Variety shows, also known as variety arts or variety entertainment, is entertainment made up of a variety of acts including musical performances and sketch comedy, magic, acrobatics, juggling, and ventriloquism. It is normally introduced by a compère (master of ceremonies) or host. The variety format made its way from Victorian era stage to radio and then television. Variety shows were a staple of anglophone television from the late 1940s into the 1980s.
While still widespread in some parts of the world, the proliferation of multichannel television and evolving viewer tastes affected the popularity of variety shows in the United States. Despite this, their influence has still had a major effect on late night television whose late night talk shows and NBC's variety series Saturday Night Live (which originally premiered in 1975) have remained popular fixtures of North American television.
The format is basically that of music hall in the United Kingdom or vaudeville in the United States. Variety in the UK evolved in theatres and music halls, and later in Working Men's Clubs. Most of the early top performers on British television and radio did an apprenticeship either in stage variety, or during World War II in Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). In the UK, the ultimate accolade for a variety artist for decades was to be asked to do the annual Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium theatre, in front of the monarch.
In the United States, former vaudeville performers such as the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, W. C. Fields, and Jack Benny honed their skills in the Borscht Belt before moving to talkies, to radio shows, and then to television shows, including variety shows. In the 1960s, even a popular rock band such as The Beatles undertook this ritual of appearing on variety shows on TV. In the United States, shows featuring Perry Como, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin also helped to make the Golden Age of Television successful.
From 1948 to 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show was one of CBS's most popular television series. Using his no-nonsense approach, Ed Sullivan allowed many acts from several different mediums to get their "fifteen minutes of fame". Sullivan was also partially responsible for bringing Elvis Presley and The Beatles to prominence in the United States.
In the UK, The Good Old Days—which ran from 1953 to 1983—featured modern artists performing dressed in late Victorian/Early Edwardian costume, either doing their own act or performing as a music hall artist of that period. The audience was also encouraged to dress in period costume in a similar fashion.
On television, variety reached its peak during the period of the 1960s and 1970s. With a turn of the television dial, viewers around the globe could variously have seen shows and occasional specials featuring Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Julie Andrews, The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John, John Denver, John Davidson, Mac Davis, Bobby Goldsboro, Lynda Carter, Johnny Cash, Sonny and Cher, Bob Monkhouse, Carol Burnett, Rod Hull and Emu, Flip Wilson, Lawrence Welk, Glen Campbell, Donny & Marie Osmond, Sha Na Na, Barbara Mandrell, Judy Garland, The Captain & Tennille, The Jacksons, The Keane Brothers, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mary Tyler Moore, Dean Martin, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Shields and Yarnell, The Smothers Brothers, Danny Kaye, Des O'Connor, Buck and Roy, Roy Hudd, Billy Dainty, Max Wall. Manhattan Transfer, Starland Vocal Band, or The Muppet Show. Even "The Brady Bunch" had a variety show. Variety shows were once as common on television as Westerns, courtroom dramas, suspense thrillers, sitcoms, or (in more modern times) reality TV shows.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there were also numerous one-time variety specials featuring stars such as Shirley MacLaine, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, and Mitzi Gaynor, none of whom ever had a regular television series.
Modern U.S. variety shows
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Variety shows began to fade from popularity during the 1970s, when research began to show that variety shows appealed to an older audience that was less appealing to advertisers; over the course of the so-called "rural purge", several of the early era variety shows were canceled, though newer ones (fewer in number nonetheless, and generally stripped down to music and comedy) continued to be created and broadcast for several years after. By the late 1970s, even these generally celebrity-driven variety shows had mostly ended production, in part because of audience burnout; the highest-rated variety show of 1975, Cher, was only the 22nd-most watched show of the year. By the early 1980s, the few new variety shows being produced were of remarkably poor quality (see, for instance, the infamous Pink Lady and Jeff), hastening the format's demise. Since Pink Lady, only a few traditional variety shows have been attempted by major networks: Dolly (starring Dolly Parton), which ran for 23 episodes on the ABC during the 1987–'88 season; a revival of The Carol Burnett Show, which was broadcast by CBS for nine episodes in 1991; and the first incarnation of The Wayne Brady Show, which was telecast by ABC in August 2001.
