With a glut of mediocre talent shows currently popping up on every channel, Getintothis’ Jessica Borden takes a fond look back at the colourful insanity of 70’s variety shows.
The 70’s variety show was a world unto itself. The glitz, glamour and unpredictable nature of the shows meant that they became must-watch television for an entire generation of TV viewers.
A myriad of stars – from Cher through to Dean Martin – each hosted their own shows and brought their equally famous friends along for the ride.The bizarre, camp, kitsch quality of their TV specials are now sadly lacking from our screens, where the emotional ‘journey’ now holds court.
Our TV channels are filled with talent show or audition programmes (why we needed a Take That musical is still baffling) with celebrity judges pouring scorn on those they deem unworthy or unmarketable, The 70s was a more innocent, less polished and certainly more unique and interesting age.
In the 70s TV variety shows broke away from the monotony of everyday life, creating a world of their own. In the UK Morecambe and Wise were top dogs, hilariously adding musical guests and celebrity friends into their sketches.
Stateside, the same need to escape the humdrum nature of life brought us TV specials ranging from Sonny and Cher‘s incredibly costumed Comedy Hour to the intensely terrifying Brady Bunch‘s overly wholesome Variety Hour – all providing a welcome distraction from real life.
I mean, where else would you see Gene Kelly dancing with a mop?
The base of each good variety show were the hosts, from Ed Sullivan to Dean Martin, Cher to Dolly Parton, The Muppets to Bob Hope. All stars who in the 70’s were portrayed as being larger than life, and having their own variety show allowed the viewers access to their celebrity world. At least for an hour or so.
There was a magic from such huge names hosting their own TV shows, even though it seems like everybody and their mother had a variety show. This magic was propelled by the fact that if the host could handle the quick fire comedy and mistakes that could happen at any moment, they instantly became a nation’s sweetheart – even with inappropriate comments *cough* Dean Martin *cough*.
The celebrity guests are what really moved these shows from vanity projects to all-round entertainment, wirh stars such as Elton John (who was apparently on all variety shows), Diana Ross, David Bowie, Bette Midler and Gene Kelly among those happy to send themselves up for the sake of the show. These guests served to create the most unusual of combinations and in turn some of the most memorable moments of 70’s TV.
For example, Cher, Bette Midler and Elton John doing sketch comedy about the year 2025 offers us a bizarre trip in the realms of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Shock Treatment. The real beauty of which comes through a group of people who are all huge icons suddenly being in the most unusual of situations, making the entire show seem unreal – a scenario not even the most vivid imagination could have envisaged.
The dreamlike state which all of these sketches and groupings of people created made their own little world and it seemed like you were a part of it, or at the very least invited in on the mayhem.
From the glitter of the dresses to the elaborate stages spinning around with bold colour blocking (and occasionally shaking enough to break) these are the things that truly tested the host and in turn endeared them to the hearts of the public.
The mishaps of a set falling apart (or pianos collapsing) and the glamour of the costumes are essentials to the variety show, a place where the aesthetic was essential in being able to tell which world had been entered from the opening scene – whether it was the masculine crooner world of Dean Martin, the extravagant eccentric world of Cher or the cartoon colourful land of The Muppets.
With all manner of different worlds created, the one thing they had in common was the larger than life aspect, everything amplified by a thousand. The colours were brighter and the outfits bigger, evoking a sense of Dorothy’s trip to Oz while the cold outside world was frought with political unrest and an ongoing war in Vietnam. Pure, unsullied escapism.
But it wasn’t just the celebrity cameos that made the shows interesting. The comedy sketches and musical medleys played an essential part of the variety show. Incredible actors like Peter Cushing, comedians such as Marty Feldman and musicians from Bowie to The Jackson 5 would dive into their entertainer roles head first.
Morecambe and Wise were the masters of the sketch and constantly able to leave the guest in hysterics mid routine. Their ability to make the audience feel in on the joke, breaking the fourth wall of the mystical variety show land, made them the undisputed kings of the TV special.
The musical medleys provided a range of musical curios, each show seemed to have a 10 minute segment where they tried to cram in as many disco numbers, singles or covers as they possibly could. The medleys perhaps encapsulate the variety show – filled to the brim with everything they could possibly think of. Why only have a one-song musical performance when you can fit about 5 into a 10 minute slot? The excess of it all worked wonders for these shows and gave the people what they wanted..
The world they create is pure escapism in the best way, it creates a personal Oz where you are in on the jokes, with a soundtrack of your favourite artists singing with your idols. It was there every week at the same time to whisk you away to a colourful land of magic. We’d love to see a return.