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Variety Show

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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 Theater (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, The Carol Burnett 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.


  • 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.)