(Pictured: Possibly the most unflattering picture of Cher ever published, going it alone on the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour stage, as she eventually would on her own stage.)
If you lived in the the three-channel TV universe between 1971 and 1974, you saw The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. It was a top-10 hit throughout its run. But 40 years ago this winter, Sonny filed for divorce, and two days later the couple taped what was to have been the season finale but turned out to be the series finale. It aired on May 29, 1974.
Such bankable acts were not destined to be off TV for very long. CBS signed Cher for her own variety show, which was to premiere midseason, early in 1975. ABC, meanwhile, signed Sonny for a show (The Sonny Comedy Revue) that would beat Cher to air, going on in September 1974. Sonny had the advantage of keeping the writers, the bits, and many of the cast members (“We’ll be missing one,” he remarked) from the original Sonny and Cher show. Cher, meanwhile, had the advantage of being Cher. ABC put The Sonny Comedy Revue in the highly viewed 7:00 Central time slot on Sunday nights. CBS announced that Cher would run Sunday nights at 6:30 when it went on the air later that season. But the anticipated head-to-head duke-out never happened. The Sonny Comedy Revue attracted neither kind reviews nor a big audience. It aired for the last time on December 29, 1974.
Cher didn’t premiere until February 12, 1975, but when it did, it came in with a bang: guest stars on the premiere were Elton John, Bette Midler, and Flip Wilson. Although the premiere made a splash, the show was not an especially big hit, placing #23 for the season (despite being the first TV show on which a woman was permitted to display her navel, allegedly). CBS retooled the show for its second season, but the ratings were even lower. It aired for the last time on January 4, 1976—but not necessarily because of the ratings, as we shall see.
On the first show, Elton performed “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” recently the #1 song in America, and sang “Bennie and the Jets,” a #1 single one year earlier, with Cher. (You can see several clips from the premiere here.) After the premiere, the guest list settled into typical mid-70s TV territory with guests including Cloris Leachman, Liberace, Nancy Walker, Tim Conway, and McLean Stevenson. The Osmonds, the Jacksons, the Pointer Sisters, Labelle, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Ike & Tina Turner, Art Garfunkel, and Gregg Allman (about the time Cher married him) were first-season musical guests.
Next to Elton, Cher’s most interesting musical guest appeared in November of 1975. In the fall of that year, David Bowie was doing a great deal of American TV. In early November, he did The Dick Cavett Show and also appeared on Soul Train, nervously answering questions from the kids in the audience after, it is said, having a few drinks to calm himself. (This was also a time in which he admits to having consumed vast amounts of cocaine; he has said that he doesn’t remember recording “Golden Years,” one of the songs he sang on Soul Train.) Sometime in December, he and his band taped the daytime talk show Dinah! with Dinah Shore, where they burned down the house (and the housewives watching) with “Stay” from Bowie’s then-new album Station to Station. And in between, he appeared on one of the final episodes of Cher. The two singers did a version of Bowie’s “Young Americans” sandwiched around a medley of familiar pop and rock songs, a Vegas-type thing that actually works. (There was more of the showbiz trouper in Bowie than anybody in 1975 expected.) He also performed his recent hit “Fame,” doing a live vocal over the record’s backing track, accompanied by what were then state-of-the-art trippy TV graphics.
By this point in Cher’s run, she may have been willing to bring on performers beyond the TV variety show norm—David Essex, never a big name in America, would appear on a December show—because she was done. After only a handful of episodes into the second season, Cher decided to end her own show and go back on TV with Sonny in 1976.