Demographers and stand-up impressionists predict that by 2000, the number of Americans who can appreciate a really good Ed Sullivan imitation will have shrunk to a precious few. This is, in itself, no loss. It is, in fact, the way of progress: Those born in 1971, when The Ed Sullivan Show went off the air (he died in 1974), are now 21 years old and presumably free of most nostalgia for the mouse puppet Topo Gigio or even for the Beatles, Paul McCartney’s old back-up group, who appeared on Ed’s stage 10 times beginning in 1964.
What has been lost — even though The Ed Sullivan Show now reappears on stations around the country in a boomlet of nostalgia-fueled syndication — is the existence of a guileless contemporary TV variety show to which all America can turn to sample culture great and small. What is worth documenting is the history of a something-for-everyone show to which everyone (having few alternatives) did turn for 23 years to sample who was performing what in the world. And to be wowed.
That being said, there are two really big problems with A Really Big Show: A Visual History of The Ed Sullivan Show, a stately, highly designed history of the Sullivan show with witty, highly considered text by television critic John Leonard. And the really biggest is that in tone and intent and style and execution, the book is the antithesis of everything Ed stood for.
While The Ed Sullivan Show was a browless phenomenon in which comedian Richard Pryor, tenor Richard Tucker, and primate Zippy the Monkey were all equal, A Really Big Show is heavy with knitted brow, bestowing high-art appreciation on such novelties as guys who juggle pianos with their feet. (”When we look into the mad eyes of a Furry Other, we only seem to see our mirrored selves,” muses Leonard about animal acts.) With its knowingly retro echo of classic CBS design and typography, the book looks like something out of the network’s coolly elegant corporate headquarters, Black Rock. With its knowingly referential literary and historical allusions (”by the end of the Sixties, there were twenty variety shows on television, and that wasn’t counting the bloody circus in Chicago ‘68 or the porn movies from Vietnam”), the book reads like something out of a cocktail party at William F. Buckley’s house. Or is it Nora Ephron’s?
And that’s the second really big problem with A Really Big Show: Who is this book written for, anyway? Is it for those old enough to remember a stand-up Woody Allen ”back,” says the caption, ”in the dewy dawn of the New Neuroticism”? Is it for precocious young people who never watched Ed but who love Late Night With David Letterman and appreciate the ironic splendor of a photo of Sonny Bono in a fur vest and Cher in a full nose? Is it for John Leonard’s friends? Leonard, always an erudite master of felicitous phrases, is unrelentingly charming. The less-than-erudite reader may feel alienated by charm. I did — and I watched Ed every Sunday. With my grandpa.
Still, there is one pretty big plus in A Really Big Show. And that’s the jolly dose of Sullivania Leonard supplies. The host was, as they say in crossword puzzles, a ”oner” — a street-smart gossip columnist for New York’s Daily News when that tabloid was the biggest paper in the country, a man who, Leonard recounts with relish, breakfasted ”invariably on artificially sweetened pears, iced tea, and a room-service lamb chop.” He once called Marlene Dietrich ”one of Hitler’s cuties.” He once introduced pop star José Feliciano like this: ”He’s blind — and he’s Puerto Rican!”
You gotta smile at these gussied-up, overanalyzed, postmodern pages about an old-fashioned lamb chop-loving emcee. You gotta give such a guy a wonderful hand, ladies and gentlemen. B-