My Sonny and Cher coverage has been crazily piecemeal ’til now; I’ve done a post on Sonny, one on Cher, and one on their 1967 feature film Good Times. Betwixt ’em you’ll find details about their earlier career as well as elements of their popular variety show, but not a proper one on them as a team, or the show itself.
Sonny and Cher co-hosted their first TV special The Nitty Gritty Hour in 1970, and guest hosted for Merv Griffin around the same time. Their last hit record and their first movie Good Times had been three years earlier. Cher’s solo film debut Chastity, written and produced by Sonny, had flopped in 1969. But their experiments in television came off so well that CBS rewarded them with their own variety show, The Sonny and Comedy Hour a.k.a. The Sonny and Cher Show in 1971.
This was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid; our family watched it every week. In retrospect, I’m certain that even so we didn’t realize how special the show was. It’s always been rare in show business to come across a top notch musical act that’s also a great comedy act. This was true even in vaudeville days; even more so in the post-rock era. Think of shows that attempted to replicate Sonny and Cher’s success. Acts like Tony Orlando and Dawn, Donny and Marie, and Captain and Tennille all made terrific records, but were fairly dreadful in comedy bits. Not so Sonny and Cher.
In fact, Sonny and Cher excelled at TWO styles of traditional comedy. First there was the banter at the top of each show in the old vaudeville two-act tradition, not unlike the show openings performed by the Smothers Brothers or Rowan and Martin. Because they were also husband-wife and also had a professional music business relationship, there was also meta-appeal feeding into it; they mixed elements of Burns and Allen, Phil and Ronny Spector, Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes, and any of the guitar-playing Beatles and Ringo. Cher was presented as a Goddess; she came out in special designed new gowns at the top of every show…and then proceeded to put down Sonny with Beautiful-Chick cool. As burlesque comedians had known for eons, there’s nothing funnier or sexier than being put down by a beautiful woman.
In addition to their comedy team segments, the pair also appeared in comedy sketches with a core cast and special guests (normally major movie, TV and recording stars). The cast included Steve Martin (who also wrote for the show); Teri Garr, Murray Langston, Bob Einstein, and Billy Van. There were much-beloved recurring bits, like a “Vamps” segment where Cher would play larger-than-life women from history like Cleopatra and Catherine the Great; Sonny’s Pizza, which was literally just a series about about a shop where Sonny made terrible pizza; and maybe the most loved one, where Cher played Laverne, a kitschy housewife at the laundromat. And then there was the most important cast member of all, their toddler daughter, named like their film and its eponymous main character, Chastity (b. 1969).
In 1974 there came the acrimonious split. Sonny got custody of the show’s cast and crew and renamed his show and rebranded it The Sonny Comedy Revue. Even so, Cher’s new show Cher fared much better in the ratings and she married Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers. (As a kid, I totally rooted for Sonny’s show. I thought of him as the funny one, and it was well publicized that she was the one who broke up the team). Fortunately for fans, the pair put aside their differences and reunited for one last season, 1976-77.
It took the family each a few years to find themselves but they each did: Cher with a string of hit films in the 1980s; Sonny went into politics (with excellent success) in 1988; and a decade ago Chastity underwent surgery to became a man. He is now known as Chaz Bono. Sonny passed away in 1998.
To learn more about the history of variety, including TV variety like The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous