Entertainment

05.20.14

Can Maya Rudolph Save the Variety Show?

'The Maya Rudolph Show' attempts to bring the variety format back to prime time. The show was expectedly hilarious. But is that enough to revive the dated genre?

Trying to sell the classic variety show to today’s TV audience is a bit like trying to sell a beeper to someone who already owns an iPhone. But if there’s anyone who can convince me that it’s a good idea to buy a beeper it’s Maya Rudolph.

On Monday night, Rudolph debuted The Maya Rudolph Show, a song-dance-and-comedy hour with the mission to “bring back the variety show.” It’s a fool's task, really, considering that it’s been so long since the format has flourished on TV that it’s been practically forgotten. As we’ve learned through her years on Saturday Night Live, though, Rudolph’s the most talented fool that show business has to offer. If there’s any such thing as a modern-day Carol Burnett, she may be the closest woman we have to it.

The Maya Rudolph Show faithfully revived every tenet of the variety show time capsule, from the cheesy production numbers to the direct-to-camera audience addresses to the celebrity guests and the random sketches. The result was a TV special that felt every bit as dated, but also every bit as joyous, as those variety series, when the likes of Dinah Shore and Julie Andrews and Judy Garland and the Jacksons would serve up entertainment comfort food in the ’60s and ’70s. Rudolph, though, peppers the format with the necessary spice and quirky flavoring that, throwback as it is, keeps that comfort food from feeling stale. 

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"The Maya Rudolph Show" -- Pictured: Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph. (Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

The Maya Rudolph Show wasn’t perfect. To be honest, it was a bit of a mess—albeit a wildly entertaining one. It was a sometimes too-corny, sometimes too-raunchy, scattershot hour that was as gut-bustingly hilarious as it was completely baffling. And I am prepared to do some pretty demeaning things in order to make sure I get to see it again, because I loved it just so much.

In today’s TV viewing world, with the most popular shows varying as much in tone—there’s the terrifying gore of The Walking Dead, the har-har punchlines of The Big Bang Theory, the soapy camp of Pretty Little Liars, and the mindless innocence of HGTV—you have to know what you’re signing up for, and then give yourself over completely to what’s in store. If you happened to tune in for The Maya Rudolph Show on Monday night, you were signing up for pure cheese delivered with Rudolph’s signature sass. That’s precisely what she gave, ready for us to feast on. And that cheese was delicious.

From the get-go, her admiration for the format she was shepherding back to network TV was evident. In an age where award-show performances are cluttered with sponsored hashtags and the news is delivered from an anchor in a tiny square that's suffocated by headline tickers and Twitter scrolls and breaking news alerts, there was pleasure in the vintage simplicity of it all.

It began with Rudolph addressing the audience, and introducing herself as the night's host. Then, as these things always began, she sang a song. And the song was so funny! “I spent seven years on SNL,” she sang, continuing her introduction. “And then in Bridesmaids I pooped in the street.” There was no reason for her to be singing a song at that moment, and nothing she was singing about had a point. But that right there is the point of variety shows: a celebrity we like doing things that have no point, other than to entertain us. So when Maya Rudolph sings a song at the opening of a variety show that’s about how she’s on a variety show, you’re totally on board. Because this is exactly what you signed up for.

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"The Maya Rudolph Show" -- Pictured: (l-r) Sean Hayes, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Bell. ( Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

You also signed up for the host bringing her “friends” on to help her with sketches. Remember those? The variety show “friends”? When Donny and Marie would be like, “Well, folks, we’ve got a special treat for ya, because our dear friends are here and they’re gonna help us out with this next bit. So please give a warm welcome to our pals, Charo and Debby Boone!”? Rudolph’s “friends” were an equally random-ass assortment of celebrities—Sean Hayes, Kristen Bell, Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg—who stopped by to assist with a few sketches and sing a few songs.

Some of these were legitimately fantastic. Kristen Bell joined Rudolph for a bit where they brainstormed musical numbers for a sequel to Frozen, which Bell provided a voice for. People, Kristen Bell is adorable. Unfathomably so. She’s the kind of cute that whenever she’s on screen the cuteness actually gives you goosebumps. No, not “goosebumps.” It gives you “goosies,” which is the same thing as “goosebumps,” but a cuter word befitting the cuteness of Ms. Bell.

