Brings Glitz to Television

Sonny and Cher Bono launched a second career for themselves by bringing the spectacular staging of motion-picture musicals to television with huge sets and lush costuming.

Summary of Event

On August 1, 1971, the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) introduced a new comedy-variety show as part of its summer replacement lineup. The show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, featured Sonny and Cher Bono, a husband-and-wife singing team. The show won public approval, especially from younger audiences, and became a regular part of the fall schedule. It was to run for three seasons before being interrupted by personal problems in the lives of its stars; it would later return for a short time. Television;variety shows
Sonny and Cher
Sonny and Cher
Bono, Sonny
Silverman, Fred

The introduction of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour to American television viewers was another of the intuitive strokes of genius of Fred Silverman. As head of CBS, Silverman was attempting to revamp his network to attract a younger, more urban audience. This group had more money to spend and so would allow CBS to attract more advertisers. To accomplish this goal, Silverman was changing the orientation of CBS toward the production of “relevance” shows such as All in the Family. All in the Family (television program)

Of course, the entire lineup of the network could not be the same type of show, and Silverman was looking for something in a different genre that would also appeal to his target audience. While watching The Merv Griffin Show, Silverman was impressed by the style and hip appearance of the temporary hosts of the show, Sonny and Cher Bono. Silverman contacted the pair and asked them to host a prime-time comedy and variety program for the rest of the 1971 summer season.

Younger viewers reacted to The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour positively, and Silverman made a bold decision. On December 27, 1971, Sonny and Cher entered the regular CBS programming schedule, replacing The Ed Sullivan Show in a time period that Sullivan had held for two decades. Every week, the young couple came on the air for an hour, dazzling viewers with comic routines, well-timed put-downs, and Cher’s décolletage and belting delivery of songs, many written by Sonny. In less than a month, the show had reached a 40 percent Nielsen rating, making it one of the top twelve shows on television. Its producers, Chris Bearde Bearde, Chris and Allan Blye, Blye, Allan kept the pace of the show fast and uncluttered. They also made clever use of animation and videotape.

On the show, Sonny appeared to be a good-natured, bumbling buffoon who was constantly outwitted by his sharp-tongued but glamorous wife. Actually, he was a shrewd show-business manager who had rescued the couple’s career. Cher, his svelte wife whose exotic appearance reflected her mixed American Indian, Armenian, and French ancestry, had a powerful singing voice; one critic described it as “a cross between a mating call and a sonic boom.”

The basic premise behind the show was that of the fall guy who succumbs to the mischievous woman. Despite its toned-down hippie roots, critic Henry Ehrlich wrote, “the show some echoes Laugh-In but its real ancestors are George Burns and Gracie Allen.” The show also depended on elaborate costumes, lavishly staged production numbers, and comedy skits with celebrity guest performers. The elaborate nature of the costumes was reflected in the show’s production costs; Cher wore about ten thousand dollars’ worth of clothes during each week’s show.

By and large, the critics liked the show as much as the audience did. Time magazine wrote that “the salvation of the show is Cher’s singing ability.” Another critic noted, “There is about the Sonny and Cher show that inspired comic touch to production numbers only CBS seems capable of doing.”

There were, however, some problems with the program. The general critical consensus was that the show would have been stronger if the producers had not insisted that Cher try to be funny. Too many of the comic skits revolved around the incongruity of the couple’s sizes and personalities, contrasting the tall, cool Cher with the short, zany Sonny. This basic theme was used so frequently that critics soon began to complain.

If the skits were often corny, the public usually laughed anyway. The show had going for it the same running comedy appeal that had made Burns and Allen a show-business institution. The actors and producers combined a casual tone with stunts, state-of-the-art visual effects, and glossy production. The combination was tremendously popular.

While such success was taking place in the public eye, in private the two stars were beginning to diverge. Cher began to contend that Sonny was inhibiting her professional development. In February, 1974, the couple filed for divorce. CBS canceled the show in April of the same year. Cher commented, “People ask me if I left Sonny for another man. I tell them, no, I left for another woman. Me.”

When the pair split, each tried to repeat the success of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on a separate show. Cher stayed with CBS, while Sonny moved to the rival American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Sonny’s show soon flopped, and Cher’s, although initially successful, began to slip in the ratings. In 1976, the two again appeared on a joint show, but success eluded them. Their trademark song, “I Got You Babe,” written by Sonny for Cher in the 1960’s, had no punch when the audience knew they did not have each other.


