Q: What did we lose when we lost the variety-television format? A: Awkward sketches, incongruous guest stars, sweetened laugh tracks, gaudy sets, and the last real chance for flashes-in-the-pan and one-hit wonders to get their own series. Tony Orlando & Dawn were a makeshift pop group with a couple of hits—including 1973's biggest single, "Tie A Yellow Ribbon"—when CBS signed them up for a four-episode summer variety run in 1974. Their show was fairly generic: a monologue, a musical number, a topical sketch, a rousing audience-participation bit, and goodnight. But though Orlando had a mediocre singing voice and minimal charisma, and though the two members of Dawn (nondescript Joyce Vincent Wilson and sassy Telma Hopkins) acted like they'd never met each other or their lead singer before showtime, Tony Orlando & Dawn became a sizeable ratings hit, and the trio returned to CBS under varying titles over the next three years.
The three-disc DVD set Tony Orlando & Dawn: The Ultimate Collection has been designed to appeal equally to fans of the group and to those who just like snickering at ghastly '70s ephemera. The set contains full episodes drawn from across the trio's CBS residency—including the 1976 version on which George Carlin was a regular—plus rare appearances and parodies from The Tonight Show, Fridays, and The Carol Burnett Show. The merely curious will get the essence of Tony Orlando & Dawn's magnificence and malfeasance just from its first episode, which features random guest appearances by Rosey Grier and Loretta Swit, an elaborate dance routine set in a hospital, a Bacharach & David medley sung by Dawn in front of oversized carousel horses, and an Isaac Hayes routine with Orlando in tight leather pants. By the time the zany unemployment sketch ends with a zoom in on Dracula, biting his lips and popping his eyes, viewers may grin, scratch their heads, and ask themselves, "How did we get here?"
Steve Coogan and Patrick Marber created the BBC TV series Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge in 1994 in part as a mockery of the kind of show-business personality who'd be sorry to see variety shows go. Coogan's fatuous chat-show host Alan Partridge is the sort who thinks he's hip because he owns a David Bowie album, but he packs his half-hour program with as much old-fashioned, fun-for-the-whole-family entertainment as he can work in between the strained celebrity interviews and self-promoting stunts. For American viewers who know Coogan best for his impersonation of slick-talking music promoter Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, the seven episodes of KMKY on the complete-series DVD set might be hard to grasp. As Partridge, Coogan is so dense that it's almost not funny. The comedy comes from seeing Partridge's vision of retro fun go awry: the alluring dance troupe he books turns out to be a bunch of gay men, the clown act is vulgarly avant-garde, his celebrity guests talk more to each other than to the host, and so on. It's a keen explication of how the variety format, turned a notch off-center, can go from surreal to frankly nightmarish.