From the beginning of television, through its golden age, and until the 80s, the genre of variety television thrived, whether it was weekly broadcasts like “Your Show of Shows”, “The Ed Sullivan Show” or “The Carol Burnett Show”, or one-time TV specials that were headlined by a top caliber celebrity that featured a list of appearances by a roster of impressive special guests.
However, the TV variety show that we have come to know and love throughout that period has pretty well disappeared. However, there are still plenty of shows that can still fall under the “variety” category, whether it be an awards show, a holiday-themed special, a live musical concert, or even a prestigious annual event such as “The Kennedy Center Honors”.
“There are just a lot of parts in television and variety television and if it’s what you like there are lots of ways to come inside,” says legendary Saturday Night Live creator/executive producer Lorne Michaels. “I think if you’re going to do it, you just find your way in it and join the television business at whatever level you can.”
Michaels is one of the 26 producers and directors who have worked in variety television who offer their knowledge and expertise in working in this genre in the book Fade Up: “26” The Movers and Shakers of Variety Television.
The book, put together by veteran TV variety producer/director Steve Binder (whose credits include the famous Elvis Comeback Special in 1968 and “Diana Ross Live in Central Park”) and Mary Beth Leidman, a Communications Media professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, evolved from a panel of TV directors that Binder moderated in 2010 that was organized by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Binder and Leidman set out to interview 26 of the most talented, revered creative forces behind the TV variety genre (Binder included), to get their insight into what goes into a successful TV variety show or special, what it takes to put a show of this nature together, and some of the more interesting behind-the-scenes stories of the triumphs, setbacks and frustrations of what’s involved.
And the list of interviewees that make up this book is a virtual who’s who of some of the finest behind the camera talent, some names are unfamiliar to the average viewer (such as Gary Smith, Don Mischer, Jeff Margolis and Marty Pasetta), some are familiar names-above-the-title (like George Schlatter – who created “Laugh-In” –, Vin De Bona – who created “America’s Funniest Home Videos” –, Lroen Michaels, George Stevens, Jr. and Spike Jones, Jr.).
The book is in a Q&A format. Although at times it can be a little too repetitive (especially when the lead question is repeated to every interviewee at the beginning of each chapter), and certain interjections by the interviewers are basically of a throwaway nature and could have been easily edited out without harming the body of the text, the book offers plenty of fascinating insights to the creative minds behind some of the greatest variety shows in TV history.
Two anecdotes that stood out for me were the controversial moment during a Petula Clark special in 1968, in which a duet with singer Harry Belafonte – in which Clark wraps her arm around his – caused a major uproar, especially amongst stations in the South. However, the producer decided to erase the other takes and angles that were taken of that duet, leaving only the “controversial” take available to air. And then there is the story dealing with the very first Kennedy Center Honors special, in which the pre-taped biographical segment about opera singer Marian Anderson created such an overwhelming emotional response from the audience, that it set the tone for subsequent Kennedy Centre Honors broadcasts.
So whether you’re a student of classic television, or a student of a college’s TV production department, Fade Up is the ultimate tribute to the creative geniuses who made variety such a memorable TV genre, and how they were the forces to variety’s important contribution to the development of television as a truly entertainment medium. (Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, $80)
By Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca