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All Singing! All Dancing! All Failures! 4 Variety Shows that Failed to Find an Audience

These days, the TV listings are full of reality shows, with The Mole, American Gladiators, and America's Next Top Model providing entertainment to the masses. Back in the day, though, variety shows such as Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show brought an entirely different form of entertainment into American living rooms. But not every variety show worked. Here are four series that lasted fewer than ten episodes (with one that didn't even make it through the first commercial break).

The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, 1977

The Brady Bunch Variety Hour has the dubious honor of being one of the worst shows ever to air on television (it placed fourth in a 2002 TV Guide list of 50 such programs.) Producers Sid and Marty Krofft convinced everyone involved with The Brady Bunch to return. Well, almost everyone—Eve Plumb (Jan) was famously replaced by Geri Reischel. For the cast, the experience was mixed. The kids reportedly hated doing the show, while Florence Henderson and Robert Reed regard it as their favorite Brady experience.

The premise was a little odd. Leaving their familiar Southern California house for one on the beach, the show covers both the variety show on ABC and the behind the scenes goings-on at the Brady residence. The characters all seemed a little off too, seeming nothing like their sitcom personas. The show appears to inhabit an alternate Brady dimension, as in none of the Brady specials in the years to come ever mention a passing "Hey, remember when we did the variety show for ABC and lived near the beach?"

Audiences enjoyed the first special, but when it became a regular series, viewers were laughing more at the actors than with them. The show was cancelled after the remaining 8 episodes had aired, though it has lived on through spoofs on That 70s Show and The Simpsons. Most of the series is available on DVD, for those who absolutely must complete their Brady collection.

Pink Lady and Jeff, 1980

This one is a "what were they thinking?" moment.

Featuring female singers Keiko "Kei" Masuda and Mitsuyo "Mie" Nemoto, Pink Lady enjoyed huge success in Japan. Nine of their singles sold more than a million copies. Their first step towards a career in the US was a concert in Las Vegas, which led to an English-Language album with one minor hit. This impressed producers at NBC, who had created a variety show for Pink Lady with (then) up-and-coming comedian Jeff Altman.

As producers quickly discovered Mie and Kei knew little English, and had to learn their parts of the show phonetically—a draining process for all involved. Rather than perform their own hits, the girls were forced to sing disco numbers such as "Knock on Wood" and, in this clip, "Boogie Wonderland":

The show's writing and Jeff's comedy were about as good as Pink Lady's English skills. Whatever career momentum Jeff had was killed by groaners like this:

Jeff: "You girls are the biggest thing in Japan!"
Pink Lady: "No, Jeff, the biggest thing in Japan is Godzilla!"

Pink Lady broke up a year later in Japan, and Jeff continues to do occasional stand-up appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman. Of the six episodes produced, only five were aired; all six can be found on DVD if you're desperate to see them.

Mary, 1978

Mary Tyler Moore was ready to make a comeback in 1978, a year after The Mary Tyler Moore Show had ended. CBS was happy to have her, offering a great supporting cast (including Swoosie Kurtz and newcomers David Letterman and Michael Keaton), talented dancers, and an orchestra led by Alf Clausen. What wasn't provided, however, was an audience to watch the show.

Mary tanked in the Nielsen ratings and was cancelled after only 3 of the 16 shows produced had aired. The entire fiasco cost CBS $5 million. Moore changed the format to a variety/sitcom hybrid and the show re-premiered later that year on CBS to similar success.

Turn-On, 1969

It's one of the most notorious flops in TV history, yanked after one episode—and in some markets, during the first commercial break. Ed Friendly and George Schneider , the producers of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, created the show, which they described as a "visual, comedic, sensory assault." Presented as though produced by a computer, Turn-On featured fast cuts (new at the time) and different styles of live-action and animated comedy. Rumors spread that the show featured full frontal nudity, and that its title was based on Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out." The Cleveland station that cancelled the show during the first commercial break sent ABC a nasty telegram, which read, "If you naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the wall, please don't use our walls." Most other stations dropped the show after the first episode.

Honorable Mention: Mel & Susan Together

This one not only failed to find an audience, but there's almost no record of it online. Besides IMDb's confirmation of its existence, the only mention I found was in Craig Nelson's now out-of print BadTV, which has this to say about the show that ran four weeks:

"Mel & Susan Together, 1978: If you wanted to create a smash hit variety show, wouldn't you pair Mel Tillis (the stuttering Nashville singer) with Susan Anton (Muriel cigar spokesperson and Amazon model) as the hosts? The idea here was "Hey, isn't everyone in America dying to see these two together?" and the mystery of the human spirit explored is "How does anyone come up with an idea like this?"

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Man-Eating Space Lizards: When V Was a TV Smash
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Warner Home Video

American broadcast television in the 1980s didn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. Shows like Hill Street Blues were outliers, crowded off the schedule by head-hammering episodic series featuring mercenaries (The A-Team), car chases (The Dukes of Hazzard), or soapy melodrama (Dynasty).

