Thursday, 28 February 2013

Hollywood Babble On & On #992: What Variety Of Variety?

Variety shows used to be a staple on American television. Back in the day there wouldn't be a night without a show featuring sketch comedy, music, and other acts performing in front of a live in-studio audience being broadcast nationally.

However, prime-time variety is pretty much dead in America, and has been dead since the mid-1970s. It still thrives in other parts of the world, but in America TV history of the last 30 years is littered with the corpses of failed variety shows.

The main reason for networks to keep trying to bring back variety shows are that they're relatively cheap to produce when compared to one hour television dramas that can cost anywhere between $3-$6 million an episode. You need a studio with a stage, a few props and costumes, and some inexpensive sets you can roll in and out, and a roster of guest performers who are there more for the exposure and the promotion of their next project than for the money.

It was the ease of making variety shows that killed it. Starting in the 1960s the networks started giving out variety shows like candy at Halloween. By the 1970s anyone who had the slightest bit of fame had their own variety show, whether they could carry one or not. People started to get sick of them, and then the networks saw that the audience was beginning to skew older for those shows, and they started dropping like flies.

But hope springs eternal, and now several networks and studios are in talks with comic actress and Saturday Night Live and Bridesmaids alumni Maya Rudolph to star in her own variety show.

Now I'm not an expert on her or her work, since I haven't been able to sit through an episode of SNL in ages, but I am going to assume that she has the requisite talent to make a good go of it. 

However, it doesn't really matter how much talent she has, because the format has many traps and pitfalls that can sink it before it's even begun. The smart thing would be to look at the last truly successful prime time variety show and see what they did right.

That was The Carol Burnett Show. It ran for 11 seasons and 278 episodes and not only do those who remember it think highly of the show, people who see it for the first time tend to like it too.

What did they do right?

It all boils down to the star's ego, or lack thereof. Carol Burnett was the name in the title, but she didn't have to be the centre of attention in every sketch or segment. In fact, they would have whole segments where she would be relegated to either a small supporting role, or not appear at all.

The big mistake other shows make is to assume that the "star" of the show has to be the star of every segment. The whole point of the format is "variety" which means having a variety of performers playing a variety of characters. Rosie O'Donnell's abortion abomination variety show failed because she had to be the centre of every bit, and she could only do one character, and that was Rosie O'Donnell.

The audience was sick of the sight of her before the first commercial break.

So, if Rudolph is going to make this work, she needs to take a few simple steps.

1. Get as many Harvey Kormans as she can get. 

Carol Burnett often attributed the hiring of Harvey Korman as the key to success of her show. He could carry sketches on his own, and was a master straight man who only Tim Conway could crack. 

For Rudolph's proposed show to work she needs to get at least one, but preferably more than one, performer(s) who are capable of doing material on their own, while being able to help and carry others.

The makers of a variety show can't trust the networks/studios or even the big agencies to provide you with these sorts of players. The networks/studios don't want anyone who might outshine the star, for fear they might have to pay them a bigger salary. Meanwhile the agencies will try to foist the usual suspects of old timers on the show because they need to maximize the 10% fees they collect to stay in business.

That conflict could get the show stocked with has-beens and never-weres. Which is not healthy.

To get the right cast for the show, emphasizing versatility and talent, you have to go out and look for them. The internet can make that easier, but nothing beats burning through some shoe-leather  checking out improv and sketch groups at both theatres and colleges.

2. Get good writers. 

Everyone in Hollywood thinks they can write, especially in comedy. That's a huge lie. Only few can write decent comedy consistently, and when it comes to sketch, the backbone of any variety show, it's very much a young writer's game.

A good strategy is to hire a select group of skilled old pros to act as mentors to the young bucks. Where will you find the young bucks? Well, like with the performers you are probably going to have to go out and look for them.

There is a way to use the internet to do this. First you can set up a system where people can send in their sketches. Set up a classification system that pays set amounts based on the size of the sketch,  and if a sketch makes it to air, they get a cheque and an on screen writing credit.

Another way to use the internet is to comb through YouTube and other video sites to find people who make funny short videos. You set up a relationship with them, and buy an exclusive window to premiere their next sketch video before they premiere it online.

3. Don't let regular characters become TOO regular.

Every sketch performer has a stable of regular characters, and the networks and studios love regular characters, because they love familiarity. The problem is that when it comes to variety/sketch shows familiarity can breed contempt. A variety show star could have a killer character, and the network and the studio could then demand that character appear in every episode.

However trying to come up with fresh material for that character will get harder and harder, especially when you're being forced to do it. The quality goes down, and the character that the audience used to love, becomes the one they now hate because they're sick of the sight of the bastard. Plus it also prevents new characters and material from finding a place in the show.

It's best to only use regular characters when there's good material for those characters.

4. Don't let sketches run too long.

Shows that perform in front of a studio audience come with a pitfall that every sketch has to fill the time between commercial breaks. This can lead to sketches that were funny at 3 minutes getting stretched out to from almost seven to ten minutes.

That's because it's technically more complicated to do more than one sketch on stage between the commercial break because you have to change the sets and the all the other technical frummery. However, that's why you make relationships with the short video makers. They can create the pre-taped bumper material you can use to segue between the on stage in studio performances.

That way you get the reputation for being fast paced and if something doesn't work, there's always something else coming up before the temptation to flip the channel takes over.

And that's how you can prevent any variety show she does from becoming a Mayan apocalypse.

Get it?




  1. sandy petersen28/2/13 4:12 pm

    an excellent description of why Carol Burnett worked, and Rosie O'Donnell did not.

  2. Blast Hardcheese1/3/13 10:56 am

    I'm wondering if one could resurrect Joel Hodgeson's "TV Wheel" concept to get around the 7-minute skit problem. That had the camera at the center of a rotating stage, and they could set up sets 'off camera' and quickly shift to them when needed. They could also do fun stuff with forced perspective and such.

  3. Blast Hardcheese said...
    I'm wondering if one could resurrect Joel Hodgeson's "TV Wheel" concept to get around the 7-minute skit problem. That had the camera at the center of a rotating stage, and they could set up sets 'off camera' and quickly shift to them when needed. They could also do fun stuff with forced perspective and such.

    1/3/13 10:56 AM

    Are you from the future? Is that why your name is Blast?

    OTOH Furious Your ideas are so uncommonly sensable is there any person in a position of power who would ever listen to you?
    I got nuthin' but questions today?

  4. OMG I'm from the future too. It is only march 1 2013 at my house right now! Where's Rod?