In April, 2004, I was sitting around, flipping the channels on the ol’ cable box, when I bumped into a program starring Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. I stuck around for a while, just to see what Jessica would be wearing (or not wearing, as the case may be). Pretty quickly, I realized it was not their grossly-successful MTV reality series, The Newlyweds, but rather an ABC special called The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour.
A few minutes later, I was puzzled. And amused. And feeling strangely like I was in my PJs, in my bedroom, with my brother, sitting before a 14 in. portable TV, circa 1976 (see above). Comedy vignettes were intercut with extended musical numbers. A low-rent animated version of Nick and Jessica took us in and out of commercial breaks. The canned laughter was too loud, too happy and too fast.
In short, more than a parody of the long-lost variety shows of the 70s (Sonny & Cher, Donny & Marie, Tony Orlando & Dawn, et al)—it was the Real Deal. In a good way. This goofy couple was a perfect fit for this brand of disposable entertainment that benefited from talent that could look attractive while singing, dancing, cracking jokes and being self-deprecating.
So while I sat there, feeling surprisingly warm and fuzzy, I think, hey, who did they make this show for?! Nick and Jessica’s target audience was 15 year old girls, aka teenagers born 15 years after The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was cancelled. Shit, it probably didn’t even have any relevance to the hosts. (In all fairness, Nick Lachey was born in 1974—news to me—but still…)
And as I pondered all of this, Nick and Jessica decided to mish-mash the 70s with the 80s and include sketches with Mr. T and KITT (from Knight Rider). And then, with this faux commercial (which takes a stab at Nick’s failing solo career), they took it to a whole new level of weird …
Astute viewers will recognize the silent guy as H. Jon Benjamin, famous as the voice of Benjamin Katz (Dr. Katz, top), Coach McGuirk (Home Movies), Sterling Archer (Archer, bottom), and Bob Belcher (Bob’s Burgers). Now my internal monologue included, “Wait…What?…Jon Benjamin? But he’s not even talking? What’s the point!?” (Honestly, casting Jon Benjamin in a non-speaking role is as clever as casting mime Marcel Marceau in a speaking role.)
By this point, I was bought and sold. I was firmly convinced that talented forces were behind this: their heart was in the right place; it looked and felt like something I embraced from my youth; and had contributions from one of my favorite comedians of the last decade.
Before the Hour was over, Kenny Rogers came out for a duet; a musical medley used excerpts from A Chorus Line and Godspell; and Johnny Bench joined Nick and Jessica for a skit that was both an uncanny impersonation of sports celebrity appearances from the 70s and a broadly funny gag in its own terms. Check it out–and pay attention to Johnny’s entrance: there’s a massive contrast between the enthusiastic canned applause and an audience full of confused teenagers lethargically clapping…
As far as paying tribute to the TV shows of a bygone era, the only things The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour was missing were the long dissolves-over-zoom shots that dominated ballads 30 years ago and a surprise appearance from Ray Jay Johnson, Jr.
They wrapped up the show on an obvious-but-well-earned note: Nick and Jessica sang Sonny & Cher’s signature song, “I Got You, Babe.” And even though it’s clear that Nick and Jessica are no Sonny & Cher, the ironies/similarities abound: The husband can’t sing as well as the wife (although Sonny wrote “I Got You, Babe” around his vocal limitations, not Nick’s); they genuinely enjoy performing together; and this marriage also has a shelf life. In fact, Nick and Jessica took the Sonny & Cher tribute so far, they were divorce a mere two years after this special aired.
So do I recommend you get The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour from Netflix? Aw, Hell. Not really. I enjoyed it because I had no idea what was coming—a fact I’ve spoiled in this post (sorry). If you want to take that trip down Memory Lane, you can get genuine Sonny & Cher episodes on DVD just as easily. But I’ll give the kids–and the forces behind them–credit for throwing my generation a bone. It was nice to know that for one hour, it was the Youth of Middle America that was scratching their heads, saying, “What the fuck is this?!”