The Ed Sullivan Show
Rock ‘n’ Roll Classics (Rhino-2002)
Your tolerance of the variety show format is equally proportional to the amount of hours you’ve viewed MTV since 1981. More than two decades have passed since the rest of television adapted to the now-taken-for-granted style of the quick-edited, odd-camera-angled, sound-bit, irony-heavy entertainment presentation. You are no longer dazzled by it. In fact, you expect it.
This notion of faster, pussycat! Kill! Kill! is what murdered the variety show in cold blood. Now the dastardly deed is done — the victim is long-since buried and the defendant got off scott free: the variety show, filled with hard-working entertainers, innocuous banter, and inoffensive but talented musical guests who appealed to the entire nuclear family could never, ever be resurrected. It was too relaxed; it moved too slowly, it took its time — it was general.
Even Saturday Night Live, probably the last remnant of the variety show era (which, ironically, also helped to kill it off with its then-irreverent brand of humor) has had to dedicate itself to preventing the channel flipper from flipping; now there is an air of desperation about that show’s obsessive need to create still more national catchphrases like “cheeseburger, cheeseburger…” — an SNL catchphrase that doesn’t catch on is as big a threat to its trying-too-hard cast and its Ivy-League writers as a visit from the Grim Reaper. This irony, of course, is as unwelcome as one of its tiresome, post-midnight sketches.
In the last quarter century, and with the help of remote controls flipping past 500 channels of choice and televisions appearing everywhere from malls to airports, viewers have had their attention spans reduced to that of the common housefly. However, some things never change: TV sets are still in the living room, and asses are still in the barcoloungers, and those asses are fatter than ever. Yet the viewer’s ability to stay with one thought for more than eighty seconds, or for a viewer to enjoy any segment of entertainment which requires only one camera and takes its sweet old time to deliver, is all but vanished. That’s why you rarely hear a theme song for a situation comedy anymore, and why closing credits contain just one more hilarious tag scene while the credits roll in practically milliseconds. That’s also why the next lame sitcom begins practically the same moment the previous one ends. Television now lives in fear of your diminishing ability to pay attention and focus.
This is probably why the producers of the interesting Ed Sullivan’s Rock and Roll Classics (Sofa Productions on Rhino Home Video) are wary of moving too slowly for you. The clips come at you like rapid gunfire, and the fat is completely cut out. It’s boiled down to what they think you want to see and nothing more, except maybe a little historical background provided by narrator Jay Thomas. He’ll tell you what was happening during the year that the Mamas and the Papas performed “California Dreaming” in living color, but it’s nothing you don’t already know: we see blindingly fast clips of flower children blowing bubbles in Central Park and helicopters buzzing along the skies of Vietnam. The scene is set, the clip is shown, and it’s quickly onto the next hitmaker from that year. You hardly have a chance to catch your breath, and that’s not the way it was originally intended. This collection doesn’t care about your digestion, but it still cuts your meat for you, in tiny pieces.
The box set is distributed by Rhino, the company that proclaims itself the self-appointed keepers of the pop culture flame. Like sensitive surgeons, they dice the show into neat little clips and lovingly sew them into bite-size volumes containing careful categories like “Chart Toppers, 1965-1967” and “Sounds of the Motor City.” Ultimately, however, they are insecure about your interest in The Ed Sullivan Show. They know you want to see Elvis and the Beatles and the Jackson Five do their thing, but they are afraid you may be put off by an especially awkward exchange between Ed and the performers (and there were many) or – heaven forbid – a novelty act that may take more than one minute to entertain you. It’s a damn shame, but completely necessary under today’s circumstances. What you do get, however, is some of the greatest musical clips in television history, without the endless extraneous but fascinating material that you may have appreciated had it not been for your cultural conditioning.
Even ten years before the advent of MTV, Ed Sullivan’s days were numbered. His show, which ran like a fullback every Sunday night for twenty-three years on CBS, was cancelled unceremoniously in 1971. By then, with the popularity of portable televisions being plugged into teenagers’ bedrooms and the networks’ determination to make their programming more sophisticated and urban, Sullivan’s show seemed as outdated as a rerun of The Jolson Story. That idyllic picture of the white-bread fifties family gathered around the twelve-inch screen in the living room was suddenly as archaic as the show’s trademark spinning-plate act or the dancing chimps. The fact that Sullivan’s cornball magicians and animals and contortionists were now sharing the stage with the likes of Steppenwolf, Creedence Clearwater Revival and George Carlin were suddenly seen as surreal. Not that the hodgepodge of variety acts crammed into one hour ever truly made sense, but now, in the sober reality of the 70s, it really didn’t make sense.
Sullivan died a few short years after his show’s cancellation, most likely of a broken heart. He did not survive the opportunity to be thanked for what he did for television, for which we are all semi-sentimental now. He was merely a stone-faced, ordinary man, and strangely at the same time a powerfully influential gossip columnist for The New York Daily News. His savvy eye for the new and the popular made his program the Cadillac of variety shows. Other tries at this format, like The Hollywood Palace on ABC, came and went like the vaudeville acts on Sullivan’s show. Somehow, his time slot (the same that 60 Minutes holds now) was a surefire time to gather the family around, and his ability to book acts that appealed to both Grandpa and Gidget forged his show into an American institution. His infamous awkwardness and lack of on-camera skills somehow worked in his favor and made him the butt of good-natured teasing that nobody found funnier than Sullivan himself.