Sonny and Cher, 1977.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour had a great impact on the career of Cher; from 1971 until mid-1974, she was the most glamorous sex symbol on television. She emerged from the status of singing partner to Sonny to become a superstar in her own right. Her latent talent had begun to emerge prior to the couple’s television debut; even in the failed 1969 film Chastity, some observers were impressed by Cher’s acting ability. One critic noted, “Her marvelous quality makes you forget the lines you are hearing. Her manner can be described as a combination of tough, disinterested, unhappy, self-critical, and deadpan.” Cher had long been determined to develop her career. Following the 1974 divorce, even her mother remarked that to Cher, “the quality of her career is much more important than the quality of any human tie.” To this extent, Cher was a show-business creation, and she found success in becoming a stereotypical star.

The glamour of show business overlay an unhappy childhood. Cher’s mother wed and divorced Cher’s father, a heroin addict, three times. Cher left high school after the tenth grade to pursue her own lifestyle; she met Sonny Bono just after her eighteenth birthday, and they were married. When the two reached stardom in a singing career, Cher was on the road she had wished to travel—but the road would go downhill before she reached the heights on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Cher became a megastar only after the television show gave the couple a second career in show business.

Sonny Bono’s parents were poor immigrants from Sicily who could not always feed their family. Sonny dropped out of high school to work at menial jobs while trying his hand at writing songs and producing records. He had some success at this and also at singing backup for better-known performers. Sonny was working for a record company when he met Cher on a double date. In addition to experiencing a personal attraction, he immediately recognized her star potential.

The first step on the road to success as singers came when Sonny and Cher borrowed $168 to finance the recording of “Baby Don’t Go” in 1964. When the song caught on in Los Angeles and Dallas, they hurriedly recorded more, including their big hit “I Got You Babe.” By the fall of 1965, Sonny and Cher had five records on the charts at one time, and they were also drawing large crowds to their concerts. By the end of 1967, the two had sold more than forty million records.

Shifting musical fashions, however, soon cost the duo much of their popularity. Sonny and Cher’s success had been built on a string of lightweight pop hits, and the rise of “acid rock” and other harder styles soon made the couple’s music seem outdated. Along with acid rock came the drug culture, a development that was appalling to Sonny and Cher, who neither drank nor smoked tobacco; the pair even made an antimarijuana film for use in schools. They had fallen out of step with the times; in fact, however, the two had never been heavyweights in the world of rock. Although they had been embraced by rock audiences, they were musicians who used a variety of styles and even occasionally sang standards, to the horror of many rock critics. The duo’s style was always far removed from the styles of the leading rock bands of the day.

As their recording career fell apart, Sonny tried to reestablish their position in the youth culture with a 1969 film, Chastity, Chastity (film) which he wrote and directed. The film, starring Cher, dealt with a teenage runaway. The critics panned the film, and the public ignored it; Sonny and Cher lost half a million dollars on the venture.

Sonny realized that something had to be done to salvage the duo’s career. “The biggest mistake a performer makes is to try to stay a teenager,” he noted. “Young kids have a new idol every year. Someone always takes your place next year.” He thus suggested to Cher that they should switch from making records to performing as nightclub entertainers. He was confident the two could put their career back at the top in five years; in fact, it took less than four.

The idea was entirely Sonny’s. Nightclub appearances, some to audiences as small as forty-five persons, led to guest appearances on television shows. Then came the invitation to host The Merv Griffin Show, and Fred Silverman was watching.

The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour brought spectacular, motion-picture-style production values to television. Sonny and Cher used sets that cost as much as $250,000 for each week’s show. The costumes and decor matched the sets; Cher was always the centerpiece of these productions. The full orchestration and use of spectacle set the show’s tone, which not only made a success of the program but also encouraged other producers and other networks to imitate the genre. After more than a decade of the down-home comedy and bare stage performance of the Ed Sullivan variety, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour brought glamour to American television. Television;variety shows
Sonny and Cher

Further Reading

  • Allen, Bonnie. “Cher Struck!” Ms., July, 1988, 54-55. A feature article in a popular feminist magazine that extols Cher as a “real” woman who has attained success on her own terms. Focuses on Cher’s later film career.
  • Bono, Sonny. And the Beat Goes On. New York: Pocket Books, 1991. Sonny’s account of his years with Cher, written after he had attained renewed celebrity as the mayor of Palm Springs, California. In many ways a “get-even” book; portrays Cher as ambitious and insecure.
  • Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th ed. New York: Ballantine, 2003. Gives a brief discussion of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and lists the show’s cast members and broadcast history. Provides similar information for hundreds of other programs; helpful in understanding the broader context in which The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was produced.
  • “The Cher Effect.” Maclean’s, March 6, 1989, 38-42. An illustrated biographical feature on Cher that serves as a counterweight to Bono’s book. Contains an interview section.
  • Green, Michele. “Sonny on Cher.” People, August 5, 1991, 83-85. Another shot in the decades-long war between the two stars. Illustrated.

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