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The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour

Photofest

The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was a hot ticket on CBS.

Courtesy of Herbie J Pilato, design by Dan Holm
Big names like  Truman Capote and Muhammad Ali guest-starred with Sonny and Cher
Courtesy of Herbie J Pilato, design by Dan Holm

Producers Allan Blye and Chris Bearde (two from left) and costume designers Bob Mackie and Ret Turner made with the magic behind the Sonny and Cher scenes

Courtesy of Herbie J Pilato, design by Dan Holm

Although the logo changed throughout the run of the show, the comedy did not.

Courtesy of Herbie J Pilato, design by Dan Holm
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August 03, 2021
Online Originals

The Beat Still Goes On

Happy 50th Anniversary to The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour

Herbie J Pilato

When it comes to vintage comedy-variety shows headlined by pop-music stars, before Tony Orlando and Dawn, Donny and Marie and the Captain and Tennille, there was Sonny and Cher.

Breezy, brazen and groundbreaking, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour started it all.

Premiering August 1, 1971, as a six-week summer replacement series on CBS, it starred the married musical duo who rose to fame in the late '60s on the popularity of such hit songs as "I Got You Babe" and "The Beat Goes On."

Cher (née Cherilyn Sarkisian) was sylphlike and sardonic; Sonny (Salvatore Bono) was short and silly. She cracked wise; he was the butt of her jokes. She could belt out a tune; he had difficulty carrying one. But it didn't matter. When they got together, it was television magic.

Created and produced by innovative Brit Chris Bearde and Canadian Allan Blye, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour stayed on the air until March 6, 1974, when Sonny and Cher decided to divorce.

When they went their separate ways, it wasn't long before they were back with separate shows: The Sonny Comedy Revue (produced by Beard and Blye in the fall of 1974 on ABC) and Cher (produced by Laugh-In's George Schlatter from May 1975 to January 1976 on CBS).

Each of the new series, like the original, featured A-List guest stars (Glen Campbell, Twiggy, the Staple Singers on his show; Farrah Fawcett, Bette Midler, Elton John on hers). But the audience missed seeing Sonny and Cher together, and neither show lasted.

In the fall of 1976, the now-divorced duo tried to rekindle the creative spark of the original with the new Sonny and Cher Show on CBS. But like their solo ventures, it was short-lived.

The dynamic duo reunited, but the dynamic wasn't the same. They were back on their original network, but without Bearde and Blye behind the scenes. The revival was a noble try, slickly produced by Phil Hahn, Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth.

But the spark had fizzled.

It was charming to watch a married couple playfully bicker in the original. A divorced couple...not so much.

By the spring of 1977, the Sonny and Cher television saga was over — this time, for good.

But the first time around still resonates half a century later.

The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour originated with television programming whiz Fred Silverman, who was then in charge of the schedule at CBS. As he recalled in an archived interview with the Television Academy, it all began when Sonny and Cher appeared on The Merv Griffin Show to promote a nightclub act at the Americana Hotel in New York City.

"I really thought they lit the screen," Silverman said. "They were really cute."

Silverman was impressed enough to attend Sonny and Cher's live performance at the Americana. In addition to the music, they had developed a comedic banter. She was "constantly hitting him over the head," Silverman recalled. "He played the fool...it's kind of a take on the old Keely Smith and Louis Prima act. Not that different. But, on the basis of that, we gave them a summer show."

Perry Lafferty, another CBS network executive, suggested hiring Bearde and Blye, who were given creative free rein. The producing pair hit pay dirt with a winning mix of original material, animation and irresistible chemistry between the stars.

The result "was just a fabulous show," Silverman said. "The most visually stunning show I'd ever seen. These two kids came out and they did their monologue and so on. It was great. It was my favorite show on the whole network."

The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was scheduled at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday night, followed by The Six Wives of Henry VIII, a six-episode dramatization of the notorious Tudor monarch's marriages. It was "an unlikely combination," Silverman said, "Henry VIII and Sonny and Cher. But for two-and-a-half hours, [the two shows] really did well as a unit."

Well enough to have The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour picked up as a weekly series for late in the fall.

"We brought it back as soon as we could," said Silverman, who aired the show on Monday night. "It did very, very well," he continued. "Then we figured we were wasting it on Monday because it really had a lot of young-people appeal. So, we moved it to Wednesday at 8:00, where it was in the top ten."

For a while, Silverman recalled, "I was feeling my oats." Emboldened by the show's performance, he moved it to Friday night "as a weapon" against programming like ABC's juggernaut of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. But when that strategy failed, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was swiftly returned to Wednesday evenings, where it just as quickly found itself back in the top ten.

