On Monday night, NBC presented The Maya Rudolph Show, a one-hour prime-time variety special executive produced by Lorne Michaels and featuring many of their mutual Saturday Night Live cohorts, including Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell. It also co-starred Kristen Bell, Sean Hayes and singer Janelle Monae. The Maya Rudolph Show was an intentional effort to bring back the old-school TV variety show, but with a new-school slant that bathed most of the show in a distancing self-awareness. Even the introductory number by Rudolph made fun of the genre rather than committing to it.
Despite all the guest stars and talent, most of The Maya Rudolph Show fell strangely flat. There was no continuity between segments, and, as on SNL, many comedy sketches just seemed to stop rather than conclude. And while the hostess sang comedy songs with many of her comedy guests, she didn't share the stage with the hour's featured musical guest — another missed opportunity.
In the entire program, there were only two segments that really worked. One was a comedy sketch in which Kristen Bell played a young woman taking Andy Samberg home to meet her parents, who were played by Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph. The joke, and it was a funny one, was that the parents had an odd day job: providing the familiar voices and cadences for GPS systems and smartphones.
The other solid moment in The Maya Rudolph Show was a musical duet featuring Rudolph and Chris Parnell sitting comfortably on stools and singing about their babies. The song's tender tone wasn't unusual — but its sweetly sung lyrics were: "There's urine on your onesie and there's spit-up on your bib, but I love you, I love you./ Some unknown viscous substance cakes the mattress on your crib, and I love you, I love you."
Playing the best moments from The Maya Rudolph Show may make it sound more entertaining than it really was. Certainly it was better and more ambitious than recent NBC variety show specials by Lady Gaga and Rosie O'Donnell — in both those cases, the reins were handed to the wrong people. I still think variety TV can work, but in the 21st century it has to be with the right host, and presented sincerely rather than ironically.
When TV began in the 1940s, the variety show genre — incorporating successful elements from both vaudeville and radio — was the first one to break out. On NBC's Texaco Star Theater, Milton Berle sold so many TV sets that he was called "Mr. Television," and competing variety shows by Ed Sullivan and others soon followed.
In the '60s, TV gave us everything from Dean Martin and Carol Burnett to the Smothers Brothers and the show where Lorne Michaels broke into Hollywood as a TV writer, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. In the '70s, so many people got variety shows — from Sonny and Cher to the Captain and Tennille — that the genre basically died from overexposure.
It also died, though, because of the rise, at about the same time, of 24-hour cable networks. You wanted comedy? Music? You had entire channels for that; no need to sit through something you didn't like for four minutes, just to see if you liked the next act better. Variety, by its very definition, began demanding more patience and loyalty from viewers than they were willing to provide.
But all the variety show needs for a new jump start is the right host and the proper packaging. Think of what was best about programs like The Carol Burnett Show. She opened and closed each show as herself, making it personable. She interacted with all of her guests, whether they were comics, actors or singers, and had plenty of fun doing it. And even though it wasn't televised live, it felt like it: Mistakes and ad libs were kept in, and the action moved somewhat seamlessly from one element to another.
For a variety series or a series of specials to work in 2014 and beyond, I believe it has to adopt that approach — and maybe even go live to heighten the excitement. Not many performers would be up to that task, but I can think of two right off the bat, and I've said this for a few years now. One is Justin Timberlake, who has demonstrated his talent and charisma on many classic Saturday Night Live appearances. The other is Neil Patrick Harris, who has done the same as host of the Tonys and the Emmys.
Both of them would do it right and take it seriously. Harris even wants the job: He told Howard Stern recently that he had spoken with CBS and asked to star in a variety show. I say give Harris the chance — maybe give him a summer show next year.
Maya Rudolph tried hard and connected in spots, but I think it'll take someone like Justin Timberlake or Neil Patrick Harris to bring TV variety back for good.