By the 21st century, the variety show format had fallen out of fashion, due largely to changing tastes and the fracturing of media audiences (caused by the proliferation of cable and satellite television) that makes a multiple-genre variety show impractical. Even reruns of variety shows have generally not been particularly widespread; TV Land telecast briefly some variety shows (namely The Ed Sullivan Show and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour) upon its beginning in 1996, but within a few years, reruns of most of those shows (with the notable exception of The Flip Wilson Show) stopped. Similarly, CMT held the rights to Hee Haw but telecast very few episodes, opting mainly to hold rights to allow them to air performance videos from the show in its video blocks. The current rights holder of Hee Haw, RFD-TV, has been more prominent in its telecasts of the show; RFD-TV also airs numerous other country-style variety shows from the 1960s and 1970s up through the present day, in a rarity for modern television. Another notable exception is The Lawrence Welk Show, which has been telecast continually in reruns on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) since 1986. The Spanish language variety show Sabado Gigante, which began in 1962, and then moved from Chile to the United States in 1986, continued to produce and broadcast new episodes on Univision until its cancellation in September 2015.
Though the format had faded in popularity in prime time, it thrived in late night. The variety shows of this daypart eventually evolved into late-night talk shows, which combine variety entertainment (primarily comedy and live music) with the aspects of a talk show (such as interviews with celebrities). The Emmy Awards academy considers the two genres to be related closely enough that, until 2015, the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series was open to any of these types of show; in 2015, the academy separated late-night talk shows and sketch comedy series into separate categories. Although only one network (NBC, with its The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and later Late Night with David Letterman) had a successful late-night talk show until 1992, the field greatly expanded beginning with Carson's retirement and the controversial selection of Jay Leno as Tonight’s new host. Within ten years, all of the "Big Three" networks, along with several cable outlets, had late night variety talk shows being shown nightly. After ceding his hosting role on The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien in 2009, Leno began hosting The Jay Leno Show, a late-night styled program broadcast by NBC in the final hour of primetime. In early 2010, after a dispute with Conan O'Brien surrounding a plan to move The Jay Leno Show into late night and push back the remainder of NBC's late-night lineup (itself brought on by Leno not retaining a large enough audience for the shows after it), the series was cancelled and Leno returned to The Tonight Show (with Conan leaving NBC entirely to host a new self-titled late night show on the cable channel TBS). As of 2014, late-night talk shows vary widely on their resemblance to the original variety format, with Jimmy Fallon's incarnation of The Tonight Show putting heavy emphasis on sketches and stunts, while shows such as Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert put more emphasis on desk chat.
Sketch comedy series such as Saturday Night Live, In Living Color, Almost Live! (and its successor Up Late nw), MADtv, and SCTV also contain variety show elements, particularly musical performances and comedy sketches. The most obvious difference between shows such as Saturday Night Live and traditional variety shows is the lack of a single lead host (or hosts) and a large ensemble cast. SNL has used different guest hosts ever since its inception.
At least one national variety show continues on national radio: A Prairie Home Companion, a series conceived as a paean to old-time radio that airs on American public radio stations, has aired near-continuously since 1974. Particularly during the run of founding host Garrison Keillor it included sketch comedy inspired by parody of radio dramas and commercials, along with American folk music played both straight and for laughs; the music has been the primary focus of the show under current host Chris Thile.
The variety show format also continued in the form of the telethon, which feature variety entertainment (often music) interspersed with appeals for viewers to make donations to support a charity or cause. The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon was one of the best known national telethons, but it too was eventually canceled after several years of shortening (originally over 21 hours, by the time of its last telecast in 2014, by which point Lewis had been gone from the telethon several years it was down to two hours); another popular telethon, for United Cerebral Palsy, ended its run in 1998 shortly after the death of its founder and figurehead, Dennis James. Likewise, only a handful of long-established local telethons remain.
In 2004, ABC's The Nick and Jessica Variety Hour attempted to revive the prime-time variety hour as a special for today's generation. It was followed by Nick & Jessica's Family Christmas in early December of that year, though no further specials would be produced after that due to the couple's divorce. In December 2009, the singer Carrie Underwood made her first attempt at a Christmas variety special on Fox. Maya Rudolph hosted a variety special for NBC in 2014.
Fox's Osbournes Reloaded, a variety show featuring the family of rocker Ozzy Osbourne, was canceled after only one episode had been telecast in 2009. More than two dozen affiliates refused to telecast the first episode of the show. This series had been slated for a six-episode run.
Shows that have had varying degrees of success combining variety entertainment with other formats include Star Search, which had a run in the 1980s in syndication and a run on CBS in the early 2000s during the reality television boom, The Gong Show, which reached its peak in the 1970s, but it has had occasional revivals since then, and America's Got Talent. The Richard Bey Show combined the variety show with the tabloid talk show, not only having its guests talk about their problems but also having them participate in absurdist games, and Sally Jesse Raphael was known for occasionally having music and fashion the show, especially drag and gender-bending performances.
