Inspection- On Missing Variety Shows

“It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk, that leaves me…”

BY KEN CARMAN

I remember the beginning of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour very well, with John Hartford there beside the more extroverted Glen, quietly amazing us with his banjo playing. Often playing songs he wrote for Glen to sing.

I met John later in life when I worked for WSM and we would talk about the entertainment world and music in the parking lot. I remember him being one of the many who told me I would be wise to pursue my more quiet, less public, career: entertaining children, rather than on the big stage, or even as a Music Row songwriter.

John was an amazing man who raised his own metaphorical middle finger to the star system and went his own way. Performing in smaller venues, and for pure fun; often bringing a board with him to concerts where he would stand and tap out rhythms to his songs. Something I added to my kid programs for a number of years before the body got older and more cranky.

Variety shows. I remember so many. My fav: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour with the underrated Mason Williams.

One skit still makes me laugh whenever I hear a waltz: a woman and a man waltzing; she has three legs, to a Mason Williams song I also love. Then there was the shotgun wedding between the White woman and a Black. Preacher holding the gun… pointed at the Black, ready to pull the trigger once the vows were done.

Ironically that kind of skit, that kind of commentary, still gets you in trouble, or even kicked off the air… at least for a while like Schultz. Hell, you don’t even have to be on the air, as Randi Rhodes found out. Gets you “kicked off the air:” unless you’re on the Right and as big as Limbaugh’s ego. Then, I suppose, you get to demand more money.

There’s really something broken in a star system that leads you to controversial water and then drowns you if you’re not politically correct. And no group does politically correct more nasty than the Right. That was what so great about The Smothers Brothers: their writers knew how to knock political correctness coming from the Right better than perhaps any with such a big spotlight on the national stage… until maybe Stewart or Colbert. Perhaps we simply don’t grow lefties that way anymore: most coming from the more cowardly side of the political garden. Or maybe large corporations who own entertainment conglomerates are more comfortable sleeping with Rush Limbaugh.

Ewe. Triple “ewe.”

Roger Miller and Johnny Cash had their shows. Having pounded Music Row in the 80s and late 70s, and observed attitudes amongst the uppity schnucks who claimed they knew if it was a hit or not, I imagine they pissed off Rowies. They invited a Howard Johnsons’ of entertaining flavors to be in front of their cameras: even folkies.

Ghastly.

I found out, quickly, that folk music was a curse word on the Row in the late 70s and the 80s.

A momentary confession here: of all the variety shows… I really never watched much of Sonny and Cher. Too glitzy. I also found them annoying. I still do. And with Sonny that’s pretty bad. He’s dead and even thinking about him just to type this is annoying. Cher had a great voice, though set on “bellow” too much for me. But her attitude; especially towards men, and public displays of ego… disgusting. Her tears for Sonny seemed as insincere are the rest of her persona.

But what do I know? We hardly get to know these people. It all reminds me of an old Janis Ian song where she tells her admirers she has trouble believing they “really love me.” Ironically I suspect she arrived through stardom at a certain destination after At Seventeen where I suspect people who are considered the most beautiful often arrive: where every word is so positive it seems worse than unreal.

“Ironic” because I’m sure even she would admit she was never any kind of beauty queen. That line in At Seventeen, I’m sure, is quite personal. I remember meeting her at Corner Music in Nashville many years ago, still performing but, I suspect, on quieter, less limelight, stages. And writing songs for others. She responded to my career as a children’s entertainer: “That must be a bitch.”

Can be. Can be. But a bit less glitz has made me happier, as I suspect it has Janis.

These shows were truly “variety shows.” Unlike Idol, which specializes in somewhat updated late Presley, Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis wannabes, they had all kinds of entertainment: especially Red Skelton. I remember laughing as a kid at his show, but I was young. So I didn’t remember much of what I was laughing at. A few years ago I bought a collection. Wow. Jugglers, mimes, tightrope walkers: variety shows, especially Red’s, had it all. And they weren’t there just to be mocked or gonged. The closest to that was The Gong Show and even that had all kinds of acts. Most mocking on variety shows was usually reserved for skits about society, or social situations.

The humor? Often top notch with upcoming comedians.