On its surface, V appeared to be no different. A two-part miniseries airing on consecutive evenings in May 1983, it told the story of the “Visitors,” gregarious aliens who arrive on Earth in three-mile-long spaceships and greet humans with a bargain: Let the Visitors harvest a chemical needed for their continued survival and receive advanced medical knowledge in return.

As the humanoid aliens reveal themselves to be malevolent lizard-like creatures who prefer to dine on humans rather than prolong their lives, V took on the look and feel of a pulpy sci-fi epic—the kind of thing that could be easily summarized in one Amazing Stories cover image from the 1940s. But writer Kenneth Johnson had something far more subversive in mind. The Visitors were stand-ins for fascists, and V was a cautionary tale about the perils of complacency.

Jason Bernard and Robert Englund star in the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Johnson had broken into television with a writing stint on The Six Million Dollar Man, for which he conceived a female counterpart in the form of Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner). Sommers got her own series, The Bionic Woman, which Johnson produced until he was tasked with adapting The Incredible Hulk as a live-action drama.

It was around this time that Johnson became fascinated with a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist group that rises to power in the United States. Johnson reworked the concept into Storm Warnings, a feature-length screenplay; that work landed on the desk of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, who encouraged Johnson to adapt it into a television miniseries by casting Soviets or the Chinese as the antagonists.

Tartikoff’s request made sense. The miniseries format, which took off in the 1970s with Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, was drawing record numbers of viewers. The Thorn Birds, about a priest who is tempted to break his vow of celibacy by a younger woman, was a hit; so was Shogun, about a 17th century man who shipwrecks in Japan and becomes a pawn in a war between samurai. (Both starred Richard Chamberlain.) Storm Warnings had an appropriately sprawling narrative with multiple characters, a feat of creative engineering Johnson was encouraged to use after reading War and Peace.

But the writer was less enthused about casting a foreign superpower as a rival. Tartikoff then suggested aliens, the allegorical turf of Rod Serling that had fueled many a socially-conscious episode of The Twilight Zone. Johnson later told Starlog he “ran screaming from the room” at the suggestion, but eventually warmed to it. Storm Warnings became V: NBC committed $13 million to produce the four-hour drama.

A scene from the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

While a generous budget for television, the scope of Johnson’s idea taxed every available dollar. A 60-foot-long model of one of the Visitor ships was built; a giant hangar intended to depict the inside was made to scale, albeit cut in half; matte effects, with the ships laid over a background painting, depicted their unsettling arrival over Earth’s major cities. A feature with those same ambitions might take months of pre-production planning: Johnson got three weeks.

Whatever was lacking in the special effects and costumes—Johnson opted for a regal, military-inspired garb for his aliens that hasn’t aged well—never diluted the real attraction of V. Following a television cameraman (Marc Singer) and a botanist (Faye Grant) as they grow suspicious of the true intentions of the Visitors, the series quickly turns into an examination of what happens when a population is seduced by the promise of a helping hand. Celebrities and world leaders endorse the Visitors; scientists questioning their motives are corralled and delivered to ships for “re-education.” By the time their foot soldier Diana (Jane Badler) is seen devouring a guinea pig, Singer and his cohorts have decided to form a resistance to push back against being turned into alien kibble. For viewers who didn’t care for the subtext, there was still the birth of a lizard baby to talk about with coworkers and friends the next morning.

In a departure from conventional advertising, NBC decided to take a conservative approach with V. Posters in subway stations and bus stops depicted illustrations of the Visitors in propaganda-style posters; later, a “V” would be spray-painted over the ads. There was never any mention of the series.

The premiere of V drew a 40 share, which meant 40 percent of all households watching television at that hour were watching the lizard people establish their dominance on Earth. Tartikoff even granted Johnson the ability to run 15 minutes past the allotted two-hour time slot, cutting into local newscasts. On night two, V maintained much of that audience.

What might have turned out to be a lucrative franchise for NBC quickly lost its way. Tartikoff wanted Johnson to oversee a weekly drama continuing the story of the resistance while ramping up their licensing efforts; Johnson argued that the premise would be too expensive for the format and suggested a two-hour movie air every month or two instead.

A licensed action figure from the 'V' miniseries
Amazon

In the end, neither quite got their wish. Another miniseries, V: The Final Battle, aired in 1984, but Johnson disowned it after extensive rewrites. V: The Series followed, but lasted just one season. Johnson lamented that the network had taken his cautionary tale and turned it into a spectacle, with gunfights and lizard people eating small animals taking the place of the allegory.

V was revived by ABC in 2009, but low ratings led to a quick demise after two seasons. Other shows and movies like 1996’s Independence Day had borrowed heavily from Johnson, wearing out the premise. In 2007, Johnson published V: The Second Generation, a novel based on one of his follow-up scripts.

The miniseries format would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s before serialized dramas with shortened seasons edged them off television schedules. Like The Thorn Birds, V remains one of the most well-remembered entries in the medium, due in no small part to Johnson’s nods to levity. When the aliens arrive, a high school band plays the Star Wars theme.

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before he was called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior, in 1980, to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their original poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and said that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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