The variety show is not dead, and neither is its audience, but thanks for the funeral bouquets, they were touching. The genre may have peaked in its purest form in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with the likes of The Carol Burnett Show, Sonny and Cher, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Donny and Marie, but iterations have been airing ever since. Saturday Light Live, born in 1975 and still chugging along, was merely a hipper, late-night version of the variety show. Glee repurposed the variety show into a narrative series format. American Idol, America’s Got Talent and Dancing with the Stars are variety shows costumed as reality-competitions. Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show and James Corden’s Late Late Show are more variety show than talk show.
Still, the variety show is generally perceived as “old person TV,” a throwback to a muzzy, bygone time. And that might explain why networks have rarely taken a shot at a prime-time resurrection of the genre in its unvarnished, old-school form. Bravely shimmying into the breach comes NBC’s Maya & Marty, starring SNL vet Maya Rudolph and North American National Treasure Martin Short, with Lorne Michaels as executive producer. A few sketches, a few songs, a few chummy guest stars breaking mid-joke—Maya & Marty hews to the variety show formula with enthusiasm and an absence of snark. It isn’t a parody, and that in itself feels almost like a revolutionary act.
Yes, OK, the May 31 premiere played like a shaky episode of SNL-lite (video shorts, Kenan Thompson doing Steve Harvey, Kate McKinnon cameo). But two moments raised hope that Maya & Marty would eventually get it right. The first was guest Miley Cyrus singing a bi-gender medley of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” and the brassy standard “I’m a Woman” wearing a spangly top hat and a tuxedo with tear-away pants. Cher could not have done it better herself.
The second moment came during a “Goodnight Moon” parody infiltrated by Rudolph’s inebriated character hollering for her boyfriend and taking a pee in the front yard. True, this was not the most sophisticated of comedic choices; if your mantra is, “What Would Carol Burnett Do?,” your answer should be, “Not this.” And yet, in the same skit, there was Martin Short, playing the book’s mouse grandmother as a Katharine Hepburn impersonation. Who else on TV today is courageous enough to do a Katharine Hepburn impersonation, knowing that most of the viewers who would get it are old, older, oldest? I wanted to kiss the TV for that impersonation, but I tripped over my shawl trying to get out of my rocking chair.
Maya & Marty is actually Rudolph’s second attempt at a modern variety show; NBC aired the pilot of The Maya Rudolph Show as a one-off special in 2014. It was a weakly-written mess, the main problem being that it tried to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, just as the old variety shows did in the days of three networks and no Internet. But wide audiences are very rare these days, and the show’s grab-bag of old-style showbiz corn and contemporary naughtiness just looked confusing.
None of this was the fault of the spectacularly versatile Rudolph, a go-for-broke physical comedian and a wonderful singer. Then, something scintillating happened when she and Short, the 66-year-old veteran of SCTV and SNL, shared a giddy segment on SNL’s 40th anniversary special in 2015. Rudolph played a windblown, poker-faced Beyoncé, Short (as himself) fought to stay upright under the assault of the industrial-sized fan whipping Beyoncé’s hair into fierce perfection, and their doubles-act stole the talent-stacked show. On Maya & Marty, as it did in that SNL bit, Rudolph’s statuesque dignity functions as the perfect counterweight to Short’s mugging. It’s as if Cher and Tim Conway formed a comedy team.
Rudolph has had some shining moments on the show. Her fine-as-needlepoint skewering of Vogue editor Anna Wintour holding editorial meetings in a downscale New York deli was a keeper. At the broader end of the spectrum is Short, one of the great, incorrigible clowns, whose elfin face belies a deeply eccentric comic sensibility. A reminder: this is the man who created the joyous, high-waisted nerd Ed Grimley, without whom there might not have been a Spongebob. But Short is also responsible for such indelible, vaguely disquieting weirdos as the cross-eyed Vegas entertainer Jackie Rogers Jr. (a blend of Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr.) and that unctuous butterball Jiminy Glick, a fact-deprived Hollywood gossip gadfly modeled after syndicated ‘70s gossip show host Skip E. Lowe. (Jiminy Glick has appeared in both episodes so far; his Larry David interview was a bust, but Drake played along better.)
Be warned: Those twisted-imp tendencies of Short have been given free rein here. In the June 7 episode, he played an unruly (and unsettling) dummy to Steve Martin’s ventriloquist, and (in a filmed bit) an exaggerated British etiquette snob who berates children about their manners. Both sketches were propelled into laugh-out-loud absurdity by Short’s sudden explosions of burlesque. If this sounds like the type of comedy only your parents could love, well, maybe it is. But that’s the point. And those old-school intentions were made even clearer in the same episode’s segment featuring Rudolph, 43, and SNL pal Tina Fey, 46, self-deprecatingly, but with much heart, speaking to the audience about their love for the variety shows of yore.
Fey’s anecdote about donning her best nylon nightgown, mixing orange and cream sodas in a wine glass, and settling down to watch Carol Burnett on a Saturday night pretty much sums up the childhood experience of every variety-show geek. Then, Rudolph performed a faithful impersonation of Charo singing the Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Yes, Charo. The Rudolph-Fey bit, like Short’s Hepburn imitation and the boomer-heavy guest list, affirmed the show’s commitment to a genre thrown away as uncool and a generation increasingly viewed as irrelevant. As loopy an undertaking as it may be, Maya & Marty is far from being airless nostalgia. Nor is it a nasty rip on Dad/Mom TV for the benefit of millennials. It’s a variety show from 1976, with the freedom and production values of 2016. It’s not for everybody, but if it’s for you, you’ll know it.