50 Years Ago: The NBC Follies

February 8, 1973 was the air date of the pilot of an interesting TV variety experiment called The NBC Follies. The show was subsequently picked up and ran for a single season, from September 13 through the end of the year, for 14 episodes total.

I was between the age of 7 and 8 when it aired, and had no recollection of it, but poring over old TV Guides recently brought it to my attention and I’ve seen what’s available on Youtube. From where I sit, the show was a promising idea, unevenly executed. A description on IMDB claims that The NBC Follies was “modeled on old vaudeville shows”, a grossly inaccurate and malinformed take of the sort I hope to dispel in my upcoming book. The only tv variety show I have yet come across that comes close to resembling a vaudeville show (it won’t surprise you to learn) was that of Ed Sullivan. It would be more accurate to say that The NBC Follies was modelled on Broadway revues, such as the, ahem, Ziegfeld Follies. (See? It’s right there in the name). Broadway revues bear some similarity to vaudeville, and were influenced by it, but were absolutely their own distinct form.

The show’s most winning gimmick is the presence of a Ziegfeld style dance chorus of beautifully (and sometimes campily) dressed gals, who perform an opening number and subsequent ones during the presentation. The whole look of the show is part and parcel of that early ’70s nostalgia moment I wrote about here, and when I look at this show, it very much seems to pre-sage the look of the Follies re-creation scenes in Funny Lady (1975). The show merits an A-plus for sets, costumes and production design. And as with the original Follies and similar Broadway revues, the chorus numbers are supplemented with specialty acts (singers) and comedy sketches. Over the course of the run, there were occasional variety acts, such as trained monkeys, marching bands, dancing Polynesians, and roller skating troupes, but there would have had to have been much more of that sort of thing to earn the comparison to vaudeville.

Sure, sure, but how welcome would Sammy be in Mayberry, North Carolina? That’s the sketch *I’d* like to see

As a promo spot of the time hilariously announces, “…most of the shows will be hosted by Sammy Davis Jr!” Implying of course that if Sammy happened to get a better offer on some of the taping dates the producers could kiss his ass. Nonetheless it ended up pretty much being his show, and he even resurrected his “Here come de judge” bit (originally devised by Pigmeat Markham) which had been popular on the recently cancelled Laugh-In. Others may disagree with me, but to my mind it is the Sammy energy (specifically, the excess of it) that brings down the show for me. It’s too manic, aggressive, “try hard”, and frequently hits that weird note that Sammy in particular used to hit during the Civil Rights era, where there’s this attempt to be hip and use black expressions and allude to what was going on, but never in a way that said anything, which was the worst of all possible worlds. The feeling you get is that it is supposed to be all smart and topical to say things like “Right on!” But actually challenging audiences to examine their attitudes was off the table. On the positive side, a relatively high proportion of black artists (for that day and age) were booked on the show, including Diahann Carroll, Lola Falana, Johnny Brown, Ray Charles, Paula Kelly, Jonelle Allen and Rodney Allen Rippy.

Be prepared to drop and roll like we drilled, kids, ‘cuz if I can lay my hands on an atomic bomb, I’m dropping it on this sketch!

In most of the episodes, the co-host was Mickey Rooney (hey! that’ll fetch the youth market!). Other guests on the show were the usual motley cole slaw of strange bedfellows, such as Davis’s Salt and Pepper co-star and fellow Rat Packer Peter Lawford, Jerry Lewis, Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, Connie Stevens, The Smothers Brothers (who distinctly look like they’re being punished), Michael Landon, Charles Nelson Reilly, Steve Lawrence, Sally Struthers (then hot from All of the Family), Milton Berle, Robert Goulet, Arte Johnson, Jack Cassidy, Wayne Newton, Joey Heatherton, Ken Berry, Michele Lee, Don Adams, Don Rickles, Frankie Avalon, Sandy Duncan, Jim Nabors, Richard Crenna, Ernest Borgnine (now THERE’S an entertainer!), Carol Lawrence, Elke Sommer, Jack Carter, The Lennon Sisters, Florence Henderson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Petula Clark, et al. Makes me want to puke my cotton candy all over the midway!

Now, there is some great comic talent in that all-star line-up but the show makes the error (a near universal one at the time) of putting the singers, most of whose acting skills were amateurish at best, in the comedy sketches, giving the American audience the thrill of watching a nationally televised high school talent show. And as was also sadly common at the time, the sketches were scarcely classics, writing-wise. Sketch writing, in the hands of ambitious talent, can be very nearly high art, and on some tv variety shows, it approached that. There are plenty of tv comedy sketches the memory of which we carry with us all our lives. But on plenty of other shows, the majority of them, they’re basically just there to fill time between commercials. The better comedians make what they can out of them; the others are lucky to hit their marks and refrain from giggling.

On the positive side, the show was taped before a live audience, and the energy of that audience is palpable, and quite wonderful. In fact, audience reaction to some of the comedians really fuels what’s going on and provides the experience of live theatre, something canned laughter is never able to do.

Anyway, ho-hum ratings doomed The NBC Follies after its single season, leaving its host free to pursue his assault against good taste with even more latitude with his next variety show Sammy and Company (1975).

For more on the history of vaudevilleBroadway revues and television variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And stay tuned for my next book Vaudeville in Your Living Room: A Century of Radio and TV Variety, coming November 2023.