Back in the 70s, there was a genre of television that was enormously popular, the kind of program you would gather around the television set in the living room for: the variety show.
It was a genre dedicated to song and dance and comedy sketches, requiring people with a wide range of talents to helm it. Some of the most iconic names in show business had variety shows, like Cher, Carol Burnett, even the Jacksons. Variety had lost steam in more recent years, although apparently there was some hope in the public’s subconscious that the genre would make a return.
Maya Rudolph, the song and dance comedienne of Saturday Night Live and Bridesmaids fame, must have sensed that yearning and convinced NBC and a group of her industry friends to take a chance on the dead format. The result is The Maya Rudolph Show, a one-off special that premiered Monday night after The Voice finale. It’s placement is the epitome of a TV test: if the ratings are good, there is opportunity for more episodes, even a full-season order that would mark the revival of variety show on TV. Seven million viewers tuned in, which are pretty good numbers for a mildly promoted show, and will definitely open up dialogue about its future.
The Maya Rudolph Show is a great stepping stone to reviving the genre, and there really isn’t anyone better suited to do it. Maya Rudolph is an all-around great performer, who can sing, act, dance and make people laugh until their sides split. She is also incredibly likable, which makes her very easy to root for. You want her to do well, just because she is Maya.
And she did well, for the most part. When the skits were good, there were excellent. Easily the best of the night was the Siri family sketch, where Maya and Fred Armisen played computer-voiced parents to Kristen Bell. Another great bit was the Password game, where Andy Samberg was paired up with Maya as a Russian socialite only capable of saying “juice”. They were silly, but genuinely funny, and Maya excels at the most absurd of impersonations.
There were weak spots too, particularly in the musical numbers. The “Frozen 2” musical sketch fell flat for me, as did the weird naughty food cart sketch. What derailed these skits was the feeling they were trying too hard, lacking the ease of the comedy sketches. Looking to variety shows of the past, the musical numbers were simply that. What would’ve been great was if Maya had joined Janelle Monae during her flawless performance of “The Electric Lady”. Speaking of guests, another weak spot was the randomly assembled cast. While I understood Fred Armisen and Andy Samberg, I spent a lot of time wondering why Maya had invited Kristen Bell or Sean Hayes, neither of which inspired much laughter from me. Maya deserves a cast as strong as she is supporting her, and I don’t think this episode offered that.
The great thing about this “test” is the opportunity for improvement. Everything we saw Monday night (or tonight for me, as I watched on demand) was an experiment of modernization of an old format. There is clearly an audience for this; it’s just up to Maya, the producers and NBC to retool it with whatever feedback they receive. All in all, Maya should be commended for her effort in breathing necessary life into variety television.