Variety Shows: Plenty of Nothing

  • Share
  • Read Later

In the quick-shift, sudden-death world of television, only two things are constant: commercials and Ed Sullivan.

While the rest of the industry cele brates a three-year run as something akin to a three-minute mile, Sullivan is hosting his 20th season on the longest-running show in the history of TV.

Governments have fallen, wars have been won and lost, generations have passed into manhood, but the Mount Rushmore of TV endures. Each season the reappearance of his granite visage on Sunday evenings inevitably provokes the same old question: What exactly is Ed Sullivan's talent?

He doesn't sing. He doesn't dance.

He doesn't tell jokes — at least not intentionally. His malapropisms ("I would like to prevent a new singer"), his carny-barker pleas for applause ("Let's hear it for the Lord's Prayer!"), and his pen chant for forgetting names (Singer Polly Bergen is invariably introduced as Bar bara Britton) are part of TV lore. His wincesome looks and quirky mannerisms—such as hunching his shoulders and reeling around like Quasimodo doing the lindy—still bring serious letters from shut-ins commending his courage for appearing despite such an obviously bad case of Bell's palsy. Jabbing and pointing his finger like a traffic cop, he once brought on a hypnotist with the familiar "Here he is!" and poked the poor fellow in the eye.

"Get Lost." If for no other reason, Sullivan seems to have endured simply because he is such a fertile subject for mimicry. Comics who have played the show liken him to "a greeter at Forest Lawn cemetery," crack that "he is one of the few men who can light up a room—just by leaving it." Perhaps the most telling quip about Sullivan's secret of screen longevity came from Fred Allen: "He will last as long as someone else has talent." To Sullivan, there is no mystery. "I am," he says matter-of-factly, "the best damned showman on television."

His talent, he explains, is his ability to spot talent. More precisely, as the single most influential starmaker in TV, he shrewdly uses his power to gather, pay for, juggle, condense, cut or otherwise shape the talent to the needs of his show. He takes no guff from stars, advertisers or agents. When Beatles Manager Brian Epstein told him, "I would like to know the exact wording of your introduction," Sullivan coolly replied, "I would like you to get lost." The one influence that guides his taste is "public opinion, which is the voice of God."

Deadly Purse. The voice—as revealed to Sullivan—speaks on Sunday afternoons, when an audience is invited to watch the dress rehearsal. Pacing the stage like a disgruntled midwife, Sullivan keeps his baleful blue eyes on the hall. What the audience likes he likes, and performers have come to recognize a certain pursing of his lips as the kiss of death. After the run-through, he huddles with his son-in-law, Producer Bob Precht, and jiggers the sequence of acts, deletes some and pares others from 10 minutes to 90 seconds.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3