The Beat Goes On by
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Prompted By Variety Shows

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There were many wonderful variety shows back in our youth. Here are five I remember fondly.

Of the many wonderful variety shows on the air in our youth, here are five I remember fondly.

The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971) The granddaddy of them all started three years before I was born. It had fabulous acts, and families gathered in front of the television every Sunday night to watch the “really big shew.” I best remember the three times the Beatles were on. On their first appearance, while they were singing, one by one the camera focused in on each Beatle’s face with his first name written on the screen, since we didn’t know them yet. When it got to John, it said “sorry girls, he’s married.” I have never forgotten that. I know that Elvis was on, and that they didn’t show him below the waist, because his hip motions were too provocative, but I don’t actually remember it, since it was in 1956. When the Rolling Stones appeared in 1967 and wanted to sing “Let’s Spend the Night Together” they were told to change the lyrics to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” and they complied. On the other hand, when the Doors were to sing “Light My Fire,” they were told not to sing “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” and to replace it with “girl, there’s nothing I require.” They didn’t say they wouldn’t do it, but when the time came, they sang the real lyrics, and since it was live television, there was nothing anyone could do. They were told they would never play the Ed Sullivan show again, but they didn’t care. The show ran until 1971, but I stopped watching when I went off to college in 1968.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-69) I loved the Smothers Brothers as a musical/comedy duo, and had several of their records, so of course when they got their own television show, I had to watch it. As well as being extraordinarily funny, they had great political commentary, great songs, and Pat Paulsen running for President. This show was also where Don Novello first appeared as Father Guido Sarducci, Vatican gossip columnist. They had musical guests who might have been considered too radical for other shows, such as Janis Ian, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger. Seeger’s appearance in September 1967 was his first time on network television since being blacklisted in 1950. However, his performance of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was deleted from the show because it was clearly a criticism of LBJ and the Vietnam War. Later in the season, for whatever reason, CBS decided to let him perform the song.

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-73) This show began my senior year in high school and lasted until a year after I graduated from college. Since I didn’t have a television in college, I must have just watched it the first season and the last, or maybe in summer reruns. Yet I remember it so vividly. Its humor corresponded perfectly with mine. It made stars out of young comedians like Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, both of whom I love to this day. Lorne Michaels was one of the writers, which probably explains a lot about his creation of Saturday Night Live only two years later. The show gave us many memorable phrases that we still use in my family, most notably “Ve-e-e-rrry interesting . . . but shtoopid!” and “Here come da judge!” When the phrase “Sock it to me!” was uttered by a cast member, they generally fell through a trap door, had water thrown on them, got knocked out by a boxing glove on a spring, or some other indignity – why was that funny? I don’t know, it just was. And when presidential candidate Richard Nixon appeared on the show and said “sock it to me?” everyone waited expectantly for something to happen to him, but nothing did. Nixon later said that appearing on Laugh-In was what got him elected. (Humphrey was also invited to appear but declined, and later said that not doing the show may have cost him the election.)

The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (1971-74)  I loved Sonny and Cher from the time of their first hit, “Baby Don’t Go,” in 1964. When they got their own variety show in 1971, I was hoping it would be good. It started as a summer replacement series, but it got such high ratings that it was brought back with a permanent slot. I must have missed most of the first season, because I was still in college, with no TV, but after I graduated I was able to watch it. I loved their songs, and the amazing costumes they both wore. Cher is still known for outragous outfits, but on the show Sonny would always have an outfit that went with hers. If she had sequins, he did too. Each show opened with their theme song, a stylized instrumental version of The Beat Goes On. They sang covers of other artist’s songs, not only their own, and they always had great harmonies. They also had many guests, including the Smothers Brothers, Bob Hope, and even Muhammad Ali. I thought I remembered the show being clever and funny, but watching a few clips on youtube while writing this story made me realize that they spent a lot of time insulting each other. Doesn’t seem so funny now.

Donny and Marie (1976-79) I would have to call this show a guilty pleasure. It’s embarrassing to admit how much I enjoyed it. My only explanation is that it ran during the time that I was in law school and immediately afterwards, when any diversion was entertaining. Their signature song, which was very catchy, introduced one segment of each show: “I’m a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock and roll.” Marie would sing a country song, and Donny would sing a rock and roll song, either one after the other or in counterpoint. Like Sonny and Cher, they had a lot of banter which consisted of insulting each other. They also had celebrity guests. However, this was certainly the weakest of all the variety shows I watched.

The prompt asks if we would watch variety shows like this now. I would certainly watch a show like Laugh-In now. In fact, I think Saturday Night Live has a lot of aspects that are similar to Laugh-In. Topical sketches, musical numbers, recurring characters, and many of the cast members becoming celebrities over time were all characteristics of Laugh-In as well as SNL. SNL has been running since 1975, and has been popular with three generations of viewers, so obviously their formula has stood the test of time.

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Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    This is a great, knowledgeable round-up of some top variety shows, Suzy. I particularly enjoyed your incisive information on some of the more controversial moments in the shows. Though Ed Sullivan actually got off easily with Jim Morrison, who was arrested for inciting a riot and indecent exposure at a couple of his (non-televised) concerts.

    I might quibble with “Donny and Marie,” but since you acknowledge it as a “guilty pleasure,” I’ll give it a pass. And, to be fair, they were talented and could kid a bit about their squeaky clean images. I think I could just never get past their damn smiles.

    Good question about whether there could be variety shows like the old days again. Apparently, one of the reasons they are not out there is that the cost of bringing in real stars would be a budget-buster. Back in the Ed Sullivan days, acts would apparently get paid a minimum amount — even the Beatles — because the TV exposure was so great. That is why what passes for variety shows these days — “American Idol,” and its progeny — all rely on more or less amateur talent.

