The network TV variety show seems to have had an official life date of roughly the late 1940s to the early 1980s. In those ensuing latter years, there were pangs of nostalgia in wanting to bring back the variety format in some form or another. Most of that nostalgia was perhaps from network executives who were on the cusp of retirement and probably had the majority of their careers through the variety era. But once they managed to place a new variety show on the network schedule, it was discovered the audience had vastly changed.
Due to those failures, the A-list star involved sometimes took the brunt of the blame for the failure rather than the variety format itself. Was that really true, or was the variety show format really just too archaic to catch on with a new generation?
Perhaps we’ll find out with even a younger generation now that “Saturday Night Live” alum Maya Rudolph has just received an NBC pilot for her own variety show. Considering Rudolph is close to what you might describe as a modern-day Carol Burnett, perhaps she’ll be successful. Regardless, there’s still the specter of the previous attempt at a variety show revival not too long ago.
Rosie O’Donnell’s Variety Show Attempt
You may remember when Rosie O’Donnell was given free reign to bring the variety show format back to a 21st century audience. Done as a pilot during Thanksgiving of 2008, “Rosie Live” was going to merge the variety format with the feel of a Broadway show, similar to what Carol Burnett did from the 1960s through the late 1970s. Despite all the fanfare, the “Rosie Live” pilot tanked, and plans to make it a regular series were immediately scrapped. Then all the media analysis followed on what really went wrong, including from yours truly.
Some of the problem seemed to be blamed on O’Donnell’s open opinions on politics she couldn’t keep quiet during the pilot. Then there was the usual blame on the variety format and the possible suggestion the blend of Broadway might not have gone over well with other time zones other than those who reside in the Big Apple. Still others thought the comedy writing just wasn’t good enough when everyone remembers laughing themselves silly in the days of Carol Burnett.
Will any of those things be taken more seriously with Maya Rudolph’s new attempt? Ironically, it’s going to be on the same network where the O’Donnell show was, so it almost seems like a repair job to initiate a revival six years later. The only problem this time is whether Rudolph was really a product of late-night rather than being ready for primetime.
Bringing Late-Night Variety to the Evening Crowd
One reason why “Saturday Night Live” has succeeded as a late-night variety show is because it’s allowed to take its shield down and get as raunchy as it’s been since the beginning. Even with the one-hour reruns being aired at 10 p.m. recently on NBC, disclaimers have to be mentioned at the beginning that the material may not be suitable for all audiences.
Even though Rudolph is extremely versatile, will she have to do material suitable only to the “SNL” crowd? If so, it may not go over with everyone in the prime-time hours. And there’s also the problem of fans expecting her to be raunchier, only to find out she’s toning things down to accommodate children and more conservative audiences watching.
Yes, this may be the new dilemma for the variety show succeeding. Then again, it’s a hurdle not quite as challenging as worrying about being overly political, having bad writing, or bringing a Broadway sensibility. The “SNL” format already brings a Broadway feel, so perhaps Rudolph’s show truly can capture the spirit of the traditional variety format many still remember.
Her most important challenge is being herself and not trying too hard. Considering Rudolph’s comedy is somewhat on a different wavelength, it may have to mean paying a little closer attention than expecting the easier entertainment value from 40 or 50 years ago.