After each act, he would, without barely bending an elbow or rolling his shoulders, invite the performer over to shake hands with him (the equivalent of Carson calling an exceptional comedian to the couch). The handshake would sometimes unconsciously devolve into hand-holding as Sullivan tried his best to make small talk, sometimes smiling broadly but mostly rambling incoherently or bafflingly asking what high school they attended. Smooth he wasn’t. You can just smell the flop sweat and body odor on the performers as they coasted on their high, and you have to hand it to Sullivan for never really flinching.
This collection, of course, concerns itself primarily with rock and roll acts of the fifties and sixties, and delivers exactly what you expect and very little more. There are a few actual surprises, like the group Smith singing “Baby, It’s You” live and quite impressively, and Jerry Lee Lewis adjusting comfortably to the wild world of 1969 while resurrecting “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
However, there are unpleasanties as well, the worst of the worst featuring B.J. Thomas lip-synching “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” among a bevy of fey dancers skipping around (Broadway style) with umbrellas, and a prop cloud literally raining on B.J.’s head and soaking his groovy clothing! Also, you will be sorry to witness Spanky and Our Gang lip-synching “I’d Like To Get To Know You” while pretending to be at a cocktail party; the no-talent Freddie and the Dreamers performing the downright scary dance, “Do The Freddie,” and The Four Tops generously offering to teach Sullivan how to do the Boogoloo, and he declines!
What kills are the live performances, namely Tom Jones literally murdering “Delilah” with a full orchestra behind him, Jackie Wilson showing off his boxer-like moves during “That’s Why (I Love You So),” James Brown begging on his knees to “Prisoner of Love” and the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Jackson Five and Stevie Wonder doing just about anything, especially a medley of their hits. After The Jackson Five takes their final bow and Sullivan mistakenly credits Diana Ross for discovering them, he says, “The little fella in front is incredible!” No kidding, Ed.
What disappoints is the lip-synching – unfortunately, Sullivan was not above this low-budget misdemeanor, for which we have Dick Clark to blame. The Fifth Dimension only moved their lips to “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” and the Mamas and the Papas only pretended to sing just one half of “Monday, Monday,” while Cass had the thankless task of having to stand next to the stunning Michelle Phillips.
Like rubbernecking at a car accident, it’s irresistible to watch Sullivan screw up his introductions to the acts. His ramblings are stunningly amateurish, most likely attributed to his squareness, his aging or his growing apathy in hosting the show, but these uneasy intros are endlessly quotable. Take his memory lapse when introducing The Supremes: “Now doing the number one song in the country…the girls here,” or before another of their appearances, when he incorrectly says, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, from three different states, The Supremes [even though the girls all came from Detroit]!” Or, when Dino, Desi and Billy are about to do their non-hit, “I’m A Fool,” Sullivan stalls them with free association directed at Dean Martin’s son, Dino: “Tell your dad that he’s marvelous in those westerns working with big John Wayne.” While introducing Sonny and Cher singing an abbreviated version of “I Got You, Babe,” Sullivan says, “It’s a pleasure to introduce my dear little paisans to you.”
However, the most potentially baffling intro of the entire collection is when Sullivan rambles the following: “For all of you celebrating New Year’s Eve, here are Jay and the Techniques.” We can only hope that this intro was given during an actual New Year’s Eve broadcast.
Toward the end of the series, it was growing evident that Sullivan was finding it more difficult to capture everyone’s attention consistently, so he resorted to visual effects, which at the time were state of the art. When the program began broadcasting in color in the fall of 1964, the show took on a luster and sheen that was breathtaking, even by today’s standards. And when he introduces The Lovin’ Spoonful lip-synching “Do You Believe In Magic,” he warns the audience, “Some of you will have to watch on the screen here, because there are some scenic effects.” Basically, these “scenic effects” were members of the group appearing and disappearing a la Bewitched (magic, get it?), as well as the brief yet unexplained appearance of a puppy, which caused the audience to go, “awwww.”
In his new obsession with stunning us with visual effects, Sullivan introduces Oliver singing “Jean” in 1969 with the following overrated introduction: “This is one of the many great moments on our stage.” You, however, will be disappointed. All we get is Oliver indeed singing the lovely theme song from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but the performance is pre-sweetened with some tender, slo-mo shots of him cavorting about the stage with a young pretty, the two of them looking so very much in love. Big deal.
The apex of the series was anticlimactic, with the appearance of the Beatles over a number of broadcasts in 1964-65. With a brief exception, these clips are saved for another DVD, but this collection is chock full of Elvis’ appearances almost ten years earlier. The Presley broadcasts are actually far more exciting than that of the Fab Four, mostly because the idea of a rock idol on television was so new. The only thing missing are the frenzied reaction shots from the studio audience, which was plentiful on camera when the Beatles arrived.
Elvis did not make his television debut on Sullivan (his first TV visits were with Steve Allen and then Milton Berle); however, Sullivan made history by offering Presley an unprecedented $50,000 for three appearances, which resulted in the highest ratings to date in television’s brief history. To watch a young Presley again, backed by the Jordanaires, is a marvel. This is a reminder, as if we needed one, of what made Elvis special, so alive in these raw and charismatic clips in which he is so youthful and full of devilishness, really selling us “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Between numbers and while attempting to catch his breath, his inarticulate little messages to the folks out there in television land are occasionally broken up by a nervous giggle out of his throat and a rash of screaming by teenage girls. Sullivan gives his famous blessing, like a Pope, telling America, “this is a real decent, fine boy.” Today, the urgency and importance of Sullivan’s acceptance of a rock and roll idol is not appreciated, but in its day, it was front-page news and it turned a tide.
The world will never be like this again, and we only have ourselves to blame for it.
Copyright ©2003 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 16, 2003.