I have, for many years, explained to anyone who would listen that there is no reason why the variety show is no longer a staple of television. After they inevitably change the subject out of disinterest, I think to myself about how, aside from Saturday Night Live, we have no programming comparable to the hit-or-miss shows of the 1960s and '70s, shows which offered a myriad of entertainers crammed into a single hour. The fact that so many genres of television, most significantly talk shows (which have become little more than a string of viral-worthy clips), have learned to adapt to the capricious tastes of modern viewers makes the inability of variety shows, seemingly tailor-made for the viral age, to gain footing all the more baffling.
NBC, hot on the heels of a failed, Neil Patrick Harris-led attempt to reboot the genre, has created Maya & Marty, a variety show starring Maya Rudolph and Martin Short. The show is doubly burdened by both the palpable lack of chemistry between the stars and by the painfully evident fact that the show is fighting an uphill battle to raise an entire genre from the dead. One skit from the second episode makes it clear that the writers would rather create a schmaltzy tribute to a bygone era than offer a fresh take on an obsolete style. In it, guest star Tina Fey joins Maya Rudolph in a medley of songs such as "Wedding Bell Blues" and "Da Doo Ron Ron," including Rudolph employing her always-funny Charo impression for "Love Will Keep Us Together." They discuss the impact of Carol Burnett, Donny & Marie, Sonny & Cher, and The Mandrell Sisters, and, because Carol Burnett is quite honestly the only person mentioned whose show can and should be taken seriously, the tribute is less emotional than it is hokey. It does little in the way of tugging heartstrings or eliciting laughter and only serves to remind the viewer of just how long it's been since a variety show drew in a sizable enough audience to warrant mention. Whether this trip down memory lane is meant to be self-congratulatory or a genuine ode to their predecessors, it falls flat and renders the episode a slipshod pastiche as opposed to something fresh and novel.
All that's missing is the obligatory mediocre guest star(s)
Worse still, is the fact that the tribute (if it can be called that) is sandwiched between two period pieces, one set in the 1920s, and another set in the 1980s. The "roarin' '20s" was a well-trodden trope of television by even the standards of the 1970s, and underscores the fact that the only ones putting forth effort are the show's stars; Maya Rudolph, with her irreverent, spot-on impressions, and Martin Short, with his frenetic, puppyish-despite-his-age style. The greatest variety shows of all time relied, aside from an occasional skit or musical number, on contemporary culture for their humor. Maya & Marty is covering familiar territory which was done better four decades ago.
The first foray into the relatively recent is a skit in which Martin, Maya, Tina, and Steve Martin play two over-the-hill, yuppie-esque couples meeting in a restaurant. The skit, which attempts to lampoon the self-obsessed elite, is a toothless rehash of jokes made a decade ago by Saturday Night Live's recurring "Two A**holes" and Rudolph's far superior Nooni Schooner character. The biggest laugh comes from Kenan Thompson, playing a waiter, approaching and mentioning that he "took a single glance at [their] table and [has been] avoiding" them, if only because the viewer can relate to his instinctive dislike of the characters. With so much combined talent, the blame can only be placed squarely on a writing team that would rather earn a paycheck than produce noteworthy comedy.
Because of both my adoration of the stars and my desire to see a flourishing variety show on television, I will not pass definitive judgement on Maya & Marty. If they can stop relying on the crutch of acknowledging the difficulty of reigniting public interest in an art form as irrelevant as vaudeville and separate themselves from the pervasive influence of Saturday Night Live, they will have no difficulty attracting an audience. In the meantime, I'll be watching the real thing, praying that something of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour's controversy and caliber returns to television, and soon.