As someone who loves to eat, there is nothing more appealing than the idea of the buffet — you get to sample everything that’s laid out. Sure, some of it might be kind of gamey from sitting out for too long or being dug in by the fingers of five-year-olds, but for the most part, it’s a delicious display of savory foods. Where music on television in concerned, the equivalent is, you guessed it, variety shows. Like a buffet, there will be good (and not-so-good) offerings that you can try out like a pupu platter. In my opinion, giving people a choice of different types of talent keeps stuff interesting. Variety shows, for the most part, have been replaced by reality competition shows like The Voice, American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and any number of programs that have you wondering who in the hell left the gate open.
There used to be a time when variety shows not only ruled the television roost, but when there was more variety on television period. I suggest that we return to those days and let’s even start by bringing some of these old shows back:
The Arsenio Hall Show
The man who taught us to woof and raise the roof had one of the dopest late-night variety shows to ever grace American TV screens. Arsenio Hall brought an undeniably black sensibility to late-night TV at a time when the rest of the landscape was lily white, and he was unashamed to do so. He wore his technicolor suits with pride and rocked a perfectly coiffed high-top fade perched above his high forehead. The Arsenio Hall Show was as funky fresh as many of the hip hop and R&B musicians who graced his stage.
Dave Chappelle, genius that he is, was able to marry comedy and music in a way that didn’t feel disjointed or inauthentic. He was ignorant, crass, smart as hell, and he invited all his dope musical friends to revel in the popularity he gained. I don’t know if Common, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, or Kanye West would have gotten exposure to some of Dave’s paler audience members if it wasn’t for his willingness to share his stage with dope musicians.
So everyone and their mama performed on Star Search back in the day: Aaliyah, Pharrell, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Martin Lawrence — the list literally goes on and on. The number of talented artists of today who passed through Star Search in the olden days can’t be denied. Even when I was a young lass I thought I too could be the next Whitney Houston if I just made it to Star Search to sing “I Will Always Love You.”
Showtime at the Apollo
So many black artists have come through this historic talent/variety show that to name them all would take more space than is available to me. The comedy of Steve Harvey‘s perfectly-dyed toupee, the style and grace of Kiki Shepard, the beauty of the Showtime at the Apollo dancers, the history of the tree stump, and the griminess of Sandman Sims scooping trash talent off the stage makes Showtime the total package when it comes to variety shows.
Def Comedy Jam & Def Poetry Jam
Say what you want about Russell Simmons‘ lisp, dubious Rush Card dealings, model smanging, and yoga poses, but Def Comedy Jam and Def Poetry Jam were two genius ways of getting young artists of color, whether they were rappers, comedians, or poets to come out and share their work with an audience who was all the way live. Neither show may have been a straight-up variety show, but they definitely brought variety into homes across the nation weekly.
I could sit up here all day and go into detail about all the variety shows/shows with variety that were dope, mainly because there have been so many over the years: In Living Color, The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Donny & Marie, and The Jacksons immediately. Way before reality shows populated the TV dials and social media changed the way we watch TV, variety shows really provided the spice to our television watching lives.