Two years after Maya Rudolph stuck an exploratory toe into the rarely tested waters of prime-time variety with NBC's "The Maya Rudolph Show," she returned Monday night to test them again. This time she was paired with Martin Short, as "Maya & Marty." That their show followed "America's Got Talent" – a variety (even a vaudeville) show itself, though disguised as a contest – was just good programming.
Rudolph's last attempt, styled as a special, has faded from memory. Effort was clearly expended to make sure the second landing stuck, and the addition of Short – another talented musical comedian with an eccentric streak – was all to the good. There were some dull and awkward spots during the premiere, which is the eternal price of variety, but I laughed through much of it, and through some of it I laughed a lot. Really a lot.
Variety is an itch that, between the two Rudolph shows and last year's short-lived "Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris," the network has continued fitfully to scratch. NBCentertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, who brought live musicals back to television with the 2013 "Sound of Music," was born in 1960 and around and conscious for the last flowering of network variety. "Maya & Marty" executive producer Lorne Michaels is the person who rescued the form, importing it into weekend late night in the shape of "Saturday Night Live," where it has survived and often flourished over four decades.
FOR THE RECORD
June 1, 2:09 p.m.: An earlier version of this post gave an incorrect title for a previous NBC variety show. The correct title is "Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris."
Not surprisingly, with its mix of filmed and live sketches and musical numbers at the midpoint (Miley Cyrus) and finish (Savion Glover and the cast of "Shuffle Along"), "Maya & Marty" read very much as a kind of spin-off of "SNL." (As there, the sketches could go on too long.) The headliners, both former cast members, were accompanied by current "SNL" cast member Kenan Thompson and current staff writer Mikey Day (also head writer here); there were guest shots from fellow former and current cast members Jimmy Fallon, Kate McKinnon and Hall of Fame "SNL" hosts Tom Hanks and Steve Martin. (Martin, onstage only to say "I am currently traveling in Europe and cannot attend," will return next week with Tina Fey.)
The night began well, with a cold-open filmed piece featuring Rudolph and Hanks, in a typical Tom Hanks movie role, as an astronaut emotionally taking leave of his wife, partly to go into space but mostly in order to hang out with his friend (Short). It somewhat softened the slightly painful onstage opening duologue that followed, in which Rudolph characterized her "show-biz friends" relationship to Short: "You're like a Hollywood legend who wins a special Oscar late in life and I'm the beautiful woman who guides you offstage."
There were sketches; most had their moments. Fallon joined Short as children in the aforementioned "Little Big Shots" segment, with Thompson as Steve Harvey; Rudolph played Melania Trump in an infomercial for edible diamonds, with McKinnon as Heidi Cruz. Cyrus joined Short, Rudolph and Thompson for a "Goodnight Moon" piece. Cyrus, in Marlene Dietrich drag, sang Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man," and was joined in Leiber and Stoller's "I'm a Woman" by Rudolph, who shifted a lyric in a shout-out to the chairman: "I can stretch a Greenblatt dollar from here to kingdom come."
The best segment brought Short's obese celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick back from the foggy mists of time, with Larry David, who had his own brief run at "SNL," as his guest. Glick, a creature of fawning slights and backhanded compliments whose voice runs from bass to treble like a glissando on an out of tune piano, taps straight into what is most brilliant and weird about Short.
"I wasn't going to insult you," he tells David. "All I was going to say to you is that there's a blandness to you that seems to be your trademark, and isn't that wonderful?" (And later, speaking of David's "Rage," asked, "Is it because, and please let me phrase this correctly, you're a Jew?") David could not keep a straight face; and I thought happily of Harvey Korman, probably not trying very hard to keep from breaking up at Tim Conway on "The Carol Burnett Show."
If I am inclined to be kind, it might be that I expect less than some of a summertime variety show; a pleasant hour with performers I like, if not a guarantee of greatness, seems somehow good enough. It's also that such things are invariably hit and miss. As a live show mounted weekly, "Saturday Night Live" carried the possibility for failure in its bones; it was part of the compact with its audience. But there was a will for it to succeed that outweighed its inevitable misfires.
No such will may exist in a time in which one's need for any particular sort of entertainment is being served somewhere; you can go find what you think is funny anytime. Indeed, we program our own variety nowadays, clicking from clip to clip to YouTube clip. This can make a backward-looking enterprise like "Maya & Marty" seem like a kind of starry vanity project – which has been the case before. But it is not so much the case here. I'm happy there'll be a next week this time out.
'Maya & Marty'
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday