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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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10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for more than 40 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guardaldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother, Linus, however, is still a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGG.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of whatever holiday they’re celebrating. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon Is Back
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

For many fans, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is as beloved a Thanksgiving tradition as mashed potatoes and gravy (except funnier). It seems appropriate, given that the show celebrates the turkeys of the movie world. And that it made its debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1988 (on KTMA, a local station in Minneapolis). In 1991, to celebrate its third anniversary, Comedy Central hosted a Thanksgiving Day marathon of the series—and in the more than 25 years since, that tradition has continued.

Beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, Shout! Factory will host yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon, hosted by series creator Joel Hodgson and stars Jonah Ray and Felicia Day. Taking place online at ShoutFactoryTV.com, or via the Shout! Factory TV app on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and select smart TVs, the trio will share six classic MST3K episodes that have never been screened as part of a Shout! Factory Turkey Day Marathon. Here’s hoping your favorite episode makes it (cough, Hobgoblins, cough.)

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