Steve Martin Tries Prime-Time Variety with ‘3 Girls 3’

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Like westerns before it, the variety show is a TV genre that has gone the way of the dodo in America. Every once in a while it tries to sneak back on to a schedule, or someone like Viva Variety will try to subvert the genre, but they never seem to last too long. But in the sixties and seventies, TV was lousy with them. Most featured some kind of celebrity to anchor the show and introduce the sketches, or the musical guest, or the dancing dog act, or whatever was on tap that evening. Some were political, like Rowin and Martin, some were more musical like Sonny and Cher, and some were awful, like Pinky Lady and Jeff. One show that doesn’t exactly fit into any of those categories was 3 Girls 3.

You’ve probably never heard of 3 Girls 3, and that’s because it only lasted four weeks, but it started with something that was a bit unusual for a variety show: it cast three unknowns. Debbie Allen, Ellen Foley, and Mimi Kennedy were thrust together to host a primetime TV show. Sure, that happens every so often today, but this is back when there were only three networks. This was a real gimmick. What’s even more surprising is that even though this show only lasted a month, each of these women have continued working consistently in Hollywood. You might know Mimi Kennedy as the mom from Midnight in Paris, or Dharma’s mom on Dharma and Greg, Ellen Foley was on the first season of Night Court, and did a ton of Broadway stuff, and Debbie Allen has played a recurring urologist (my new favorite term) on Grey’s Anatomy, and seems to appear in any project on television that involves dancing. The reason that none of these women disappeared after this show is because they’re all very talented, and that was clear even from this one hour’s worth of content from June of 1977 that I watched.

The show opens with our hosts driving to the studio (all in the front seat, of course) while singing the theme song. They take the stage, perform a medley of show tunes and then a short monologue in which they talk a little bit about the audition process and establish their characters as the silly one, the dry one, and the tough one. The audience is very responsive, although I’m not sure that there actually was an audience there since there are zero crowd shots and every TV show during this time sounds like a laugh track machine anyway. They then bring out their guest for the night, Mr. Steve Martin! (I buried the lede!)

Backstage, Steve is about to make his way out there when he runs into Mimi who stops him quickly. It turns out that pre-show, she was warming up the crowd, got a little nervous and may have done a little bit of his material. She begins to tell him what of his stuff she’s already performed for the crowd, listing the names of bits like “Abbott and Costello meet the Incas” and “The world’s tallest redwood crushing the promising long-distance runner.” Steve reacts as she reveals that she’s eaten up more and more of his bits, eventually finding that she’s used up his entire act. I don’t know if Steve had a hand in coming up with the fake standup bits, but the list is pretty great and includes such hits as “forgotten Christmas tree ornaments,” “the clerical error that erased Cleveland,” (“That’s my physical shtick!” laments Martin.) “scientist who fills the Grand Canyon with Cheetos,” “the seal and desperate need of approval,” and of course “the famous Dutch explorer exploring Pizza Hut.”

Steve now is forced to go on stage without any material. He awkwardly stands there for a bit before revealing to the audience that he’s starting to get out of comedy and is moving into music, “So, hit it boys!” He gestures to an off-camera band who remain silent, so Steve improvises and begins singing “Girl from Ipanema” while doing some exaggerated, “wild and crazy guys”-style dancing. This segues nicely into a couple of actual song and dance numbers from our hosts that I’m sure were wonderful, but that I fast forwarded through.

Later in the show, Steve appears on stage with his banjo and talks about one of his weird sexual kinks. He’s very coy; he asks an off-camera producer, “Is this okay to talk about?” (A lot of people are just off camera when Steve Martin performs.) Eventually he reveals that he likes to wear… men’s underwear. Of course, this isn’t the first time he’s revealed this perverse sexual kink, as you can also hear it on his third album Comedy Is Not Pretty. He then plays a little banjo tune which is interrupted by his hosts who begin to sing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company on top of it, and then force Steve to dance for them.

In addition to these performance bits, there are also two types of sketches that appear in the show. Similar to the backstage bit with Steve, there’s a series of behind-the-scenes sketches in which Ellen and Mimi separately reveal to Debbie that they have a crush on Steve and task her with telling Steve. This scene has a moment that demonstrates a particularly dry moment that had a delivery by the actresses that felt particularly modern. Ellen wants Debbie to guess what’s going on with her and tells her to “Look at my face. Read it. Tell me what it says.” “It says ‘mustard.’” “I did have a hot dog. Read higher.” “Bangs.” “Too high.” I know. Not the most amazing joke in the world, but it wasn’t played for the back of the theater. It’s rapid fire, don’t-stop-and-wait-for-the-laugh-track-machine-to-get-it style that showed a respect for the audience I wouldn’t expect from a 1970s prime-time variety show.

Later we see Debbie attempt to go to Steve’s dressing room only to be greeted by a laughing, self-aware groupie. She doesn’t know if she’ll be around for an evening or for the rest of Steve’s life, and she seems completely fine with either outcome. In the third part to this sketch, Debbie informs the other girls about her groupie encounter and the two of them feign aloofness until Steve enters and they make a hasty retreat, giving him the coldest of cold shoulders. This allows (forces?) Steve to use his catchphrase, “Well excu-u-u-u-u-u-se me!”

The other type of sketch that appeared on 3 Girls 3 were… regular sketches. These sketches didn’t necessarily have the highest concept to them, but are the type that can easily be summed up in a short phrase. The Steve Martin episode featured sketches that surely had titles like “the house with three foot ceilings” or “the restaurant where the food kills people” or “the old ladies who travel.” I’ll give you a sample of a joke that typifies these sketches. At the end of the restaurant sketch in which a woman (Ellen Foley) calmly speaks with the waiter (Steve Martin) about how the salad instantly killed her husband (some guy with his face in a salad the entire time). She mentions that he ordered the “poisson dressing” and Martin corrects her: “No, no. Poison.” “Oh,” she realizes. “That must be it, then. My husband is allergic to poison.” While not the worst sketch in the world, it’s important to remember that on the same network three weeks earlier Saturday Night Live had just wrapped up a wildly successful season of it’s show. While these two programs are serving very different audiences, the game had been thoroughly changed at this point.

For what it is, 3 Girls 3 was something new and different, but it wasn’t enough to last on television for too long. Through nothing felt improvised on the show, the performances felt very loose and conversational, which speaks to the talent of the actresses.

And if nothing else, perhaps if this show hadn’t happened Steve wouldn’t have developed the confidence to reinvent his waiter character for his own wonderful short film, The Absent-Minded Waiter. So there’s that.

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 and will be premiering new episodes later this month!

Steve Martin Tries Prime-Time Variety with ‘3 Girls 3’