Sock It to Me: A Brief History of Rock & Roll Variety Shows

From the Smothers to Neil Patrick Harris, how TV's old-school format got subversive and hip

When Neil Patrick Harris returns to TV next week, he won't be cracking jokes in another sitcom. Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris (debuting on September 15th on NBC) marks the return — overdue or not  — of the variety show, that long-dormant format in which kooky skits, musical guests, and frenzied production numbers are jammed into an hour of family-friendly entertainment. "When you think of the variety shows we all grew upon — Sonny and Cher and Donny and Marie — those [programs] all said, 'Sit on the couch, be entertained with a little song, a little dance and a little bit of funny,'" says Best Time Ever executive producer David Hurwitz. "There was a lot of spontaneity and fun in a show like Laugh-In. It's organized chaos, a runaway train but with care and precision."

The format dates back to the nascent days of television, when mainstream entertainers like Dinah Shore, Perry Como, and gnomish Ed Sullivan presided over such something-for-everyone series. But Harris' show, which will have an initial eight-episode run and wrap up (for now) in November, promises to revive a subtradition: the hip, rock-influenced variety show, one that plays to a younger, more knowing audience. Similarly, Maya Rudolph, who starred in a one-shot special last year, may return with a variety series and a cohost, Martin Short, playing off their hilarious performance on Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary special. (In another nod to the past, one of Stephen Colbert's first guests on the new Late Show will be Carol Burnett.) Here's the inspired, twisted and sometimes tragic history of the rock & roll variety shows that preceded Best Time Ever.

The Foundation
Back in the 1950s, nothing was less hip than the variety show, which catered to a largely adult crowd that didn't relate to or understand rock & roll. The low point? Elvis Presley being forced to wail "Hound Dog" to … a dog wearing a hat, on The Steve Allen Show. The situation improved later — the Beatles and the Stones both historically rocked the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 — but it took two brothers who’d starred in a failed sitcom to take the rock-variety concept to the next level.

The siblings — short-haired, guitar-playing pretend-doofus Tom Smothers and his standup-bass-yielding brother Dick — looked more like substitute teachers than comics, but Tom in particular was politically conscious and musically adventurous, both aspects reflected in the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that debuted in 1967. "They came to us and said, 'Do you want to a variety show in this slot?'" Tom Smothers, now 78, recalls. "I said I didn't want to do the standard bullshit. We wanted the sketches to be more relevant. You couldn't help but reflect what was going on."

Tapping into the anti-establishment zeitgeist of the time, the Comedy Hour wasn't afraid to mock politicians (Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon were regular targets), slip in pot references ("tea" was a favorite euphemism), and present rare-to-TV bands like the Who and Buffalo Springfield. Smothers still vividly recalls the time the former group wrapped up a version of "My Generation" with Pete Townshend smashing his guitar and Keith Moon setting off small dynamite charges in his kit, blowing up his drums in the process. "Everybody was shocked," he says. "I thought someone was going to be killed by that shrapnel. The drum had disintegrated."

Even with their network, CBS, scrutinizing the show's every move, moments like that revolutionized the variety concept. "One time Jefferson Airplane came out and Grace Slick did 'Crown of Creation' in blackface," Smothers recalls with a laugh. "I don't know why. No one said a thing. It was one of those things where you did it and no one gave a fuck."

Less incendiary at times but no less radical in its way, Laugh-In (later called Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In) debuted about a year after the Smothers' show. Starting with its dapper, nightclub-show-ready hosts and extending to its relentless barrage of one-liners, crude innuendo, and "joke wall" gags, Laugh-In was vaudeville in paisley. (One of its stars, British comic Judy Carne, died this week at age 76.)

But it had a zingy, irreverent sensibility — cue the John and Yoko jokes — and wasn't afraid to mock Republicans and Democrats alike. "Until then, you sang the popular songs and danced and whatever else," says Laugh-In executive producer George Schlatter. "And then along came the Smothers Brothers and [our show], and that changed everything. It was an exciting time. You had the Beatles and the pill and the war. There were a lot of things we could do jokes about."