    Finally, despite what I wrote about the Ed Sullivan song in response to Betsy’s story, I think “The Beat Goes On” will definitely be my earworm for the next few days. So thanks for that, too.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. I know all about Jim Morrison’s arrest in New Haven from the movie The Doors, with Val Kilmer. It started with Jim getting Maced in the face backstage by a New Haven cop. Wouldn’t happen in a TV studio.

      You are NOT allowed to quibble with my choices, since I say that they are shows that I remember fondly. You can’t say that I don’t remember something fondly. Haven’t we had this discussion before?

      Glad I could give you this week’s earworm.

  2. Knowing you Suzy, I’m not surprised at all the history, chronology and detail you give us about the variety shows you watched on TV. And of course your political take and your reference to the songs of the day!

    But your reference to Lorne Michaels and SNL reminds me how clever the show was years ago, but now I can’t bear to watch it. The cast is still talented, but don’t you find the skits sophomoric and dumbed down? Or am I a killjoy?

    • Suzy says:

      Dana, I agree that SNL has had some bad years, and there was a while when I stopped watching it entirely. But in recent years I think it has returned to being just as good as it was in the beginning. Certainly during the Trump era they did some incredible skits ridiculing him and his cronies. And I will never forget Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, playing the piano and mournfully singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the Saturday after the 2016 election.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great research on your top 5 shows, Suzy. The Ed Sullivan Show was must-see TV in our household. I also loved the Smothers Brothers. It took me a while to warm up to Laugh In. The humor was a bit broad for my taste, but so interesting to learn that Lorne Michaels was a writer for the show. That DOES explain a lot. I didn’t watch Sonny and Cher (though I know her outfits were the talk of the town), nor did I watch Donny and Marie. I was in college with no TV for the first, and married and busy (and neither Dan nor I were big fans) for the second.

    We are still watching SNL. People remember it so fondly, but it has always been hit or miss humor. We were just younger then.

  4. Yes Suzy I agree during the Trump years the SNL satirical cold openings were good, and there was certainly lots of fodder, but so many of the other skits seemed pretty awful to me.

    You’re so right about Kate McKinnon on election night! As I remember she said “I’m not giving up”. We knew something awful had just happened, but did we know then how much worse it would get?

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    Well, I learned that Sonny and Cher and Donny and Marie had shows–who knew? Obviously I missed them, and they were probably in that window of time (1968-1982) when I had no TV. A big hole in my popular culture knowledge, but I don’t think I missed that much. Thanks for filling in the gap. I have watched SNL and it is spotty, but some of the skits–especially in Trump time–were outstanding. I didn’t realize Lorne Michaels had also done Laugh-In!

    • Suzy says:

      No, you didn’t miss that much, although you may have missed the Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In, both of which were worth watching IMO. I was without a TV in ’68-’72 while at college, although possibly caught up on shows in summer reruns. And in law school, or while studying for the bar exam, anything was entertaining, even Donny and Marie!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Thanks for reminding me of that “sorry girls, he’s married” when The Beatles were on Sullivan. So quaint. Also, I had forgotten Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci, which always cracked me up. Like you, I still watch SNL, which we record to zoom through commercials, musical guests (don’t know who they are anymore), and bad skits. But I’m a sucker for weekend update.

    • Suzy says:

      We recently discovered that our local NBC station broadcasts SNL twice, once at 8:30 (when it is live in NY), and again at 11:30. So we’ve taken to watching at 8:30, that way we don’t fall asleep halfway through. Don’t know how to record, but some of the commercials are pretty entertaining. And I agree, Weekend Update is generally the highlight of the show.

  7. Marian says:

    Great review of our “parallel” experiences, Suzy. For some reason my mother really liked Sonny and Cher, although I could take it or leave it. My high school years coincided with the first years of Laugh-In, so I had an enjoyable time with that, and my whole family liked it as well.

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    Thanks for the memories, Suzy. Big thumbs up for the Smothers Brothers! I’m embarrassed to say I remember all of these shows, and more–not all in the “liked” column. Ed Sullivan was the godfather of them all. Senor Wences never failed to crack me up; I would disappear for ice cream when the guys with the spinning plates came on. When I googled “variety shows” a number of genres came up that I wouldn’t actually call variety, but here are/were a few of my faves: Steve Allen with his talented cast and the first man-in-the-street interviews; Perry Como (yes, I admit), a great singer and greater human being; Midnight Special (google MS + Andy Kaufman + Slim Whitman if you’re a romantic). Carol Burnett left me cold, and. Lawrence Welk was just embarrassing. Even more embarrassing: that polka in the audience at the end. We couldn’t fool my grandmother about the day or the time: she was totally devoted to her “wunnerful wunnerful” on Saturday nights.

    • Suzy says:

      Susan, this is such a great comment, you could totally turn it into a story of your own. Just copy and paste what you wrote here, maybe add a few more tidbits, or not. You could jog even more memories in our group – I’d forgotten about Steve Allen and Perry Como.

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    The Smothers were way too smart to last on TV! I also used to enjoy Cher’s “Vamp” sketches. The whole family loved “Laugh-In;” I had a secret crush on…Jo Anne Worley.

  10. Good one! Nice recap on those five shows. I loved the Smothers Brothers, too. Wish it had stayed on the air a lot longer. A shame that CBS, which dumped The Ed Sullivan Show because its audience was perceived as old, saw fit to torpedo the Smothers Brothers show, which gave them the youth demographic they desired.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Edward. Good point about CBS not knowing what they wanted – too old and square, too young and hip. . . . But then, network executives have never been known for having good judgment!

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