The trend of pop stars hosting TV variety shows didn’t really start with Sonny and Cher, but theirs was the first to become a Top-10 Nielsen hit. The duo’s 1971 summer replacement series, which took over the time slot of The Ed Sullivan Show after it left the air, was so successful that it led to a regular series beginning in December. It lasted until Sonny and Cher’s marriage broke up in 1974, although each of them had their own solo variety show afterward, and they reunited briefly, on TV at least, a couple of years later.
The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour had been a summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers Show in 1968 on CBS and gained a regular slot in January 1969. This Is Tom Jones was imported from the UK and began running on ABC, also in 1969. But it took Sonny and Cher to clear the way for several other best-selling pop artists to host TV shows in the mid 1970s. Here are a few of the other pop-star variety shows (list lifted mostly from the book TV Rock by Mark Bego). Most were limited-run series intended to fill a time slot normally occupied by something else that was off the air for the summer.
The Jerry Reed When You’re Hot You’re Hot Hour (CBS, June-July 1972). One regular cast member was, according to The Complete Directory to Prime Time TV Shows, “John Twomey, a Chicago attorney who made music with his bare hands.” I don’t know either.
The Helen Reddy Show (NBC, June-August 1973). Summer replacement for The Flip Wilson Show, co-produced by Wilson. Featured the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, and ended each week with Reddy answering audience questions like Carol Burnett did.
The Mac Davis Show (NBC, three different periods, 1974-1976). If at first you don’t succeed, fail to succeed two more times.
Tony Orlando and Dawn (CBS, July 1974, December 1974-December 1976). Took over The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour time slot in the summer before becoming a regular series and a hit, at least for a while. George Carlin was a regular.
The Hudson Brothers Show (CBS, August 1974). Produced by Chris Bearde and Allan Blye, who produced Sonny and Cher’s show. Eventually morphed into a Saturday-morning kids show.
The Gladys Knight and the Pips Show (NBC, July 1975). Music, sketches, yada yada yada.
The Manhattan Transfer (CBS, August 1975). Featured production numbers spotlighting different musical eras, and managed to land Bob Marley and the Wailers for its final episode. Laraine Newman was a regular, only months before joining the original cast of Saturday Night Live.
Donny and Marie (ABC, January 1976-January 1979). The biggest TV variety hit this side of Sonny and Cher.
The Jacksons (CBS, June-July 1976, January-May 1977). After leaving Motown, the Jacksons signed with Epic, a label owned by CBS, so the TV crossover was inevitable. It featured five of the six Jackson brothers (Jermaine, who was married to Berry Gordy’s daughter, stayed with Motown) and three of the sisters, including Janet and LaToya. Michael Jackson is said to have hated the whole idea.
The Captain and Tennille (ABC, September 1976-March 1977). Executive-produced by Dick Clark, this show premiered at the Captain and Tennille’s peak moment of fame. Its belly-flop down the ratings ladder mirrored the duo’s fall from the record charts. Featured one of the most awesomely bad television moments of all time, previously showcased here.
The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Show (CBS, June-July 1977). That unwieldy name didn’t help this show succeed, although it featured Jay Leno and Tim Reid (later of WKRP in Cincinnati) in its cast. There’s almost certainly a joke to be made based on the title of the duo’s most famous song, “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show),” but I can’t get the bat off my shoulder.
The Starland Vocal Band Show (CBS, July-September 1977). One of the oddest summer variety series of all time, featuring a musical group with no recognizable stars but a high-powered lineup of comedy regulars, including the ex-Firesign Theater team of Proctor and Bergman, a young David Letterman, and political satirist Mark Russell. The show featured a great deal of political humor, and according to Bego, was aimed at a college-aged audience. According to the website TV Party, it was the last summer replacement variety show to air until the Smothers Brothers’ brief return in the summer of 1988.
Pink Lady and Jeff (NBC, March-April 1980). One of the more notorious failures in TV history, featuring a Japanese duo who had scored a minor disco hit called “Kiss in the Dark.” Comedian Jeff Altman, who had been a cast member on The Starland Vocal Band Show, was on board to provide, well, English.
The last pop star to attempt a network variety show was Dolly Parton, whose splashy variety hour started out a smash in 1987 but pancaked within a few weeks of its premiere. The fragmenting of the audience, thanks to a wide universe of choices, made variety shows and their all-things-to-all-people ethos a tough sell. Every now and then, somebody tries one again. Usually, they bomb.