With those barriers dismantled, the variety show grew out its hair and let as much of its freak flag fly as possible. In 1969, the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show presented the generally TV-averse Bob Dylan, singing "I Threw It All Away" from his new album Nashville Skyline. That same year, Glen Campbell began hosting The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, where one could see Campbell dueting with Cash, Linda Ronstadt, and a very young and clean-shaven Willie Nelson.

The Heyday:
Unfortunately, the counterculture variety show seemed to end along with the counterculture culture. The Smothers Brothers clashed with CBS over political content and censorship rules, and the brothers were fired in 1969. (Smothers admits that he was "stressed out" in the aftermath of the original show's cancellation but is philosophical about it now: "It was probably the best thing that happened to us in hindsight. We didn't wear out our welcome.") Meanwhile, Cash and Campbell's shows were gone within two years.

Thanks to Laugh-In writer Paul Keyes, who had his share of Republican friends, then-candidate Nixon appeared on the show in 1968 and uttered its trademark "Sock it to me" line, making Nixon appear hip at least for five seconds. "Laugh-In helped Nixon get elected," says Schlatter, "and I've had to live with that." But according to the producer, the show had lost whatever edge it had soon after the inauguration. "One day his people came to me and said, as of that day, we would not be allowed to do any more political humor — not about the President or the Pentagon or the war," Schlatter says. "Nixon's people would call every night after the show and review the content. After a while I said, 'You've lost me.'" Schlatter left Laugh-In in 1972, and the series was cancelled the following year.

"One time Jefferson Airplane came out and Grace Slick did 'Crown of Creation' in blackface. It was one of those things where you did it and no one gave a fuck."

Topical humor was out, but rock-infused comedy, music and sensibility endured in what amounted to the variety show's commercial heyday. African-American comic Flip Wilson, who guested on Laugh-In, was given his own weekly variety show in 1970, and anyone tuning into the hit Flip Wilson Show saw Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin, with jokes sometimes written by George Carlin. Sonny and Cher, who were on the verge of has-been status at the dawn of the Me Decade, landed a variety series in 1971 that played off their Vegas act. While far from cutting edge, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour boasted Steve Martin among its writers, and the Jackson Five and Kris Kristofferson among its musical guests.

When the couple broke up, Cher continued with her own series for almost two more years. Cher pushed the envelope a little more than she did with her ex-husband. Censors were constantly worried about her skimpy, skin-baring outfits (designed by Bob Mackie), and musical guests included acts those rarely seen in prime time: Cher's new boyfriend Gregg Allman, Marianne Faithfull (pre-Broken English comeback), and David Bowie (who performed a six-minute medley with her that included "Young Americans"). In 1975, the sight of Cher, Bette Midler and Elton John joining together on "Mockingbird" and "Proud Mary" was pure showbiz — but still a sign of how the rock era had infiltrated the variety show.

The Decline:
With the variety show a proven draw, seemingly anyone who could carry a tune and dance a few steps was handed a time slot to host one. The dubious roll call included Donny and Marie Osmond (genuine all-around entertainer types), "Afternoon Delight" one-hit wonders Starland Vocal Band (yes, that is David Letterman introducing them), country singer-songwriter Mac Davis and even a couple of mimes (Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell).

But the boom mostly succeeded in watering down the triumphs of the past. "The variety shows became bland, but at the same time you had shows like All in the Family and Saturday Night Live that were taking it in other directions," says Smothers, whose attempts to revive his show with his brother (twice in the Seventies and once in the late Eighties) all sputtered out. "The variety show is simple, but it has to have something special and keep moving pretty rapidly. You have to cater to the guest stars and write sketches in a special way for them. It's pretty stressful."

