I think the Variety Show format is something that seriously needs to be brought back to the forefront in our current television world. We have resourceful performers like Neil Patrick Harris and Justin Timberlake, not to mention the comedic duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who have a wonderful myriad of skills that would translate really well into an hour of songs, sketches, and hanging out with celebrity friends. So when I heard that Maya Rudolph was doing a one-off variety show in May on NBC, I couldn’t help but be a little bit excited. Maya had always been exceptionally hilarious on Saturday Night Live, and she definitely has a wonderful skill set to showcase. She sings, she dances, she does silly voices, and it seems like if she really put her all into it, she could produce a funny, entertaining hour of television.
But dear God. What WAS that last night?
It seems that in this instance of The Maya Rudolph Show, Maya and her group of writers/artists/collaborators concluded that, apparently, you don’t need things like “wit” or “humor” or even “entertainment value” to produce a comedic variety hour. No, it seems that forgettable songs, sketches that make SNL look like Masterpiece Theater, and Sean Hayes (really, I don’t get why he was there at all) are what this team thought would be the best hook to get America interested in more of The Maya Rudolph Show. You’re going to have to do a lot better than that.
And let’s be clear, I really think everyone on this show is talented, including Maya. She had Celebrity Friend Help in the form of her “sidekicks” for the evening, Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg, and (again, I don’t see the through-line for this to make sense) Sean Hayes, who are all very funny gentlemen in their own right. Plus we got appearances from Kristen Bell an Craig Robinson (the latter of whom was severely underused), so the talent-meter was pretty damn high for this evening.
But these sketches, guys. This isn’t even on the level of “Cut from the Dress Rehearsal of SNL” sketches. Fred Armisen and Maya as two parents who talk like GPS machines? See if you can guess any of the jokes before they make them like I did. Or the “Celebrity Pyramid” sketch, where apparently, saying the word “juice” over and over is a punchline. And don’t get me started on whatever that “Frozen 2” song was supposed to be. If it was supposed to be endearing, then I can’t say it was at all, and if it was supposed to be funny, then I apparently don’t have a sense of humor. I’d argue the only comedic segment that was near successful was the Dance-Off near the end between Andy and Maya. It was at least extremely silly, and showing off the strengths of the two performers in a way that was different from the rest of the evening. I’ll also throw a bone to that silly sketch that involved getting a man wearing a letter “Y” costume from the audience to come up on stage. The song was a tad witty (a TAD, but barely), if only spoiled by some major pacing issues (this is an issue that SNL deals with a lot, as well).
The shining moment of the night for me was one that didn’t even involve Maya at all. It was the musical performance by Janelle Monae, a fantastically talented performer filled with energy, fun, and surprise. So, in short, an encapsulation of everything the rest of the evening wasn’t.
Is this proof that America isn’t ready for a Variety Show? I wouldn’t say that at all, even if it isn’t doing the medium any favors. Maybe this can be a lesson for Maya to reflect on this episode, see the things that weren’t working, and try again. Or maybe there’s another performer out there looking to take this gambit on. If you can give me a satisfying hour of singing, sketches, and fun, I’m all there. But maybe don’t invite Sean Hayes next time.