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The Variety Show Deserves to Be Reincarnated -- But Is Rosie Its Savior?
November 26, 2008  | By David Bianculli

rosie-n-26.jpgTonight at 8 ET, in a very rare attempt to revive the TV variety show format, Rosie O'Donnell is hosting a one-hour live special on NBC, smack in the middle of prime time. I concur completely with her passion that this is a genre worth reviving -- but I doubt whether Rosie, despite her enthusiasm and clout, is the person to do it.

If a variety show is going to be brought back for the 21st century -- and it should be -- it will have to be hosted by someone with talent.

A lot more talent that Rosie O'Donnell has, anyway. Hers is a talent for standup comedy, occasional controversy, and fanboy-level enthusiasm. The first and third served her well on her talk show, and the middle one served her on The View. But Ed Sullivan notwithstanding, a variety show host for a new generation must bring talent, as well as viewers and guests, to his or her TV party.

Rosie sang, many times, on her daytime talk show, especially with visiting performers from Broadway shows. She sang on Broadway herself, in Grease, but "sang," in all these instances, is a rather charitable description. She plans to "sing" tonight, too, with Liza Minnelli and others. Okay. If you must.

But compare that to another old-fashioned TV special that premiered last week: Comedy Central's A Colbert Christmas. Colbert not only had a wide range of guests, from Willie Nelson to Elvis Costello, but sang with them, too.

If a variety show is going to work, circa 2008, it has to do what The Smothers Brothers managed to do with their landmark variety show, circa 1968. Make room for the veterans and the cutting-edge new performers -- and, when possible, get them to interact during the same hour.

Some network, from CBS to TV Land, certainly should give the Smothers Brothers a prime-time special in 2009 to celebrate their 50th year as a comedy duo.


Also, Tom and Dick would be great guests on a new-generation show. In their prime, Tom and Dick played host to such wonderful, still-funny show-biz veterans as George Burns and Jack Benny. Now it's their turn to be the honored guests. But guests of whom?

If O'Donnell's proposed deal with NBC -- six sporadically scheduled specials per order, if tonight's pilot fares okay -- is used as a template, then a network could get a variety host who wouldn't commit to a full season or half-season order, but who might like to preside over a special from time to time.

So who would be the ultimate host for such a show? Someone talented enough to work with old and new singers, dancers and comics? Someone who could be funny in skits, exciting in song, impressive in dance? Someone held in such high regard among peers that booking popular acts would be no problem? And, last but perhaps most, someone with a loyal enough fan base to bring new viewers to the tube for an old-fashioned TV show?


The answer to all those questions is the same one.

Justin Timberlake.

Every time this guy has hosted Saturday Night Live, he's stolen the show, and made for the best SNL of that season. Earlier this month, in an unbilled guest appearance, he appeared in two skits and ran away with both. The audience loves him, and with good reason. He sings and dances with verve and skill -- and he's a goofy, truly funny comic actor.

Yes, it's high time variety TV made a comeback. But if it's to return successfully, it'll probably take a champion more multi-talented than Rosie O'Donnell. And wouldn't it be nice if the man who sang of "bringing sexy back" would also be the one to bring variety back?




Ken said:

Hi David,
All TV listings show the Rosie special at 8PM tonite... are you sure of the time? (You're absolutely right -- NBC moved it. Thanks. I'll correct. -- David B.)

Comment posted on November 26, 2008 11:25 AM

Marlark said:

I'm completely 'N Sync with your recommendation for Justin Timberlake. As a TV viewer who grew up babysitting my little brother watching "The Carol Burnett Show" not only do I miss the joy that the genre can bring, but I had no idea who Justin Timberlake was until he bared Janet's secret ring. But since then seeing him sing, dance and act, it's clear he's a natural triple threat. Plus he's clearly having a great time. I can't wait to tune in. And I'll call my 40-something little brother to have him tune in, too. Or I'll tell Mom how he behaved while they were out.

Comment posted on November 26, 2008 2:50 PM

Jerry said:

. I will not watch Rosie or buy any products that support her on NBC.

. I will advise all American Legion-airs to do the same.

Comment posted on November 26, 2008 8:32 PM

Adam said:

Her show was terrible. dark and boring. But Ellen's show was lots of fun.

Comment posted on November 30, 2008 1:25 AM
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