Variety Shows Dominate Television Programming

Early television producers transferred vaudeville acts to American television screens, where they proved popular enough to shape the nature of the new medium, whose format developed in part to accommodate the short sketches and musical performances it inherited from the vaudeville stage.

Summary of Event

Television variety shows, vaudeville-inspired mixtures of comedy, song, and any entertainment fad of the day, evolved both from live vaudeville and from radio. Radio’s first professional variety show Variety shows, radio
Radio;variety shows came in October, 1929, as the Fleischmann Yeast Program
Fleischmann Yeast Program (radio program) , hosted by crooner Rudy Vallee and featuring guest stars from the vaudeville world. The almost unvarying formula for the variety show included a popular star as host, guests from all reaches of the world of show business, and a band. [kw]Variety Shows Dominate Television Programming (June, 1948-1964)
[kw]Television Programming, Variety Shows Dominate (June, 1948-1964)
Television;variety shows
Variety shows, television
Television;variety shows
Variety shows, television
[g]North America;June, 1948-1964: Variety Shows Dominate Television Programming[02520]
[g]United States;June, 1948-1964: Variety Shows Dominate Television Programming[02520]
[c]Radio and television;June, 1948-1964: Variety Shows Dominate Television Programming[02520]
Godfrey, Arthur
Goldenson, Leonard
Paley, William S.
Sarnoff, David
Sullivan, Ed

Popular from the start, radio variety shows included everything from The National Barn Dance and The Grand Ole Opry to newspaperman host Ed Sullivan presenting new talent in the manner of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld of Broadway. Comics, beginning with Eddie Cantor, seemed to develop the variety shows with the highest ratings through the 1930’s and 1940’s. Radio added innovations that would be carried over—along with the basics of the formula—to television. For example, Ed Wynn’s radio variety program introduced studio audiences that would provide live reactions over the air.

Such was the state of affairs in the late 1940’s, as the new medium of television required hours of programs to fill air time. Television network heads—David Sarnoff of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), William S. Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and Leonard Goldenson of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC)—all were familiar with variety shows from their experiences in radio. They knew that there were empty theaters in New York City and talent that would jump at a chance to work in television. As a consequence, variety programs and sports broadcasts were the most abundant forms of programming on early network television in prime time.

No variety show was more popular in the late 1940’s than Milton Berle’s Berle, Milton
Texaco Star Theater, Texaco Star Theater (television program) which began in June of 1948 on NBC. The influential trade paper Variety noted that Berle had created a new style of performance with his shouting one-liners, constant leering, clowning, simpleminded mugging, and camp appeal. Texaco Star Theater had been on radio since the fall of 1938 but with other hosts, including Fred Allen, Alan Young, Gordon MacRae, and Ken Murray. Berle in fact rotated as host of the television show for several months before being selected as permanent host.

American viewers seemed to fall in love with Milton Berle making fools of himself and his guests. Berle delivered familiar one-liners and topical jokes, employed weird costumes and settings, and booked famous guest stars. Berle had had little success on radio, but his visual style worked on television. Berle delivered a cleaned-up version of his nightclub routine, then introduced a series of singers, with Pearl Bailey as the star of the first show. Berle became famous for never letting his show lag, dashing on stage at slow moments to ham it up.

Soon, early television—on Tuesday nights—belonged to Milton Berle’s variety hour on NBC. It was not unexpected when, in 1948, William S. Paley’s CBS unveiled its own television vaudeville show, Toast of the Town, Toast of the Town (television program) hosted by Ed Sullivan. Toast of the Town quickly became a regular Sunday-night fixture, just behind Texaco Star Theater in the variety show ratings race.

Sullivan’s Toast of the Town was calm compared to Berle’s hectic hour of antics. Sullivan sought to offer something for everyone and let his crafty choice of acts carry the day. In the long run, the staid Sullivan outlasted the antics of Berle and survived on television as other variety shows that appeared in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s died. Sullivan was on the air until the end of the 1970-1971 television season.

Sullivan knew talent. On his first television variety show he featured the then-unknown Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, along with a classical pianist and an interview with a noted boxing referee. Sullivan’s tribute shows (to Oscar Hammerstein II, Helen Hayes, and Cole Porter, among others) drew some of television’s highest ratings. Sullivan’s mixtures of high culture, popular culture, the exotic, and the sensational became a variety hallmark. This mixture revised the formula for television variety shows. Sullivan presented jugglers, dancing bears, and plate spinners as well as performances by dancer Margot Fonteyn, singer Maria Callas, and the Beatles.

Berle’s and Sullivan’s popularity meant that the new television medium would be flooded with imitators. Bandleader Russ Morgan hosted Welcome Aboard. The DuMont television network launched Cavalcade of Stars with comic Jack Carter as emcee. NBC launched Saturday Night Revue.

All these shows failed within several years, but they fostered continual experimentation that led to such highly innovative shows as Your Show of Shows
Your Show of Shows (television program) with Sid Caesar, sidemen Howard Morris and Carl Reiner, and writers Neil Simon and Mel Brooks. When CBS’s The Ed Wynn Show
Ed Wynn Show, The (television program) was produced in Los Angeles on film, it set a trend that would remake the television industry and ironically cripple New York City as a center of variety-show production. Ed Wynn Wynn, Ed , seeking to differentiate his program, moved west to be able to book guests from Hollywood. Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball Ball, Lucille both made their television debuts on The Ed Wynn Show.

Of all the early imitators, none proved more important than former radio host Arthur Godfrey. Conducting two weekly prime-time variety series on CBS-TV as well as a daily radio show, Godfrey proved that variety shows could make money. By the mid-1950’s, Godfrey was reported to be responsible for more than $100 million worth of advertising flowing to CBS.

It seemed simple. Godfrey’s first television venture, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (television program) was a variation of the old amateur hour. Godfrey brought young professionals looking for a break to New York City to perform before a live audience that voted on the acts through an “applause meter.” Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, Arthur Godfrey and His Friends (television program) at first an hour-long variety show, had a stable cast including singer Julius LaRosa. Godfrey’s style was low-key. Guests came on, engaged in mild conversation, and sang a song or two. Godfrey was so valuable because he was the ultimate pitchman, hawking products he truly seemed to believe in, attracting advertisers in record numbers.

Paley liked the profits associated with Godfrey, and therefore CBS pioneered the long-running The Red Skelton Show. Sarnoff’s NBC countered with The Perry Como Show. Garry Moore began a daytime variety show in 1950 and by the early 1960’s was making stars out of performers including Carol Burnett.


Along with the successes, there were numerous failures. Ole Olsen Olsen, Ole and Chick Johnson Johnson, Chick had had a popular run in vaudeville, but their humor fell flat in television’s Fireball Fun-for-All. Fireball Fun-for-All (television program)[Fireball Fun for All] Their spontaneity, with cornball jokes and custard pies in the face, worked best unscripted. Their variety show was shot in long takes and thus seemed distant on television. In contrast, Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Arthur Godfrey worked in highly scripted routines and exploited the intimacy of the close-up. Joe E. Brown’s The Buick Circus Hour lasted less than a year. Red Buttons had to change the format of his show several times in its less than three years. Clearly, even though variety shows dominated the top programming, not even stars had guaranteed success in the genre.

Through the late 1950’s there were few variety shows more popular than The George Gobel Show. George Gobel Show, The (television program) Symbolically, soon after CBS positioned the Hollywood western Gunsmoke opposite Gobel, the folksy variety show went off the air. This was one of the signals of the changing tastes of American television viewers.