NBC has made repeated attempts at reviving the variety format since the late 2000s (its last successful series in this genre, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, left the network's schedule in 1982) . A pilot episode for Rosie Live was telecast the day before Thanksgiving Day in 2008 and, after receiving middling ratings and extremely poor reviews, was not picked up for its originally planned run in January 2009. In May 2014, NBC aired The Maya Rudolph Show, a variety show starring SNL performer Maya Rudolph. Like Rosie Live, the broadcast was intended to be a one-off special, but with the possibility of additional episodes depending on its performance. The special won its time slot, due mainly to a strong lead-in, and spawned the May 2016 premiere of Maya & Marty, adding fellow SNL cast member Martin Short. Earlier that season, NBC aired Best Time Ever, an adaptation of the British variety game show Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway starring actor Neil Patrick Harris which was ultimately unsuccessful.
The prime time variety show format was popular in the early decades of Australian television, spawning such series as In Melbourne Tonight, The Graham Kennedy Show, The Don Lane Show, and Hey Hey It's Saturday, which ran for 27 years. Recent prime time variety shows include the short lived Micallef Tonight and The Sideshow.
Another of today's variety shows in Asia is Taiwan's Guess (variety show) and 100% Entertainment. East Asian variety programs are known for its constant use of sound effects, on-screen visuals and comedic bantering. Many of the shows are presented in a live-like presentation in a fast-paced setting, with scenes repeating or fast forwarded.
Another popular variety show in Taiwan is Kangxi Lai Le, a talk show with variety show elements. The hosts and guests were associated with variety shows. Famous for its bantering, which was written before tapings.
The first Chinese variety show to become a major success was Hong Kong's Enjoy Yourself Tonight, which first aired in 1967 and ran for 27 years. In Hong Kong, variety shows are often combined with elements of a cooking show or a talent competition but end in various results.
Variety programming has remained one of the dominant genres of television programming. While Japanese variety shows are famous abroad for their wild stunts, they vary from talk shows to music shows, from tabloid news shows to skit comedy. The prominent use of telop on screen has created a style that has influenced variety programming across Asia. One of the most popular variety show in Japan includes Downtown no Gaki No Tsukai.
In South Korea, the hugely popular show Muhan Dojeon (Infinite Challenge), has been broadcast by MBC since 2005, is a new model of this, called "Real Variety Show". It combines comedy and variety scenes including unscripted stunts. Although many variety shows have existed in Korea long before the broadcast of Muhan Dojeon, this program has given a rise to a new page in the history of Korean variety shows by introducing unscripted stunts. As a result, other broadcasting channels such as KBS and SBS have followed its path and introduced programs such as Il Bak Ee Il (2 Days 1 Night) and Running Man. These types of Korean variety shows especially Running Man are grabbing foreign interest of countries such as Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and even the United States bringing on a new type of the Korean wave globally.
Variety shows are a huge part of daily life in the Philippines, with all of the major networks running their own variety shows usually during lunchtime and can be on the air for between one and a half hours to three hours. The most notable Philippine variety show is the longest-running Eat Bulaga, which premiered in 1979 and has aired on RPN, ABS-CBN, and GMA Network in the succeeding years. Recently many other TV networks are different formats of variety. It's Showtime has shown great popularity and interest to Filipino viewers.
Siempre en Domingo premiered in 1969 with Raúl Velasco hosting. It became Mexico's longest-running variety series, remaining on Televisa until 1998. Other long-running variety shows, most of which have been Televisa productions, have included La Carabina de Ambrosio, Anabel, Al Fin de Semana, Silvia y Enrique, La Parodia, Muevete, Desmadruga2, and Sabadazo.. Most, if not all, of Televisa's variety shows have aired in other countries, including the Univision networks in the United States.
In Venezuela, the best known variety show is Súper Sábado Sensacional. Originally established in 1968 (as Sábado Espectacular) on Radio Caracas Television, the show moved to Venevision in 1970 and was renamed Sábado Sensacional. In 1990, "Súper" was added to the title, and is how the show is currently known today.
The Spanish-language variety show known as Sábados Gigantes (forerunner of the U.S. Sábado Gigante) began in 1962 with Don Francisco and lasted into the 1990s. His daughter, Vivianne Kreutzberger, currently hosts the program under the title Gigantes con Vivi, while Don Francisco has hosted the U.S. version since April 12, 1986 until the end of the show's run on September 19, 2015.
Many television special continue to resemble the variety show format to this day.
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- Variety Artists Club of New Zealand, a club for variety performers and entertainers
- Variety, the Children's Charity, widely known as the Variety Club, a charity operated by variety performers
- Japanese variety show
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