Bell also starred in a brilliant sketch where her character introduces her boyfriend to her parents for the first time—but warns him first that they’re famous. How famous? Played by Rudolph and Fred Armisen, they are the voices of the GPS system in cars. It was funnier and more inventive than any sketch that Saturday Night Live has put on this season.

Not everything landed. In fact, the middle drag of the show was just that, a drag—a mix of tonally off jokes and over-long musical numbers that weren’t retro-fun like the opening few segments, but retro-groan-worthy. And attempts at making these bits edgier, perhaps overtly appealing to an audience supposedly less wholesome than the boomers who watched the classic variety shows, didn’t land at all.

“I eat clams all day and nuts all night,” Rudolph sang in an innuendo-laden number. “I like nuts and clams in a nice tossed salad.” Nice. And Hayes’s throwaway “I’ve done this before” line when asked to make a human “A” shape with Samberg and Armisen lacked the level of class that’s made Rudolph’s silliness appealing.

The show was at its best when it was serving up SNL-esque sketches, like a game show spoof that ran later in the hour, which raises the question why this show even needs to exist if there already is an SNL. (The fact that she enlisted the help of so many SNL alums certainly didn’t help with the SNL comparisons.) The answer to that question, however, is Maya Rudolph.

So underutilized in her post-SNL attempts to shine on sitcoms (Up All Night) and a fountain of talents that can’t shine through in supporting film roles like Grown Ups and Bridesmaids, the variety format finally allows her to flaunt her many talents. Throughout the entirety of The Maya Rudolph Show, you could even see in her eyes how much she was relishing—and seizing—the opportunity to do that.

It’s certainly admirable that NBC is attempting to bring the variety show back, and they’ve made a genius decision in entrusting Rudolph to lead the way. The question is whether anyone will follow, or even if they’d want to.

When Maya Rudolph sings a song at the opening of a variety show that's about how she's on a variety show, you're totally on board. Because this is exactly what you signed up for.

Think about it. At the heyday of the variety show, today’s target viewing audience (you know, those aged 18-35 that you always see referred to as “the demo” in TV ratings reports) wasn’t even alive. The idea of reviving the variety is a charming one for those of us who can remember watching Ed Sullivan or the Osmonds and know what it means when Carol Burnett pulls her ear when appearing on Jay Leno’s final Tonight Show. But to those younger viewers who wondered why that old lady was itching her ear on national television (and who have no nostalgic connection to that old format), the classic variety show in today’s world is as enticing a concept of signing on to the Internet with a dial-up modem.

The string of flat-lined attempts to resuscitate the genre that preceded The Maya Rudolph Show certainly speaks to that. Wayne Brady tried in prime time in 2001, but the series was quickly relegated to daytime and then canceled after one season. Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson had two poorly-rated attempts. Rosie Live!, starring Rosie O’Donnell, was an expensive flop, while Osbournes Reloaded, featuring Ozzy’s brood, is largely considered one of the biggest bombs in TV history. Surely, NBC would be crazy to try this thing again.

But here’s the thing. These kinds of throwback, retro shows are working for NBC. Hollywood Game Night, evocative of those Match Game and $25,000 Pyramid celebrity game show affairs, is a solid performer for the network (and a hoot to watch), while The Sound of Music Live! proved that the live staging of family-friendly musicals that was so popular decades ago (the family of yours truly played out the VHS tape of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan). There’s an appetite out there for wholesome, retro entertainment—the kind that’s gee-golly cheesy and borders on the verge of indulgent for the celebrity talent involved, but works because it’s, quite simply, fun to watch.

There seems to be so much pressure to reinvent the wheel these days, to a detriment when it comes to TV programming. (A dating series is about to air, for Pete’s sake, in which a couple on a blind date meet each other naked.) NBC, perhaps, is learning there’s no point in reinventing the wheel when the wheel itself was always kind of perfect in the first place.

As such, we ask that everyone begin writing handwritten letters to NBC requesting that The Maya Rudolph Show air on the network every week. Yes, this is the age of Twitter, where TV shows are saved on the strength of hashtag campaigns and 140-character pleas. But we’re celebrating retro-ness here. Writing letters just seems right—about as right as Maya Rudolph hosting a regular variety series.