When I wrote an article here a couple of months ago asking if Rosie O’Donnell could successfully bring back the variety show before her special aired, I came to the conclusion that she was the chosen one to do exactly that. Unfortunately, I had visions of thinking O’Donnell could bring the magic that Carol Burnett, Donny & Marie and Sonny & Cher brought to the format in the 70s, but in a modern way that showed some relevancy. If Rosie O’Donnell brought something modern to her variety special on November 26, then she proved that celebrities today are too jaded to really make the variety show work in the modern age. Or is that just a myth and Rosie actually blew an opportunity here to bring back something worthwhile to TV?
Many people, including myself, have wanted to see a return of variety shows on TV other than an in any form that doesn’t involve Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey or someone else contemporary who doesn’t really understand the true vibe of the format without dipping it into a giant bowl of cheese. Rosie O’Donnell, initially, seemed to have an inner understanding of the concept, particularly in the Broadway/showbiz sensibility that Carol Burnett and others brought to the concept in the 1970’s. Sure, that can also equal schmaltz from the get-go. Nevertheless, it’s highly entertaining when done with someone who’s likable.
Rosie O’Donnell arguably should have realized that she was just a tad bit too spiteful about certain people on her hit list before dipping her toe into the variety show revival pool. If she truly studied the old variety shows of yesteryear, she should have seen a clash of personality between hers and Carol Burnett or dozens of other female stars who had a variety show 30 or 40 years ago. Other than the Smothers Brothers in the late 1960’s (who had their variety show canceled, by the way), there wasn’t any political bashing on variety shows in their golden era. That usually included the comedic skits.
And as a relative of mine told me definitively the night Rosie’s special aired: “What’s missing there is…real talent.” Yes, I almost gasped at that revelation, but once you put the show in perspective, you realize that the talent picked was good in theory, though just didn’t show anywhere near their best sides. If the show had good writers, they would have had Alec Baldwin do
anything except talk into Rosie’s breasts. They also should have had Conan O’Brien do something other than revive the old lame pie in the face (that didn’t work in the 70’s variety show let alone now). Also, why not have Harry Connick, Jr. sing a complete number with his band and piano? That would have added something better than seeing myriad Ed Sullivan-like novelty acts thrown in for the sake of living up to the word “variety.”
Yep, I was waiting for the plate spinners before the end of the night.
It seems those who should have sung didn’t and those who shouldn’t be singing did. Liza Minnelli is obviously a legend, yet obviously isn’t in good health. Her voice was overshadowed by the eardrum-piercing vocals of O’Donnell anyway. Beyond that, Ne-Yo and Alanis Morissette are generally high quality in Top 40. Here, however, they didn’t really stand out all that much in warranting having a point being there.
Overall, Rosie must have known that this was going to fall flat. In an interview during rehearsals, a backup dancer on the show thanked her for bringing the format back. “I’m trying”, O’Donnell uttered. To me, that was a signal before it even aired that she was out to just have fun and not worry about what the consequences would be.
So if Rosie was out to just have fun on one night and remind her public that she’s still alive, who else out there is available to possibly bring the variety show back for more than just one night?
The variety show still deserves to come back with someone who truly understands how and why it worked originally. I’ve realized now that despite O’Donnell’s appreciation of the type of entertainment you saw on variety shows, she ultimately didn’t understand the entire concept from the core. It would have been fair for her to come back and try one more time with a stronger slate of writers and letting talented celebrities actually show their real talent rather than embarrass themselves. But with the tidal wave of negativity, O’Donnell wisely announced in small letters on her blog there wouldn’t be any more variety specials from her end.
Now the chances of the variety show format coming back are most likely forever dormant, unless Rosie can persuade another celebrity to bring it back. To be honest, I can’t think of anybody other than certain individuals who could, though wouldn’t because they’re too successful doing other things. Someone with a mix of a retro and modern sensibility would be preferable to someone who has no understanding of what came before. I’ve heard suggestions from Michael Buble to Clay Aiken or even the simple standby of Oprah Winfrey.
While Aiken should be out of the picture after his deplorable cameo on “Rosie Live”, the other two (especially Buble) have an innate sense of retro while also understanding the viewer demands of the present. Unfortunately, he and Oprah are too busy making a barrel of money in those other successful ventures they have.
Since the well seems to be dry, there’s always the possibility of really going retro and bringing back the old standbys from yesteryear. I nominate Carol Burnett herself to try it again with the surviving original cast from her old show. Of course, CB tried reviving her show several times (the most recent in 1991 on CBS) and failed because she had a different ensemble that didn’t gel. We all know Carol Burnett wouldn’t do this anyway considering she’s in her mid 70’s and wouldn’t work with the original cast without the late Harvey Korman. However, even doing occasional specials with Vicki Lawrence and Tim Conway would be loved by many.
If we want to go back to the heyday of the variety show, perhaps dipping back into the original and aging talent pool who understood it from the get-go is the only hope left before it’s completely swallowed up into a time capsule…