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October 10, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | October 10, 2008 |

While flipping channels a few nights ago, I ran across a commercial for a set of DVDs featuring “The Best of the Dean Martin Variety Show,” a collection of skits, bits, and musical numbers from Martin’s hour-long variety show. “The Dean Martin Show,” which ran from 1965 to 1974, was a little before my time, finishing its run before I turned ten. I distinctly remember my parents watching it, though, kicked back in our unironically 60s-retro living room, sipping scotch and soda while ol’ Dino yukked it up with his show business friends. Each week, Martin would slide down a firehouse pole to enter the set, then told a few jokes to warm up the audience. Guest stars would typically knock on a door on-stage to be admitted to the set, then sit down for a chat and a few jokes with Martin before moving on to sing a couple of songs. Comics and actors visited the show to perform skits or stand-up bits, with Martin serving as the genial host, all the while carrying his signature scotch tumbler. (Legend has it that noted tippler Martin actually drank apple juice while filming the show.)

“The Dean Martin Show” had its roots in the style and feel of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but the differences between the two were hardly subtle and signified the shift taking place in the entertainment world in the 1960s, a shift away from play-it-straight hosts like Sullivan and toward a cult of personality with brand names like Milton Berle and Danny Kaye. While Martin had begun his show business career in the 1950s as Italian Crooner No. 187, by the mid-60s he had come into his own as a film actor in popular Westerns and the Matt Helm spy movie series. As a member of the Rat Pack, he embodied the “lounge cool” style of the Kennedy era and the Space Age, and “The Dean Martin Show” was far more about capturing that feeling, that sense of √©lan, than about providing a forum for new talent or a straightforward music-and-comedy show.

Still, “The Dean Martin Show” featured a who’s-who of singers and comedians from among Martin’s contemporaries: Rodney Dangerfield was a regular cast member, while then-edgy comedians like Don Rickles, Bill Cosby, and Bob Newhart made repeated appearances to perform stand-up and act in skits. Martin sang duets with stars such as Lena Horne and used his social connections to pull guests like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. Aside from creating some nostalgia, the Dean Martin commercial also got me thinking about a form of entertainment that has largely disappeared from television, at least in its original form: the variety show. Hugely popular in the 1960s, the variety show followed a pretty straightforward formula: Take a genial celebrity, preferably someone with a vaudeville-type background who could sing and dance; line up a reliable cast of jack-of-all-trades regulars to provide support for skits or musical numbers; add a series of guest stars and musical acts to provide the “variety”; mix physical comedy, broad topical humor, and song-and-dance numbers to taste.

Despite there being only three major networks in the late 60s, television provided a platform for a remarkable array of variety shows, some of which steered sharply toward comedy (“The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”), some toward music (“The Johnny Cash Show,” “The Andy Williams Show”). As with much of the cool stuff from the 60s, the 70s took a good idea and turned it into a lump of crap, amping up the cheese and adding garish colors and costumes with a “more is better” approach leading to dire results such as “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” and, of course, “The Captain and Tennille Show” - because who doesn’t want a crappy pop duet eating up an hour of valuable airtime each week? The foundations of the 1970s variety programs tended to be substantially weaker, given the more narrow talents of the hosts. Turns out a couple of top-ten pop songs don’t magically confer the ability to deliver a good one-liner or perform a funny skit, though “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” proved an exception, as the edgy chemistry of the married hosts and a compelling guest list of 70s icons - e.g., Burt Reynolds, the Jackson Five - carried the hipster torch fired up by Dean Martin a decade earlier.

The variety genre’s final flourish - a Houdini-like disappearing act in the late 70s - isn’t too difficult to understand and relates closely to my Pajibasaur theory about the changing face of television specifically and entertainment generally in the 1980s. In a very simplistic nutshell, the monetary wealth of American culture allowed for substantial increases in both the number of entertainers and the amount of fame and power enjoyed by those entertainers. In 1965, even a relatively powerful music and film star like Dean Martin had limited television crossover access, and there were only a few outlets through which his show business buddies could appear to the public on a weekly or monthly basis. Twenty years later, cable television was in full bloom, providing, at a minimum, at least one television outlet for any successful pop music artist: MTV.

As television’s focus fragmented into dozens of channels, music and film stars also became corporate brands unto themselves, competing quantities who typically don’t want to share the same broadcast space. The various pieces of the variety show puzzle separated into categories, with MTV and later VH1 providing support for musical tastes, numerous sketch comedy shows popping up all around the dial, and a proliferation of talk shows filling in the gaps with the banal chatter that had been such a small portion of the true variety show’s rich content. Had MTV arrived ten years earlier, our nation would almost certainly have been spared the horror of “The Donny and Marie Show” (featuring several dozen Osmond brothers!). As it was, by 1990 the elements of a true variety show could be found split up into several different shows - for example, you could put together one hell of a variety show from “In Living Color” (Fox sketch comedy show), “120 Minutes” (MTV alt-rock programming), and “The Late Show with David Letterman” (no explanation needed, presumably).

This state of affairs is even more pronounced today, and it’s a challenge to identify a modern heir to the variety show. “Saturday Night Live” features a little music but began airing well before the variety genre faded, and in any event, “SNL” is more a progenitor of the sketch comedy genre than a variant of the variety show. “The Graham Norton Effect” takes it in a different direction, being more of a talk show than anything else, though he does feature some skit-type material. Probably the closest modern example would be either Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien; while their styles and intellectual appeals are vastly different, both feature a genial host, guest interviews, skits or comedy set-pieces, and musical numbers. They’re still talk shows at heart, though.

So here’s our mini-comment diversion: What would “The Dean Martin Show,” or any of your favorite variety shows, look like in 2008?

I’ll start. I’m envisioning George Clooney as our host. Through the special effects magic of television, he water-skis on to the stage in a classic black tux, then disarms the audience with that billion-dollar smile and a couple of jokes about the perils of super-stardom. Casually accepting a glass of champagne from Shauna, his assistant, he saunters to center-stage to introduce tonight’s special guest stars: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who sit down to chat for a while. In a few moments, our special musical guest, Sheryl Crowe, will be here to perform a song from her new album, and George is going to join her to see if he inherited any of Rosemary’s pipes for a duet. Later there’ll be a skit where George and Brad play two con men trying to charm Sheryl out of a million dollars - but the funniest part is how Sheryl can’t keep a straight face and keeps breaking character. We’ll close the night with a little George-and-Brad soft shoe number, while Angelina looks on with the brood.

That’s how Dino and Frankie would have done it.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

Pajibasaur / Ted Boynton

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