In the 1960’s, the apex of the variety show was reached, probably the night the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show early in 1964. The master of the variety show had been late in picking up on rock-and-roll acts, but even Sullivan knew he needed to revitalize his ratings. By the time Sullivan introduced the Beatles Beatles, the on February 9, 1964, they were the top musical group among teenage listeners. Two of three American homes had Sullivan on that night, as the Beatles opened and closed The Ed Sullivan Show. No one anticipated the reaction shots of teenage girls weeping, screaming, and even fainting.

Momentarily, the variety show seemed revitalized. Hosts Dean Martin, Andy Williams, and Flip Wilson sought to revive the form, but they could not. By the mid-1970’s, the variety show genre in its pure form had disappeared from television. Carol Burnett Burnett, Carol made a valiant attempt to revive it on CBS. The Carol Burnett Show, Carol Burnett Show, The (television program) with regulars Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner, and Tim Conway, almost made it until the 1980’s from its beginning in 1967. This, in part, resulted from her experiments, such as opening the show by answering questions directly from the audience. Burnett was skilled at spoofing not only films but also television series. Even Carol Burnett, however, could not keep the pure variety show on the air, and the form died as the 1980’s commenced. Variations, however, survived and thrived.

Morning shows offered variations on the variety show. Modern shows including Good Morning America are descendants of Dave Garroway’s Today, which premiered in 1952. They offer variety elements in addition to news and weather. The late-night counterpart proved even more vital. The Tonight Show added casual talk with performers to variety performances. Interview shows with interspersed performances became staples of late-night television, with hosts such as Arsenio Hall, Merv Griffin, and David Letterman.

Prime-time variety shows were popular as long as Hollywood was not involved in the making of television shows. That commenced in 1951, with Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy, I Love Lucy (television program) which would define the situation comedy genre. The setup was a combination familiar to the radio fans of Jack Benny or Ozzie and Harriet, with professional lives and home life delicately combined. This meant music and comedy, as Desi Arnaz played Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban bandleader who worked in a New York nightclub. This scenario let Arnaz play himself while Lucy took on the comic broadsides. Within four months of its October, 1951, debut, I Love Lucy had deposed Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater as the top-rated show on television. Although its premise involved some use of musical numbers, I Love Lucy clearly moved out of the variety format and heralded a change in popular tastes. Television;variety shows
Variety shows, television

Further Reading

  • Barnouw, Erik. The Golden Web. Vol. 2 in A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. The second of an important trilogy of books about the history of radio and television in the United States. The rise of the television variety show receives treatment in this volume.
  • Berle, Milton, and Haskel Frankel. Milton Berle: An Autobiography. New York: Dell, 1974. This is the life story of the founder of the variety format. Somewhat informative as biography and important as the only Berle autobiography.
  • Bilby, Kenneth. The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. The complete biography of David Sarnoff, the founder and longtime head of NBC. No decision at the NBC radio or television network before the mid-1960’s was made unless Sarnoff approved. This biography serves as a substitute for a network history.
  • Boddy, William. New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Study of several new media at the time each was new. Compares early television to early radio, as well as to emergent digital technologies. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Bowles, Jerry. A Thousand Sundays: The Story of the Ed Sullivan Show. New York: Putnam, 1982. Chronicles twenty-three years of Sullivan’s show. Mostly descriptive, with little analysis.
  • Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Although at first glance resembling a picture book, this source contains a remarkable amount of basic information, season by television season. The rise and fall of the variety show is treated in some detail.
  • MacDonald, J. Fred. One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network Television. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. A history of television in the United States. MacDonald offers a comprehensive and well-documented study.
  • Murray, Susan. Hitch Your Antenna to the Stars: Early Television and Broadcast Stardom. New York: Routledge, 2005. Detailed examination of the earliest television stars and the invention and vicissitudes of stardom in the new medium. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. The complete biography of William S. Paley, the founder and longtime head of CBS. No decision at the network before the 1980’s was made unless Paley approved. In All His Glory serves as a second-best substitute for a badly needed network history.

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