All Singing! All Dancing! All Failures! 4 Variety Shows that Failed to Find an Audience
These days, the TV listings are full of reality shows, with The Mole, American Gladiators, and America's Next Top Model providing entertainment to the masses. Back in the day, though, variety shows such as Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show brought an entirely different form of entertainment into American living rooms. But not every variety show worked. Here are four series that lasted fewer than ten episodes (with one that didn't even make it through the first commercial break).
The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, 1977
The Brady Bunch Variety Hour has the dubious honor of being one of the worst shows ever to air on television (it placed fourth in a 2002 TV Guide list of 50 such programs.) Producers Sid and Marty Krofft convinced everyone involved with The Brady Bunch to return. Well, almost everyone—Eve Plumb (Jan) was famously replaced by Geri Reischel. For the cast, the experience was mixed. The kids reportedly hated doing the show, while Florence Henderson and Robert Reed regard it as their favorite Brady experience.
The premise was a little odd. Leaving their familiar Southern California house for one on the beach, the show covers both the variety show on ABC and the behind the scenes goings-on at the Brady residence. The characters all seemed a little off too, seeming nothing like their sitcom personas. The show appears to inhabit an alternate Brady dimension, as in none of the Brady specials in the years to come ever mention a passing "Hey, remember when we did the variety show for ABC and lived near the beach?"
Audiences enjoyed the first special, but when it became a regular series, viewers were laughing more at the actors than with them. The show was cancelled after the remaining 8 episodes had aired, though it has lived on through spoofs on That 70s Show and The Simpsons. Most of the series is available on DVD, for those who absolutely must complete their Brady collection.
Pink Lady and Jeff, 1980
This one is a "what were they thinking?" moment.
Featuring female singers Keiko "Kei" Masuda and Mitsuyo "Mie" Nemoto, Pink Lady enjoyed huge success in Japan. Nine of their singles sold more than a million copies. Their first step towards a career in the US was a concert in Las Vegas, which led to an English-Language album with one minor hit. This impressed producers at NBC, who had created a variety show for Pink Lady with (then) up-and-coming comedian Jeff Altman.
As producers quickly discovered Mie and Kei knew little English, and had to learn their parts of the show phonetically—a draining process for all involved. Rather than perform their own hits, the girls were forced to sing disco numbers such as "Knock on Wood" and, in this clip, "Boogie Wonderland":
The show's writing and Jeff's comedy were about as good as Pink Lady's English skills. Whatever career momentum Jeff had was killed by groaners like this:
Jeff: "You girls are the biggest thing in Japan!"
Pink Lady: "No, Jeff, the biggest thing in Japan is Godzilla!"
Pink Lady broke up a year later in Japan, and Jeff continues to do occasional stand-up appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman. Of the six episodes produced, only five were aired; all six can be found on DVD if you're desperate to see them.
Mary Tyler Moore was ready to make a comeback in 1978, a year after The Mary Tyler Moore Show had ended. CBS was happy to have her, offering a great supporting cast (including Swoosie Kurtz and newcomers David Letterman and Michael Keaton), talented dancers, and an orchestra led by Alf Clausen. What wasn't provided, however, was an audience to watch the show.
Mary tanked in the Nielsen ratings and was cancelled after only 3 of the 16 shows produced had aired. The entire fiasco cost CBS $5 million. Moore changed the format to a variety/sitcom hybrid and the show re-premiered later that year on CBS to similar success.
It's one of the most notorious flops in TV history, yanked after one episode—and in some markets, during the first commercial break. Ed Friendly and George Schneider , the producers of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, created the show, which they described as a "visual, comedic, sensory assault." Presented as though produced by a computer, Turn-On featured fast cuts (new at the time) and different styles of live-action and animated comedy. Rumors spread that the show featured full frontal nudity, and that its title was based on Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out." The Cleveland station that cancelled the show during the first commercial break sent ABC a nasty telegram, which read, "If you naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the wall, please don't use our walls." Most other stations dropped the show after the first episode.
Honorable Mention: Mel & Susan Together
This one not only failed to find an audience, but there's almost no record of it online. Besides IMDb's confirmation of its existence, the only mention I found was in Craig Nelson's now out-of print BadTV, which has this to say about the show that ran four weeks:
"Mel & Susan Together, 1978: If you wanted to create a smash hit variety show, wouldn't you pair Mel Tillis (the stuttering Nashville singer) with Susan Anton (Muriel cigar spokesperson and Amazon model) as the hosts? The idea here was "Hey, isn't everyone in America dying to see these two together?" and the mystery of the human spirit explored is "How does anyone come up with an idea like this?"