A variety show or variety entertainment is an entertainment made up of a variety of acts, especially musical performances and comedy skits, and normally introduced by a compère or host. The variety format made its way from Victorian era stage to radio to television. Variety shows were a staple of anglophone television from its early days into the 1970s, and lasted into the 1980s, but are now reduced to the level of the occasional special. In several parts of the world, variety TV remains popular and widespread.
The format is basically that of music hall in the UK or vaudeville in the U.S. Variety in the UK evolved in theatres and music halls, and later in Working Men's Clubs. Most of the early top performers on British television and radio did an apprenticeship either in stage variety, or during World War II in Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). In the UK, the ultimate accolade for a variety artist for decades was to be asked to do the annual Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium theatre, in front of the monarch.
In the U.S., former vaudeville performers such as the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, W. C. Fields, and Jack Benny moved to sound movies, then radio, and then television, including variety shows. In the 1960s, even a popular rock band such as The Beatles undertook this ritual of appearing on variety shows on TV. In the US, shows featuring Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin also helped to make the Golden Age of Television successful.
From 1948 to 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show was one of CBS's most popular series. Using his no-nonsense approach, Ed Sullivan allowed many acts from several different mediums to get their "fifteen minutes of fame." Sullivan was also partially responsible for bringing Elvis Presley and The Beatles to U.S. prominence.
In the UK The Good Old Days, which ran from 1953 to 1983, featured modern artists performing dressed in late Victorian/Early Edwardian costume, either doing their own act or performing as a music hall artist of that period. The audience was also encouraged to dress in period costume in a similar fashion.
On television, variety reached its peak during the period of the 1960s and 1970s. With a turn of the television dial, viewers around the globe could variously have seen shows and occasional specials featuring Andy Williams, Julie Andrews, The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John, Lynda Carter, Johnny Cash, Sonny and Cher, Bob Monkhouse, Carol Burnett, Rod Hull and Emu, Flip Wilson, Dinah Shore, Lawrence Welk, Glen Campbell, Donny & Marie, Barbara Mandrell, Judy Garland, The Captain & Tennille, The Jacksons, The Keane Brothers, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mary Tyler Moore, Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Smothers Brothers, Danny Kaye, Buck and Roy, Roy Hudd, Billy Dainty Max Wall or The Muppet Show. Variety shows were once as common on television as Westerns, courtroom dramas, suspense thrillers, sitcoms, or (in more modern times) reality shows.
During the 1960s and 70s, there were also several one-time variety specials, featuring stars such as Shirley MacLaine, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross or Mitzi Gaynor, none of whom ever had a regular television series.
The last major network attempt at a traditional prime-time variety show was Dolly (starring Dolly Parton), which ran on ABC during the 1987-88 season, though CBS briefly revived The Carol Burnett Show for nine episodes in 1991 and ABC aired the first incarnation of The Wayne Brady Show in summer 2001. By that time, the format had fallen out of fashion (due largely to changing tastes and the advent of MTV). However, though the format had faded in popularity in prime time, it thrived in late night. Variety shows eventually evolved into late-night talk shows; though only one network (NBC, with its The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and later Late Night with David Letterman) had a successful one up through 1992, the field greatly expanded beginning with Carson's retirement and the controversial selection of Jay Leno as Tonight's new host. Within ten years, all three of the "Big Three" networks, along with several cable outlets, had late night variety talk shows airing nightly. (NBC, in a cost-cutting move, attempted to bring Leno's show to prime time as The Jay Leno Show in 2009, but affiliates threatened to drop the program after local news ratings suffered, forcing him back to late night within four months of the prime time debut.) Sketch comedy series such as Saturday Night Live, Almost Live! and MADtv also contain variety show elements.
In 2004, ABC's The Nick and Jessica Variety Hour attempted to revive the prime-time variety hour as a special for today's generation. The first show was a ratings success, and it was followed by Nick & Jessica's Family Christmas in early December of that year. NBC's Rosie Live did not fare so well: the series' pilot episode aired the day before Thanksgiving 2008 and, after being panned by critics, would not be picked up. In December 2009, singer Carrie Underwood made her first attempt at a successful Christmas variety special on FOX which could well lead to a new series.
The Scouting Gang Show performed principally by young people 18 years of age and under in many locations around the world is an example of a variety show format that has endured for over seventy years.
The prime time variety show format was popular in the early decades of Australian television, spawning such series as In Melbourne Tonight, The Graham Kennedy Show, The Don Lane Show, and Hey Hey It's Saturday, which ran for 27 years. Recent prime time variety shows include the short lived Micallef Tonight and The Sideshow.
Another of today's variety shows in Asia is Taiwan's Variety Big Brother. Taiwanese variety shows are infamous for their constant use of artificial laugh tracks even though there is a studio audience. East Asian variety programs are known for its constant use of sound effects and on-screen text displays.
The most popular variety program in Taiwan would have to be the long-running "Super Sunday", known for its fast-paced style and catchphrases. The second half of the program is more emotional with guests finally or attempting to reunite with another (either a celebrity or a friend) by re-enacting the moment (in a satirical manner) and then let co-star and singer Ah-Liang search for the specific person through various locations. It was succeeded by "Happy Sunday", a similar program hosted by the co-stars.
In Hong Kong, variety shows are often combined with elements of a cooking show or a talent competition but end in various results.
Many television specials continue to resemble the variety show format to this day.
A variety show is a television show that features a variety of performing acts. These may include actors, musicians and singers, , comedians, and other kinds of performers. Similar shows appeared earlier on radio, and were a newer kind of vaudeville.
Ed Sullivan hosted a long-running variety show on CBS, from the 1940s to the early 1970s. The Smothers Brothers hosted a comedy/variety show in the late 1960s. Other performers hosted successful variety shows through the years.
Variety shows were a good "breaking ground" for new acts, in the early years of television. They were also useful to established performers, to give them steady work and regular exposure to audiences.
Interest in the format lessened in the United States during the 1970s. Dolly Parton tried to start a new variety show in the 1980s, but it did not last. Performance competition shows, like The Gong Show, Star Search, and today American Idol became the new breaking ground for performers.