A HISTORY OF THE VARIETY SHOW FORMAT
RSVP most definitely draws on the various iterations of what “variety show” has meant throughout the years. In America, the variety format really first came into its own during the days of Vaudeville. Throughout the country, in the smallest towns and the largest cities, vaudeville houses presented bills of performers to entertain audiences with multiple shows each day. Everything from music to monologues to comedy to scenes from “great plays” to acrobats to mule, elephant, and horse acts were offered on the same bill. With the Palace Theater in Times Square as the zenith, there were several circuits, or chains of theaters arranged in networks across the country. Performers were sent out to tour these circuits, often for up to 42 weeks a year.
Once radio broadcasting became a lucrative business, the major radio networks lured some of the best vaudeville performers away from the road and built weekly shows around their talents. Big names such as Burns & Allen, Jack Benny, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, and Bob Hope all had long-running series that had their genesis in the personas and material that they developed during their time on the road. The shows became, in essence, mini vaudeville bills, with songs both instrumental and vocal, comedy sketches, and more comprising each episode. The mule acts were, unfortunately, left behind due to the visual limits of the medium. However, as television took over the airwaves, one of the first actions by the new television networks was to build weekly variety shows that were direct lifts of the old vaudeville format. So the mule acts could get at least occasional work. Former newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan became host, starting in 1948, of a weekly Sunday night variety show which was a national phenomenon, presenting viewers with an hour of comedy, sketches, music (classical and popular), dance, acrobats, and more. The series lasted for almost 25 years. Come the Sixties, “The Hollywood Palace” would take the Sullivan format, up the octane, and present similar variety bills with top-tier performers every week for almost a decade.
As TV progressed through the 50s and 60s, every big radio performer was given a television show, often building off their radio work and including more variety elements. New performers, coming up through the ranks of clubs, music, and movies were also given their own shows. The star-hosted variety show was most definitely becoming the staple of TV programming.
Come the 70s, more and more attempts were made to launch new variety shows. Although, by this time the focus of content tended to narrowed more and more to just music and comedy. By the end of the decade, they were becoming interchangeable, with few bright spots, like “Saturday Night Live” starting during this period.
From the early 80s through the end of the century, several big-budget and big-name flops made the variety show format anathema for TV network programmers. These days, some say that, because of the fragmenting and siloing of broadcast entertainment, variety shows just aren’t possible.
We respectfully disagree, with the caveat that we need to reintroduce the element of the show being live, so that our guests experience what is happening with no divide between themselves and the performance. We also think that real variety needs to be embraced once again, when building a performance bill. We try to not rely on any one genre, with the only common thread being the high quality of the entertainment that our guests experience.