Revisiting the Surreal World of ‘Viva Variety’

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

The members of the popular MTV sketch group The State have successfully infiltrated all of popular culture at this point. They’re in TV shows big and small, they’re writing and directing small indie movies and the biggest four-quadrant movies out there. They’ve broken off from each other, reuniting only occasionally, no longer the 11-headed comedy monster they once were. Today we look back at the first show to leap out of The State and become its own thing. Its own… strange thing. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Viva Variety.

Though there are occasional attempts to bring it back, for the most part the variety show format died in the 1980s. Of course, I’m talking about in America. (Sabado Gigantes is still going strong.) The premise behind Viva Variety is that the show has been very successful overseas in some undisclosed European country and is now making its way to American shores, complete with all of its delightful Euro-weirdness. Each episode featured an American oddball celebrity such as Robin Leach, Eartha Kitt or Rip Taylor, original sketches, bands like They Might Be Giants, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and some sort of weird variety act, like a professional regurgitator. While strangely familiar, it was also unlike anything that had ever been on TV before.

Our two hosts are Mr. Laupin, played by Thomas Lennon, complete with the mustache he would later sport for Reno 911!, and The Former Mrs. Laupin, played by Kerri Kenny. The pair play their characters with unpinpointable accents, and play up their broken marriage with Mr. Laupin as an energetic, possibly still in love man and Agatha Laupin as the cool, hard-to-get/you-may-not-have-ever-had straight-woman. Their sidekick/announcer, played by Michael Ian Black, introduces himself in the opening credits as “your cool-ass pal, Johnny Bluejeans” which is a perfect encapsulation of his character. Johnny is an intentionally failed attempt at an having an in-your-face exterior (complete with pompadour and tight clothing) to mask a completely clueless interior.

The show ran for three seasons for a total of 37 episodes, ending with a massive celebration at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in which Mr. and Mrs. Laupin retied the knot. As a sample, I watched an episode from the first season and was struck by how dense the show was. Perhaps it was an influence from their last project being The State, but the show moves very quickly and burns through an awful lot of material in just 22 minutes. To introduce our hosts, Johnny first brings out The Swimsuit Squad, who basically serve as the Fly Girls for this production. Mr. and Mrs. Laupin banter, their hatred for one another simmering just below the surface, and then when they attempt to throw it to Johnny, he just stares off into space. The reason is that he is having one of his Celebrity Daydreams. We take a peek inside Johnny’s mind to reveal that he is standing in a field of daisies alongside Dick Clark, eating soup from coffee mugs. Finally snapping out of it, Johnny introduces the first segment in which Walter Koening, Chekov from TV’s Star Trek, will perform the title role from Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.

The performance is initially very straight: Koening plays the role with gravitas, and Tom Lennon as Mr. Laupin attempts to draw as much drama as he can through a silly accent. However, when he removes his hat to reveal Vulcan ears, and Mrs. Laupin makes her entrance by “beaming” in, dressed in Starfleet uniform, the game has been set. The sketch then just decides to explode and put every possible card on the table by having Johnny Bluejeans enter shirtless with a toaster/jet pack strapped to his back, green facepaint, and a Coneheads cone on, spouting as many sci-fi catchphrases as one can possibly muster. Koening becomes upset at this indignity. “This is Anton Chekhov, the premiere Russian dramatist of the last 150 years. He doesn’t need to be jazzed up! Just say the lines in the script!” He then delivers a final, intense monologue while going through an intensely choreographed fight with a Klingon warrior.

Along with a contestant from the audience, Mr. Laupin introduces a game called “French or Gay” in which the player must look at an image and decide which category the person falls into. Sometimes it’s neither (Mr. T) and sometimes it’s both (Jean Paul Gaultier). The Former Mrs. Laupin then does a live ad for a fictional product. “As I walk down the street, men frequently come up to me and profess their undying love. So when I mace them, I want my mace to work as hard as I do. This is why I use ‘Not Tonight, Not Ever.’”

These sketches are followed by a performance from Yogi Baird who combines the rhythm and fun of country fiddle playing and the painful looking moves of contortionism. His segment ends with him playing the fiddle while performing a split across two pillars as the rest of the cast (and Walter Koenig) use him as a limbo pole. This oddball musical number is followed by a legitimate performance from Marshall Crenshaw who plays his song “What Do You Dream Of?” Of course The Swimsuit Squad flank him, just in case the show was getting too close to being an actual variety show.

In a perfect world, Viva Variety would still be on the air. Its one of those rare shows that produces a premise that could literally last forever. America keeps creating new weirdos to be on the show, people keep getting divorced so that’s always relevant, and Europe is still strange (see Eurovision coverage). Sadly, this was not meant to be, and Viva Variety was added to the long list of shows in Comedy Central’s dustbin. Lucky for us, there’s a little bit more Viva content to be enjoyed, since last year the Laupins and Johnny Bluejeans reunited on stage at the San Francisco SketchFest. I leave you now with their explanation as to what happened to their beloved variety show.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title.

Revisiting the Surreal World of ‘Viva Variety’