A descendant of Vaudeville: an anthology of unrelated performances (be they musical, comedic, dramatic, etc.) by different performers. The format is literally Older Than Television, being developed for radio and crossing over to TV as the medium became popular after World War II. The first breakout television hits were variety shows, most notably the Texaco Star Theatre (hosted by Milton Berle) and The Ed Sullivan Show; other important examples from the '50s and '60s included The Red Skelton Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. As you might notice, many such shows were named for the host(s).
In The '70s, Ms. Burnett's show continued to perform well in the ratings, as did The Flip Wilson Show, Donny And Marie and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. However, overall the genre began to slide. The decline may be related to the fact that, increasingly, variety shows were used as "summer series" while American networks' main shows were on hiatus. Said replacements seemed to get exponentially corny and their hosts increasingly unlikely, including The Brady Bunch, mimes (!) Shields and Yarnell, affable TV actor Ken Berry, and pop groups ranging from The Starland Vocal Band to The Hudson Brothers.
This format fell out of favor in America in the early 1980s (although in Australia, Hey Hey It's Saturday lasted until 1999). Cable (particularly MTV and HBO) provided alternate outlets for the music, stand-up comedy, and miscellaneous acts that were the bread-and-butter of these shows, and viewers no longer had to sit through three acts they weren't interested in for the sake of one that they wanted to see. If they didn't like what was on cable, people could go down to the local video rental stores that were popping up across the country to find something they wanted to watch. Also, tastes were becoming more polarized; whereas formerly people could endure musical styles they didn't care for much, more and more people actually HATED styles they disfavored. This, combined with the growing number of U.S. households with multiple TV sets, meant that viewers could watch what they wanted, making the format obsolete.
One-shot and annual specials such as Circus of the Stars persisted into the early 1990s, but even those are now relatively rare.
Occasional attempts to revive the genre (on networks or cable) have been doomed to failure, though some might argue that Sketch Comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live, the late-night Talk Show format, and reality competitions such as American Idol and America's Got Talent keep the form on life support. NBC gave it one more shot for the 2015-16 season with Neil Patrick Harris hosting Best Time Ever, but it only lasted 8 episodes before being canceled.
Producers of the British Sitcom The Young Ones booked a band for a guest appearance in every episode; musical performances qualified the series as a variety show, and it was therefore permitted a larger budget than usual for a BBC sitcom.
Variety shows are still popular in East Asia and Europe, likely due to over-the-air programming still being dominant and households tending to only have one TV set. The East Asian shows aren't exactly the same as the Western variety shows, although the name is still used to refer to them.
- Adam Hills In Gordon Street Tonight
- Attack of the Show!
- A radio example would be A Prairie Home Companion.
- The Big Show: the name of two NBC variety shows, both of which heralded the end of an era.
- A 1950-1951 radio show starring Tallulah Bankhead, a last-gasp attempt by radio to hold out against television. It was successful, but expensive to produce, and couldn't bring in the sponsorships it needed. NBC cancelled it after two years, reportedly losing $1 million on it.
- A 1980 TV show starring Dick Clark, attempting to revive the dying format on TV. The massive set included a swimming pool and ice rink; the first episode was a success, but ratings plummeted after that and it was cancelled after 11 episodes. If Pink Lady and Jeff wasn't the Genre-Killer, this was, as they started within a week of each other, but The Big Show lasted twice as long.
- Bill Nye Saves the World — In a sense. Each episode has a particular Central Theme that ties all the elements together, but within a single episode are contained any combination of live demonstrations in front of the audience, comedy sketches, "man on the street" style interviews, correspondent field pieces, panel discussions, and monologues from Bill himself.
- The Black and White Minstrel Show - unfortunately, almost all the musical performances were done by white performers in Black Face.
- The Brady Bunch Hour
- The Carol Burnett Show
- The Colgate Comedy Hour
- Crime Scene
- Donny And Marie
- 1987's Dolly, starring Dolly Parton — it lasted one season and was considered a huge gamble even then.
- The Ed Sullivan Show
- Hee Haw - an American country music-themed variety show, one of the victims of The Rural Purge.
- Hey Hey It's Saturday
- Hinatazaka de Aimashō
- The Hollywood Revue of 1929 was part of a series of filmed variety shows that were briefly in vogue during the 1928-30 era when sound films were new and novel. MGM, which was transitioning to talking films, simply put all of its stars into a variety show movie filled with unrelated sketches and songs. Warner Brothers did the exact same thing with its 1929 film The Show of Shows. 1930 film King of Jazz is a plotless variety show featuring Paul Waldman and his band in a series of lavish musical numbers, with sketch comedy interludes.
- The Jackie Gleason Show
- The Muppet Show — Somewhere between a straight example and a spoof of this genre.
- As part of Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson did a variety show special on ABC in 2004 that flopped badly.
- In-universe in The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), the eponymous radio show's format includes musical numbers by bizarre animals and inanimate objects, novelty acts, and prerecorded spoken "true story" segments as closing "feature presentations."
- Pink Lady and Jeff — This 1980 NBC flop was the arguable Genre-Killer.
- Random Acts of Variety, an attempt at a revival
- The Red Skelton Show
- Run BTS! — Variety Show featuring the members of Korean Pop Music band BTS
- Saturday Live (Renamed to Friday Night Live in 1988)
- Saturday Night Live originally had more of a variety show-style format, with multiple musical guests appearing in some early episodes and stand-up comedy mixed in with the sketch comedy.
- Dinah Shore hosted several variety shows, notably The Dinah Shore Chevy Show (which later became simply The Dinah Shore Show) in the 1950s/1960s and Dinah! in the 1970s.
- The Slammer — A variety show with a weird framing device.
- The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
- Solstrom — A 2003 Widget Series produced by Cirque du Soleil had whimsical fantasy storylines brought to life via a selection of circus/variety acts from both within and without Cirque's live shows.
- The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour
- Along with separate shows (Cher and The Sonny Comedy Revue) following the couple's bitter divorce.
- The Steve Allen Show
- Super Dave, a.k.a. The Super Dave Osborne Show
- Texaco Star Theater
- This Is Tom Jones
- The Tonight Show
- The Tracey Ullman Show (aka, the show where The Simpsons started on)
- Viva Variety — Comedy Central's parody of these kinds of programs
- Who's The Murderer
- Technically, by having bands on, The Young Ones was considered a variety show. (This was because variety got a higher budget than light entertainment at the BBC.)