As the variety format entered the Reagan era, its sad fate was put on very public display. Pink Lady (sometimes referred to as Pink Lady and Jeff) embodied all that had gone wrong with the concept. Named after its stars — two hapless female Japanese pop stars and comic Jeff Altman — the series transformed the variety format into the most painful of car wrecks. (Low point: A skit in which Pink Lady pretended to flirt with Altman, who cracked that they were responding to his "sexy round eyes.") Cheap Trick and Blondie appeared on the show but only by way of pre-filmed music videos that, in the year before MTV, needed to be shown somewhere.

"The whole music business changed," says Schlatter, who kept his hand in variety after Laugh-In. "The musical guests were more interested in promoting their new album than in singing their big hits. You don't put the Rolling Stones in a comedy sketch! It's not going to work."

Nowhere was audience indifference toward variety more evident than with The New Show, producer Lorne Michael's short-lived attempt to bring back the sketch-and-music format in 1984. Despite skits featuring John Candy, Gilda Radner, and Buck Henry — and musical guests that included Paul Simon and the Pretenders — The New Show never found an SNL-size audience and was cancelled after only two and a half months. Hip was no longer the same in the new decade.

Variety Show 4.0:
In the new millennium, the hip variety show was revived — only to crash like a rickety human pyramid you'd actually see on those types of shows. Back in 2004, the idea of Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson as the new Sonny and Cher must have appealed to someone, and their two Nick and Jessica Variety Hour specials inserted the then-couple into skits and paired them with musical guests like Jewel. (A must-see camp moment: their duet of "Who Will Save Your Soul?")

The first of the Nick and Jessica specials was the 17th most-watched show that week, but in a telling sign of trends to come, the first and fourth highest-rated shows that same week both went to American Idol. To a veteran like Smothers, it made sense. "It seemed like the awards shows became variety shows, and so did all those talent shows: 'You got a voice, you want to be a star,'" he says. "They're not variety shows in the way I remember them — these precise, wonderfully presented shows with professional acts. But things like America's Got Talent are all variety shows."

Five years later, Osbournes: Reloaded attempted to transform Ozzy, Sharon, Jack and Kelly into a song-and-dance clan. But affiliates around the country passed on airing the first episode and the series died an instant death, leaving a handful of taped shows in the can. "When you ask what happened to the variety show and then bring up the Osbournes and Nick and Jessica...you almost answer your own question," says Hurwitz. "They tried to take people who were very popular a the time and put them into a format where they just didn't fit. There were only so many times you can not understand what Ozzy was saying." (Not surprisingly, the Osbourne clan declined to comment for this story.)

So, against all odds, Best Time Ever promises to introduce the genre to a new generation by way of its song-and-dance-man star. "Neil can do anything," says Hurwitz. "Dramas,  Broadway, sitcoms — it's in his DNA." Schlatter, for one, is hopeful that the show will revive the format: "Now it's going to be a new form, and people will discover a new kind of show business with singing and dancing and costumes." (Coincidentally, Harris' name has been floated to play Smothers in a possible film adaptation of David Bianculli's book on the Smothers Brothers and their groundbreaking show, Dangerously Funny, which was optioned by George Clooney's production company.)

Taking some of its cues and inspiration from the British variety show Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, Best Time Ever will include the usual slew of variety show zaniness: Harris in stunts and practical jokes and a karaoke segment that, with the help of modern tech, will make three unsuspecting viewers part of the show by surprising them in their own living rooms. (The show's musical guests, who have yet to be announced, will participate as well.) In a more traditional vein, every show will end with a pull-out-the-stops production number that may include both acrobats and pop stars.

Will all of these post-modern twists and innovations revive the variety show — and, just as important, make the format cool again in the same way that previously discredited forms like hair metal have gained respectability? All that's needed is a new Laugh-In, and Smothers, for one, feels that time is right too. "I'm surprised they haven't rebooted that," he says.