Three years later, the program, which taped at CBS Television City in Hollywood, was still a success, but according to Silverman, it had not yet hit its stride.

Unfortunately, the storied executive would never find out if he was correct because Sonny and Cher ended their marriage — which ended the show. To Silverman, the breakup was "a real heartbreaker on several levels. Number one, I hated to see them get divorced. But we lost a very, very big show."

By the time the new Sonny and Cher Show debuted on CBS, Silverman had moved on to run ABC's programming slate.

"In its heyday," Silverman said, the original Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was "a signature variety show...[No] show had ever been mounted like that before. It was just beautiful. It had animation in it, which I believe was a first. It was a lot of fun. The music was great. When you looked at the whole package, it was really a good show and a monumental hit.

"It did so much for the image of CBS to be able to put a cutting-edge variety show on the air. The Waltons and All In The Family [were] great, but a show like this was so smart. And I don't think we ever approached that again with another show."

Also crucial to the show were its costumes — and the two wardrobe legends who created them: Bob Mackie, who designed several spectacles starring Mitzi Gaynor and conceived countless looks for The Carol Burnett Show; and Ret Turner, whose credits included variety series and specials for such stars as Andy Williams, Ann-Margret and Dolly Parton, as well as numerous Emmy telecasts and other award shows.

In an interview for the documentary produced in conjunction with the 2004 DVD release of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Bearde, who died in 2017, credited the show's popularity to a perfect mix of star power, talent, guest stars, comedy and musical interludes.

"Allan [Blye] and I are both believers in that, [if] you get two people who are personalities or celebrities, put them on television and don't put a good format around them, they're probably gonna fall on their ass," Bearde said.

But such was not the case with The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, which had "all the bits and pieces that make a show successful," Bearde said.

That included popular recurring segments like "Sonny's Pizza," "Rag Dolls," "Vamp" and especially "Life with Laverne."

"Life with Laverne," introduced in the show's second season, was originally conceived with Cher as a hairstylist in a salon. Instead, the setting was changed to a laundromat in which she played "a yenta...someone who knew stuff...a Valley woman," Blye said on the 2004 DVD.

For one of the show's earliest longer sketches, she had played Edith Bunker in a musical spoof of All in the Family. Her performance was well-received, but she could not continue to portray Edith on a regular basis, even in a satirical mode, because that space was already occupied by Jean Stapleton, who starred as Edith on the hit CBS sitcom.

Cher's concise take on Edith then evolved into Laverne in the laundromat, with wardrobe designer Bob Mackie and an unlikely crew member helping to complete the package. "I went to Bob, and we picked out a costume," Cher said in her interview for the DVD release, "and the costume was a great help. Then we picked out what Lucille Ball's hair would look like if she hadn't had her roots done. I mean, we were specific."

Everything was in place, Cher said, except for one key element: "I couldn't get the voice."

Inspiration came just before the inaugural "Life with Laverne" sketch was to begin, when Cher noticed one of the grips on set chewing bubble gum. "Can I have some of that?" she asked. The grip complied with two pieces. She popped them into her mouth, and seconds later, Art Fisher, the show's director, yelled, "Action!"

Cher walked onto the laundromat set, and Laverne was born.

Although Cher set the tone for "Life with Laverne," she was quick to credit the contribution of series regular Teri Garr, who played Laverne's best friend Olivia in the sketches.

Garr, who went on to enjoy a long and successful career in television and movies, was the only female regular in the show's troupe of supporting players — along with Freeman King, Murray Langston (who later achieved fame as "The Unknown Comic" on The Gong Show), a pre-superstardom Steve Martin (who was also one of the show's writers), Gailard Sartain, Billy Van and the rubber-faced Ted Ziegler.

Garr was "amazing," Cher said on the 2004 DVD. "We were the only two girls. And the boys were nightmares," she mused. They were frequently "doing horrible things like putting frogs down your back — grown men who were boys, always giving her a hard time. And I was always having to protect her. And we just became friends. We had kind of the same sense of humor. We got along and we loved doing 'Laverne' together."

"Nobody suffered from doing The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," Bearde said. "Nobody."

From the moment the show's announcer opened each episode of the show, Blye said, Sonny and Cher became a "part of the structure...the material of the vernacular. They were a married couple who could fight and make up and move on with their lives and have careers and raise a child."

"And when they split," Blye continued, "it was a really depressing moment for a lot of people. It was hard to explain because there was a passion involved with that show. They were real people. It went beyond [the fictional characters of] Charlie's Angels or even All in the Family."

Viewers developed an affection for the characters on those classic '70s series, "even though they were made-up people," Blye said. But audiences connected to Sonny and Cher, a real married couple, more deeply.

As Blye put it, "Salvatore Bono and Cherilyn were part of the fabric of this country."

