While variety television has been around since the early days of the medium, it found its home in recent years on late night television. With “Saturday Night Live,” Lorne Michaels cemented the format into NBC’s history. Shows like “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” incorporate the genre’s unique ability to consolidate comedy, references to pop culture, and music into a one stop shop for entertainment. But the changing plane of media and technology in the television industry has pushed the variety format closer to being outdated, with the range of content readily available to consumers on various platforms. Yet, NBC doesn’t seem to be willing to let the variety show format nobly fade into history; rather, its chairman Bob Greenblatt tries again and again to rescue the form.
Though NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” has become something of an uncontested presence in the variety genre, Lorne Michael’s attempt to recreate this format and its success with the new variety show “Maya and Marty” is feeble at best. Similarly, “Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris” and “The Maya Rudolph Show” represent Greenblatt’s tireless efforts to make what is possibly an outdated form a key component of the network’s prime-time programming.
Why, you may ask? There’s still something to be said for a genre that unites the likes of Maya Rudolph (“Bridesmaids”) and Martin Short (“Saturday Night Live”) on stage with a host of reputable actors, comedians and musicians. Though the premiere fell short (no pun intended) at certain points, much of the performances were pure, silly nonsense that were just as fun to watch as it seemed they were to act out.
While the show emulates “SNL” and even showcases some of its best performers (“SNL” player Kenan Thompson joins the series as a featured guest alongside cameos by Kate McKinnon and comedy veteran Jimmy Fallon), the show fails to recapture what made “SNL” so entertaining at its peak: originality. The series feels like a recycling bin of watered-down sketches repurposed to drive NBC’s ad revenue during the summer months.
Rudolph and Short flourished on “SNL,” so it only seems appropriate for them to return to the variety genre as the hosts of their own show. However, the show isn’t really their own. It’s more of a half-hearted attempt to invoke their legendary humor in place of any real original comedy. Their versatility is substituted for spectacle and relevant cultural references are used as a platform for silly accents and ostentatious behavior rather than witty writing.
Rather than serving up a variety of content, the series shows off as many famous faces as possible while also shamelessly plugging a slough of commercial products. This is evident in the first few minutes of the show –– in a digital short that mentions not one, but three different products using star and popular “SNL” guest Tom Hanks. Shortly after, Steve Martin, who will be a guest on the show in the following episode, shows up in the opening monologue just to show his face.
Even some of Rudolph and Short’s material is reused in the premiere. Short revives his well-known portrayal of the fictional character Jiminy Glick, a portly Hollywood reporter with an even larger personality. In an interview with Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Glick bombards the irascible David with so many ridiculous questions that even David can’t hold it together –– leading to a few unrehearsed moments between the two that liven up the drawn-out sketch. These rare moments of pure, spontaneous joy hint at the energy the series was meant to have but shied away from.
Meanwhile, Rudolph shines in her typical fashion –– utilizing hilarious accents and swiftly delivering absurd lines that bring her crazy characters to life. Entertaining as it is, just as on “SNL,” her characters are nothing more than pure, silly performances. Short’s humor delivers laughs in a similar fashion, and though the two rarely appear interacting with one another through most of the episode, the likeness of their individual styles lends itself to a sense of one-dimensionality throughout the various sketches.
“Letters from the Front,” though hardly original, yielded the episode’s most well-crafted moments of humor. The sketch depicts Rudolph as a poorly-equipped writer whose letters fail to articulate any sort of relevant or comforting information to her husband who’s at war. As Short grows increasingly frustrated, the concise correspondence from his wife, accompanied by perplexing letters from President Abraham Lincoln (played by Short) make for subtle, deliberate comedy.
Though Rudolph and Short appear in the opening and two of the sketches together, most of the sketches highlight their talent individually, making the choice to join the two all the more baffling. Even Rudolph jokes that they’re “showbiz friends,” pointing to the lack of screen time the two have previously shared. Their opening dialogue primarily joked about the show’s elusive description, but what really needs explaining is why it was slated in the first place.
While they’re an unexpected duo, you’d be hard pressed to find two more affable hosts with such a combined range of talent and experience. With some keener writing and better use of its hosts’ profuse talent, “Maya and Marty” may be able to hone in on a distinct energy and style –– one that boasts the confidence and skill of its seasoned hosts.