The San Andreas Fault troubles him deeply: Like all easterners, he sees L.A. as an Eldorado with the sun roof stuck open, a pastel pimpmobile with a serious shimmy, and he feels to some degree each of the 543 yearly earth tremors noted by La Jolla seismologists. “You think you dreamed it and the next morning somebody says, ‘Feel the little tremor last night?’ There is no such thing as a little tremor! God, they’re so cool about it!” Tony Orlando offers that over dinner in his house in Encino.
In two hours, at the end of his taped CBS show, he’ll be seen with a hand mike out in the middle of the auditorium, singing an old song to a new TV studio audience: long-haired kids on their feet singing with him, an audience once seen in such numbers only at outdoor rock concerts. And at any moment, on AM radio, some cut from his several current charted albums may be heard. He is one of the unique success stories of the Seventies, but that knowledge doesn’t stabilize him. Incredibly, three bites of steak after he’s said the word “earthquake,” the glass doors behind him rattle faintly, a ripple traverses his swimming pool. It’s the wind, his placid, satirical wife Elaine assures him, but he won’t buy that. “Now we’re supposed to sit here, calmly eating! Okay, I will now assume the California attitude. I will pretend to be cool.”
He trembles, though; he’s not by nature detached, a pretender, which is really why his music and presence are so ingratiating and why, to CBS’s amazement, he’s done so well in TV variety, a form considered by media experts to be almost moribund. It is at least in trouble — though the networks don’t perceive why because the reason’s obvious: TV variety has cooled itself out. In the Fifties, Uncle Miltie and Sid Caesar sensed what the culture would require of televised musical comedy and evolved a format based on old-time vaudeville, which is traceable backward not to the cool Palladian drama of Greece but to the pig-bladder Orpheum-circuit farce of Rome. Roman promoters simply took the high-blown Grecian style and broadened it for mass audiences and, of course, Rome eventually beat out Greece in the ratings.
Carol Burnett, a Sixties phenomenon, took Milton Berle’s aura and refined it to a high-comic level not seen before on the screens of Des Moines; but Burnett increasingly based her humor on chilly satirizations of Des Moines, first in her whining, soap-opera-addict hausfrau characters, next in the nasal, carping, small-minded “Family” sketches. Even her opening studio-audience chats became so patronizing that Des Moines noticed, and Des Moines does not really cotton to being satirized on TV.
What the Smothers Brothers and Sonny and Cher, together and then separately, gleaned from watching high-rated Burnett was only Carol’s cool (unfortunately, Mac Davis never learned anything from anyone and the Hudson Brothers aped Magilla Gorilla). How contained and effortless was Burnett’s ambiance! Except that when the Smothers and Bonos tried to reproduce it, it came out contrived, remote, somnambulistic (take that Smothers show, in which they found themselves with two final minutes’ extra time, informed the audience of this, filled the time with smirking, catatonic silence and coolly aired this humorless taped faux pas).
Tony Orlando, fortunately, never studied the way his peers were handling their shows because it never occurred to him he’d need to. He and Dawn — Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson — were too preoccupied singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” to the tour-circuit clientele, proving there was something, musically, to leave the house for besides transvestite rock and George Harrison’s sloe-eyed purveying of Eastern philosophies. Tony and the girls never even watched television; they were never near a set, except when they’d collapse in hotel rooms after gigs in time for the Late Late Show. When CBS suddenly offered them a summer-replacement spot in July of ’74 (a last-minute effort to fill the time slot vacated by the maritally defunct Bonos), they’d taped the shows, signed on for the fall and were into winter taping literally without a 24-hour introspection break.
This showed in their shows: At first their comedy was nowhere near Burnett’s or Sonny and Cher’s or even Sonny’s, even Cher’s; their early style was pure Midnight Special but they were clearly aware of this and unembarrassed by it. Frankly inexperienced, they began by offering what they already had, a loose sunny friendliness. They’d never read comic lines before, anywhere, ever, and you could witness their growth week to week, a quickening grasp of comic delivery, a developing instinct for the seasoned entertainer’s trick of making arid material look landscaped and irrigated by a controlled, throwaway satirizing of it. By kidding their own racial mixture, they kidded all of TV’s new ethnicity. All their songs were not attempting to be anything; like their comedy, like Tony, Telma and Joyce themselves, “Yellow Ribbon,” “Sweet Gypsy Rose” and “Who’s in the Strawberry Patch with Sally?” were never hyped because somebody feared that without hype, vacuity would be detected. The music was very innocuous and very pleasant, after years of pop music’s striving for significance.