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Film: Culture Clash

TV variety shows once had a large impact on popular culture

By Steven Rosen · February 6th, 2008 · Movies
  Paul Lynde - Halloween Special
Paul Lynde - Halloween Special

Does anybody else ever get the niche culture blues? We have all the choice we could want now in our fragmented, high-tech pop culture, but it's very, very difficult for anything -- especially anything the big corporations aren't convinced can make a fortune -- to make an impact on mass culture at large.

Once any arts/entertainment outlet finds the niche that justifies its existence, the last thing it's going to do is risk losing a follower by deviating. And that follower, happy to have what he wants all the time, isn't going to sacrifice his leisure-time "comfort food" for something different.

Even something becomes massively successful with young adults, the group with the most disposable cash for pop culture, it rarely hits the radar of anyone else these days (unless there's an arrest involved). Alas, there's no Ed Sullivan Show. To measure his impact, and everything television could be in terms of shaping society without having an agenda or marketing to a niche, check out the DVD The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows featuring The Beatles and Other Artists from 1964 and 1965.

This is a shame, since there's probably more good art being created today than ever. In Pop music, which succumbed to niche radio programming in the 1970s, this amounts to the difference between the adventurous, curious WEBN of the 1960s and the one of today.

Television lasted longer as a mass medium, although it, too, is fading. But while big networks can still rally a hit, the true variety shows like Sullivan's didn't survive the 1970s. (I would argue that American Idol and its ilk are really game shows.)

The DVD marketplace has seen a steady release in recent years of classic variety shows of the 1960s and 1970s. What is revelatory about them today is their serendipitous and un-ironic juxtapositions of guests -- they were mass in the best sense, open and welcoming to everyone. They did not judge; indeed, they could subvert judgment.

For instance, find the new release of the Paul Lynde Halloween Special from 1976. It features tongue-in-cheek comedian Lynde, Margaret Hamilton in her Wizard of Oz costume and the Rock band Kiss in their first primetime appearance. What were that show's demographics?

In this, those shows mirrored and even led a mass pop culture that was more populist than what we have today. I'm aware of the irony in this -- nothing has propelled the furthering of niche culture like the creation of DVDs and videos. But they do truthfully reveal the past simply through their eclecticism.

True, the old shows can be corny. Watching the three-disc release of This Is Tom Jones from his 1969-1971 ABC variety show, you have to sit through a bizarre choreographed-dance number featuring Jones and some faux hippies to get to an extended duet between him and a sweaty Little Richard, the latter wearing a tangerine choir cape and pumping the piano through a series of his greatest hits. Or, if you can sit through another arch dance number, you're rewarded with Janis Joplin wailing a soulful, orgiastic version of "Raise Your Hand" with Jones.

So even the "square" shows had daring highs. Jones, one of the most popular (and sexiest) of the non-Rock Pop stars of the day, had the freedom to showcase these two and more to his national audience. Similarly, Captain & Tennille -- who have recently released four of their 1970s network variety specials on DVD -- can seem impossibly dated today with their shows' awkward repartee. But they also took pride in giving classy acts like Fats Domino, B.B. King and Ella Fitzgerald a chance to be themselves in front of a mass audience.

But if those shows are refreshing today because of their eclecticism, others hold up because they were visionary from the start. The Best of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (volumes one and two) showcases a 1968-1973 NBC comedy-variety program that had an anarchic, anything-goes spirit that defied the very notion of "niche." And it was truly inclusive, with room for both Richard Nixon and Tiny Tim, a classic niche artist who became a Pop sensation thanks to his Laugh-In appearance.

But the most satisfying variety show to watch today -- for its spirit and impact -- is The Johnny Cash Show, which was on ABC from 1969 to 1971. There's an especially rewarding, newly released "The Best of" two-disc DVD. Filmed in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium with Cash firmly in creative control, it was -- in a sense -- reality television hiding its showbiz trappings. With his florid Man in Black outfits and thick, dark hair, Cash looked like he was more at home on a 19th-century riverboat than in front of a camera.

Enormously popular at the time because of "A Boy Named Sue," Cash would sing Gospel tunes with his wife June Carter Cash and present guests as varied but musically relevant as Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, James Taylor, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard and Pete Seeger.

As the narrator says on the DVD's introduction, Cash didn't walk the line so much as consistently cross it. We need that now.



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