Do We Really Need the Variety Show to Make a Comeback?

Maya Rudolph as Elizabeth during "The War in Words" sketch in Maya & Marty. Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC

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NBC tried with The Maya Rudolph Show back in 2014. It tried again last year with Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris. And last night, the network took its third shot at reviving the variety show with the first extremely wobbly episode of Maya and Marty. The new sketch comedy/musical hour stars the enormously gifted Rudolph and Martin Short and, therefore, should be a thoroughly entertaining work of slightly old-school television. Instead, in its first at bat, Maya and Marty felt forced and uneven, and made me think that maybe the variety show can’t be brought back from the dead no matter how much talent is involved. While I’m still willing to give this particular incarnation another chance, there’s also a big part of me that feels like NBC is essentially trying to make fetch happen here. And as we all know, fetch is not going to happen.

The problems that plague Maya and Marty are the same issues that dogged The Maya Rudolph Show, a one-off special as opposed to a series, two years ago. “It's not fully hatched yet, nor is it clear that variety is a format that makes sense on American TV in 2014,” Margaret Lyons wrote of the special here on Vulture. “Is it retro? Ironic? Watered-down SNL?”

Those same questions apply to Maya and Marty, especially that last one about watered-down SNL, since that’s what the first episode felt like more than anything else. Its send-up of Little Big Shots, one of several shout-outs to other NBC shows, played like a Saturday Night Live sketch that got cut for time and shoved onto the Maya and Marty set list; same goes for the Goodnight Moon reenactment that featured Short and Miley Cyrus in the roles of the bunnies and Rudolph as a drunk woman who wanders into the picture book, refusing to hush but totally game to binge a bowl full of mush. While it was mildly amusing to see Short doing his Jiminy Glick shtick again, that only added to the sense that this show is regurgitating things we’ve seen before and, at least so far, still unsure of how to distinguish itself as a something wholly original.

In the variety heyday of the ’60s and ’70s, the shows that featured a pair of hosts worked largely because of their chemistry, and the fact that those hosts usually were involved in real-life relationships that existed outside the confines of their weekly efforts to sing, dance, and tell jokes. Audiences enjoyed watching Sonny and Cher, or Donny and Marie, or even Captain and Tennille because their TV programs provided a theoretical window into their marital spats and sibling rivalries.

Rudolph and Short obviously don’t have that going for them. They’ve been placed side by side on a show because of their performance chops and Saturday Night Live pedigree. So they have the added challenge of trying to create a natural reason for being partnered, an issue that was obvious in last night’s episode. “We’re friends, right?” Short said to Rudolph during their opening monologue. “Yes, showbiz friends,” Rudolph replied. It was deliberately dry humor that unfortunately highlighted one of the show’s potential pitfalls: Its hosts don’t have a shared history that automatically piques viewer interest.

That doesn’t necessarily have to be a deal breaker if Rudolph, Short, and their various special guests can manage to do something in future episodes that’s even more important: infuse Maya and Marty with the sort of spark that invigorates live television. Maya and Marty isn’t live — it tapes in front of a studio audience on Thursdays and is edited in time for airing on Tuesdays. But The Carol Burnett Show — the lord, god, king, and queen of ’70s variety shows — wasn’t broadcast live either. It just felt like it was because the cast was so in the moment and their unexpected screw-ups and crack-ups — usually involving Harvey Korman breaking character — often stayed in the version that made it to air. In addition to stronger writing, Maya and Marty needs more crackle and spontaneity, which is something that can’t be manufactured. It just has to be.

There was one moment in the first episode that hinted that maybe a giddy unpredictability could be generated, though it wasn’t a moment between Short and Rudolph. It was one shared by Rudolph, as Melania Trump, and Kate McKinnon, doing an appropriately smirky impression of Heidi Cruz. The sketch focused on Trump’s attempt to hawk her new collection of edible diamonds, which Rudolph gamely jammed into her mouth and gnawed on, at one point biting off more carats than she could chew. “Are you okay?” Cruz/McKinnon asked, and Rudolph choke-laughed on her rock candy for a second before continuing with the sketch. It was obviously an unplanned moment, and one that’s suggestive of what Maya and Marty could be if it figures out how to loosen up and let the unexpected be its North Star.

But there’s also a possibility that maybe the variety show of old is just too tricky and outdated to attempt on a weekly basis. A majority of viewers (read: millennials) have zero attachment to the format as it existed in the ’60s and ’70s because it predates their existences. Thanks to other successful sketch/musical hybrids over the years, like Saturday Night Live, In Living Color, and Chappelle’s Show, the genre has been redefined. These days, the programs we place in that “variety” basket tend to be either semi-edgy and more focused on the comedy side, like The Daily Show, or slightly-old-fashioned family fare, like … well, like Little Big Shots or America’s Got Talent.

With its 10 p.m. time slot Maya and Marty isn’t going after that family demo, but its first episode also felt too old school to qualify as cutting-edge or adult. At the moment, it's stuck between the two, in a genre that even the boundless nature of modern TV programming may not know how to accommodate anymore.