and sees reruns of old shows including I think Burnett and I’ve surely seen her wearing the curtain rod!

    What I must say I hate about some of the old TV shows was the canned laughter!

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    TW3 was great, and I agree with John Z about the brilliant Tom Lehrer. I probably still have that LP hiding in a closet somewhere, and know the lyrics well.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I had forgotten about That was the Week That Was. Thanks for the reminder. I loved that show and all of those that followed in its mold.

  7. Marian says:

    Echoing the others, thanks for the reminder about TW3. I didn’t follow it at the time, but my parents loved it.

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    Thank you for this little peek into your family’s TV preferences, Betsy. I wonder if your father would have warmed to Ed Sullivan had he known Ed’s origins were in sports announcing or writing (I think). For those who laughed at these shows, consider how far we’ve descended: from the suited and tuxedo-ed hosts of yesteryear to the “stars” of today’s Naked and Afraid.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Since my father loved watching sports on TV, he probably would have appreciated Ed Sullivan’s origin story. It is almost inconceivable and disheartening to see how low what passes for “variety” has sunk. I never watched it, but I always claimed that Fear Factor (people eating bugs just to get on TV – yuck!) was the beginning of the end of civilization as we knew it.

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