07:16:57 am on
Saturday 20 Jul 2024

The End of Variety
AJ Robinson

Recently, I saw Carol Burnett on a television talk show. She and the host talked about her old variety show. For those of you too young to remember, Burnett and her co-stars, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, the great Tim Conway and Lyle Wagoner, hosted an hour-long comedy and variety show many years ago.

Every week, the "Carol Burnett Show" featured a couple of guest stars; always major stars of stage, screen, television or music. Singing, dancing and comedy sketches involved guests and regulars. Conway was famous for adlibbing and torturing his co-stars, especially Korman. Sometimes, it was more fun watching Korman, Lawrence and Burnett struggle to keep a straight face.

The "Carol Burnett Show" is also famous for having one of the longest laughs in the history of television. In their spoof, of "Gone with the Wind," Burnett spoofed how the Scarlett O'Hara character, in the original movie, used the curtains to make a dress. The audience roared with delight.

When she came down the stairs, she had the curtains on, the curtain rod across her shoulders! When Korman, as Rhett Butler, who courted O'Hara, complimented her on the dress, she said she'd seen it hanging in a window and had to take it down. More unrestrained laughter followed this line.

Yes, it was comedic gold.

In the interview, I watched, the interview asked why there were no variety shows such as hers anymore. Now, she could have given the old answer of, "Well, they're just not popular anymore," which critics claim about all manner of shows for years. There was a time when the sitcom was dead, which was right before "The Cosby Show" came on the scene, with weekly ratings equal to the top five or six shows, today.

Need I say more?

It's not that a variety show couldn't make it; if done right, it'd be a hit. No, Burnett said production companies could not afford to make such shows. These days, the stars, of most shows, receive enormous salaries and drain show budgets.

Variety shows rely on huge crews, too, including writers, a full orchestra; camera, sound and other production workers; producers, directors and wad robe. Everyone gets a pay cheque and the zeros accumulate fast.

It might cost three or four million dollars a week to air a variety show. The big four networks, CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox, don't have the money. A sitcom or new talent show cost much less than does variety and attracts about the same number of viewers.

I thought about what Burnett said and realized that her story was sort of an allegory to our economy. Years ago, companies could pay their many employees a decent wage, because the "top dogs" weren't overpaid. Burnett and her co-stars got a good amount of money for starring in the show, but it wasn't excessive. Today, with CEOs, presidents and other top management getting astro-bucks, there seems much less for others.

I'm not saying that top people shouldn't get what they deserve, but in these tough economic times, maybe getting a "Burnett Paycheck" as opposed to what one of the cast of "Friends" got, would be just a bit more reasonable. Of course, sitcoms, such as "Friends" or "Fraser," earn hundreds of millions of dollars in endless re-runs. Variety shows, such as the "Carol Burnett Show," don't do well in re-runs.

After all, what would you prefer to see: a bunch of lame reality shows, cheap to make, but flat and unsatisfying, or some high-quality programs? Check out some of those old "Carol Burnett Show," if you can find it, snippets air on infomercials for the DVDs. If you watch only the snippets, it will make your decision, reality shows or creative variety shows, easy.

Combining the gimlet-eye of Philip Roth with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Working, again, as an engineeer, after years out of the field due to 2009 recession and slow recovery, Robinson finds time to write. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true. His teen vampire adventure novel, "Vampire Vendetta," will publish in 2020. Robinson continues to write books, screenplays and teleplays and keeps hoping for that big break.

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