In an interview earlier this year, James Argiro, a music coordinator on the solo series Cher and, later, The Sonny and Cher Show, said, "The general vibe in the studio" between the two stars was "not all that great. You could feel it. Whatever came across on the tube was one thing. But in the reality of the studio, it wasn't good."

Dave Dawson, a unit manager on the original Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, shared a similar perspective in a recent interview. Of all the productions he worked on at CBS Television City — including The Carol Burnett Show, The Jim Nabors Show and the original pilot for All in the FamilyThe Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was the most challenging, he said, largely due to the relationship between its stars.

"They were always yelling at each other about something," Dawson said.

"But the minute the cameras rolled," he added, "they'd come on stage, and they were just darling. They were able to put their differences aside, which is a testament to their talent and professionalism."

In the television panorama of the 1970s, Sonny and Cher worked best together. In her DVD interview, Cher reflected on the shows that she and Sonny hosted together. "I loved them," she said. "I think they're funny. I think people like times that were simpler, and things that are historic always seem simpler.

"But our stuff was just funny and it took your mind off of everything and the family could watch and everybody got something out of it."

When The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour first aired, "people thought we were weird until they started to get used to it," she said. "Then they [thought], 'Oh, these guys are cool and sweet and clean-cut.' And 'Okay, she doesn't wear much, but that's all right. Somebody likes that in the family.'"

"There was something for everybody," Cher continued. "Plus, we had the top stars on it every week — and more than one." They included Bob Hope, George Burns, Barbara Eden, Muhammad Ali, Burt Reynolds, Betty White and many, many more.

Cher was also very clear about Sonny's contribution to their success, even if he didn't always have a handle on the script and the songs. She would frequently have to remind him which musical number they were to perform, sometimes just seconds before the cameras rolled. Prior to each song, according to Cher, Sonny would ask, repeatedly, "Now, what is it? What are we doing again?"

"And yet, then he was perfect," she added. "His process was saying, 'What is it, Cher?' I would be studying my script religiously. And then I would just run it down with him. And if he didn't know something, he would make it up, and those were the funniest pieces. When he would start making up stuff, I would be on the floor [laughing]."

After their television collaboration ended, Sonny and Cher reunited professionally only twice.

In 1979, they appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, singing a medley of the songs, "United We Stand" and "Without You." And in 1987, they performed their signature single, "I Got You Babe" on Late Night With David Letterman.

Sonny would make periodic TV guest appearances and then venture into the restaurant business and politics. In 1988, he became the mayor of Palm Springs, California, and six years later, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. In 1998, while serving in Congress, Sonny was killed in a skiing accident in South Lake Tahoe, California. He was 62.

Fittingly, the epitaph on his headstone reads: "THE BEAT GOES ON."

Speaking at Sonny's memorial, Cher offered a moving recollection of their personal and professional lives.

Describing the man she called "the most unforgettable character I've ever met," Cher, fighting tears, said, "Some people were under the misconception that Son was a short man, but he was heads and tails taller than anyone else. He could see above the tallest people. He had a vision of the future and just how he was going to build it. And his enthusiasm was so great that he swept everybody along with him. Not that we knew where he was going, but we just wanted to be there."

She continued, "Some people thought that Son wasn't very bright, but he was smart enough to take an introverted 16-year-old girl and a scrappy little Italian guy with a bad voice and turn them into the most successful and beloved couple of this generation. Some people thought Son wasn't to be taken seriously because he allowed himself to be the butt of the jokes on The Sonny and Cher Show, but what people don't realize is he created Sonny and Cher.

"He knew what was right for us; he just always knew the right thing. And he wanted to make people laugh so much. But he had the confidence to be the butt of the joke because he created the joke."

Cher expanded her already established and successful solo career as a musical artist and actress. She appeared in more than a dozen movies, including Silkwood, Mask and Mermaids, and she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in the 1987 comedic romance Moonstruck. More recently, she was one of the producers of The Cher Show, a Broadway musical about her early life and career, which premiered in December of 2018 and ended its run in August of 2019, after 296 regular performances.

But before all of that, there was The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on TV.

"Our lawyers and all that stuff — that changed," Cher said on the DVD. "But our work...if [Sonny] walked in right now, nothing would change. We were who we were. We are who we are to one another."

"There's the dynamic — and I don't even know what dynamic means in this case, but there was just this thing," she said. "We did some of our best work on that season where we weren't even together. But we always had the chemistry.

"But we were bigger than our marriage, truthfully. We were more than our marriage."


Herbie J Pilato, host of Then Again, a classic TV talk show streaming on Amazon Prime, is the author of several books about TV including Glamour, Gidgets and the Girl Next Door, in which he profiles Cher.

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