Let it be said that those who design programs like Idol ideas about entertainment are so limited they should be mocked, not the contestants. As you can tell form my Music Row comments it’s a bit of a sport with me, though not all deserve to be painted with the same mock brush. There are some incredible folks there. But back to those deserving to be mocked: too often they’re treated as gods who absolutely know what’s good, what’s not. Kind of like what Ian was writing about.

Yeah, sometimes the audience goes the other way in abominations like Idol, but such shows pale in comparison with the richness of even The Gong Show, as much as it hurt me to type that. The “richness” was the fact Gong wasn’t some one trick pony doing the same basic act like Idol; adding pure nausea to my limited TV time. They had “variety.”

People work too damn hard to present their “talents.” Making them into lion food for the sadistic tendencies of the cruelest of the masses is just damn wrong… even when they do suck more than an Electrolux.

Guess I’m a bit out of what I consider the “pro-” wrestling “mainstream,” these days. Never have found crushing people for fun all that “fun,” or entertaining, or even marginally intelligent. Guess that’s why I don’t like programs like Two and a Half Men whose main schtick seems to be personal insult humor.

Life presents enough insults. When I get hurt by a cruel comment it’s not “funny,” why would it be to watch others be slammed?

But can you imagine a variety show these days? Who would host it, a rapper? With the amount of respect we have for those who have different talents can you imagine even having a program that could qualify as “variety?” Now perhaps a show that dunks Muslims in mild acid, then tosses pin filled cream pies in their faces… that might be popular. Of course as soon as that comes on the air I’d probably get arrested for going into WalMart and smashing every wide screen that has it on until they stop me.

Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of the jackasses who design our programming hasn’t at least suggested it. Or, then, it hadn’t been seriously considered.

I obviously have no respect for those who design most of our programming, or pick too many of our stars. Shame on me.

Not.

Some of this has to do with us having our own websites we love, news sources we go to, hundreds of channels to choose from. It’s harder to attract an audience. And as the Romans proved, eating Christians does attract a crowd. These days more likely Atheists and Agnostics.

(Notice I capitalized both? If “Christian” merits a “C,” then so do the others, in my opinion.)

The problem with our programming is that there’s no common community experience we share except maybe unreasoned, mentally deficient, hatred. Mocking others unlike us from afar is easy pickings for those who choose what we watch, and listen to, with about as little thought as humanly possible.

There’s always been some of that in entertainment, true, but it has gotten so damn brainless and cruel.

And to paraphrase Pete Seeger, “Where did all the Top 40 stations go?” Oh, there are a few, but so much is caught up in oldies, or formulaic crap pumping out of Music Row that sounds very much like I played over and over in the 80s on the air, and at my breakfast gig just off of Music Row. Of course I played “other” too, and I got my fair share of execs who enjoyed. I’m sure they too were tired of hearing same old, same old, day after day… as dull as that same string stretch every pedal street player in Nashville has to know, and do, over, and over, and over…

Some of what I just mention came from conversations with Tommy West, producer of Croce, about this. I miss those conversations, Tommy, wherever you are. We shared a love of good, original, music and entertainment, no matter what title was applied.

We have become a society that hits replay instead of listening to variety. Even if it’s “new,” so often it’s just regurgitated something else. That’s why we get Beverly Hillbilly 3-type movies. Hollywood sometimes thinks creativity is simply scooping up what we barfed out before no matter how pathetic it was to begin with, and then barfing it out again. I’m waiting for the My Mother the Car movie. Not that I want it to be produced: God, no!!!

More than half of you have no idea what My Mother the Car was, do you? Old age. It’s waiting for you too. Soon you’ll forget what you’re…

Forget what you’re…

Forget…

What was I typing? Oh…

We are missing something in America: a common thread: there’s little really new and we seem to have lost our creative way. No willingness to go beyond boundaries set by ideology, or music formats. My mother and father loved The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and they were dedicated Conservatives.

We are missing a time when acts like Procol Harum, Peter Paul and Mary, Elvis, Mason Williams, Brazil 66, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Chicago, the Association and Jimi Hendrix shared a Top 40 list most of us knew, all of them played on the same stations. Instead we live in our own imaginary worlds of sameness, mocking all that does not conform. We download all we like and, like Sargent Schultz, “Know nothing!!!” about what lies beyond our very limited, self set, borders. An all too real Twilight Zone episode gone wrong,

Intellectually, musically and mentally…

…we chosen to be ghetto-ized.

-30-

Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.

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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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