During her years on “Saturday Night Live,” Maya Rudolph spoofed all kinds of VIPs — Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, Donatella Versace.
Now Rudolph has another famous woman in her sights: She would like to take a crack at Cher’s old job.
The 41-year-old comic and singer will get her chance at 10 p.m. Monday when NBC unveils a special called “The Maya Rudolph Show.” It’s the latest attempt to revive the variety format that ruled television screens throughout the 1960s and ‘70s — e.g., “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Donny and Marie” — but has become scarcer than a gaudy Bob Mackie gown slit up to there.
“I wanted to continue doing what I love the most, which is sketch comedy mixed with music,” Rudolph said last week at the NBC offices in Universal City. “Or as my stepmother calls it, ‘Being a singing comedian.’ That’s her catch-all name for it, which I like.”
Growing up, “I watched every variety show,” she added. “That was a part of the culture.… You say ‘Sonny & Cher,’ the first image that pops in your mind is some incredible Bob Mackie outfit she is wearing, or a headdress.”
Rudolph — a talented singer who’s the daughter of the late 1970s hit maker Minnie Riperton (“Lovin’ You”) and songwriter-producer Richard Rudolph — hasn’t donned the headdress yet. But that may come.
Monday night’s special, taped in mid-April on the Universal lot, finds Rudolph imagining a “Frozen” sequel with guest Sean Hayes, goofing on robotic GPS voices and super-rich Angelenos with former “SNL” colleagues Fred Armisen and Andy Samberg, and hosting a spirited musical performance from R&B star Janelle Monae.
NBC hopes to whet viewers’ appetite for a format that has virtually disappeared, at least from prime time. These days, late-night talk shows and “SNL” carry the banner for variety, with their mix of monologues, sketches and musical numbers. But the skills needed for the genre play directly into Rudolph’s strengths as a performer.
“That’s always been her dream,” said Lorne Michaels, who discovered and cast Rudolph for “SNL” in 2000. As the executive producer of both “SNL” and the special, Michaels called his star built for the variety format.
Rudolph is too big to contain in a half-hour sitcom, he said.
“The audience loves her. She’s just an old-school entertainer in the way that Jimmy Fallon is,” Michaels said, referring to the “Tonight Show” host and ex-"SNL” cast member. “They sing, they dance, they do comedy and they love entertaining. They love being in front of an audience.”
Whether audiences are ready for a variety reboot, however, is another matter. One expert doubts NBC’s gamble can pay off.
“Variety shows need audiences that are willing to sit through program segments that don’t appeal to them,” said Jeffrey McCall, media studies professor at DePauw University in Indiana. “It was easier to make that happen in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when there were far fewer viewing options.
“Television audiences today are highly segmented, and the mass-appeal principle of programming is largely gone,” McCall added. Attempts to revive the format have bombed in recent years, with Rosie O’Donnell’s 2008 critically drubbed flop “Rosie Live” on NBC a prime example.
But NBC is hoping to find mass appeal with special events, which executives have labeled “eventizing.” The thinking is that if NBC could turn an old chestnut such as “The Sound of Music” into a hit (the December live telecast drew nearly 22 million total viewers, according to Nielsen, once DVR numbers were factored in), then viewers might be amenable to other entertainment formats thought to have been obsolete.
“We’re obsessed with trying to eventize everything,” NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt said as the network revealed its fall schedule in New York last week. Indeed, NBC has heavily promoted “Maya Rudolph” and is putting the show in a prime spot right after its hit singing contest “The Voice.” Rudolph also turned up last weekend on the 39th-season finale of “SNL,” with Samberg as host.
“Maya Rudolph” grew out of a long-standing discussion between Greenblatt and Michaels over whether and how variety could work again in prime time.
For Michaels, the longtime creator and executive producer behind “SNL,” the subject is near to his heart. A native Canadian, he had started his career in his late 20s by moving to Los Angeles to write for “Laugh-In” and other variety shows.
“I can remember in the early ‘70s, walking down the hall in Burbank and you’d see the studio” signs for variety shows, Michaels said. “One was Flip Wilson, one was ‘The Tonight Show,’ one was Dean Martin, one was Jerry Lewis. Dinah Shore was somewhere in there too.”
But finding the right talent for a modern retooling was crucial.
Rudolph had left “SNL” in 2007 and moved to Los Angeles, where she lives with director Paul Thomas Anderson and their four children. She worked briefly as a supporting actor on NBC’s since-canceled comedy “Up All Night,” which Michaels produced, but found that it lacked the sizzle of a live weekly TV show.
“I had missed the excitement-level element of having to get ready in 30 seconds and [wearing] six different wigs in one night and waiting for the audience response,” Rudolph said.
She told Michaels and other friends she’d like to get back to doing something closer to “SNL.”
“I didn’t even necessarily use the term ‘variety show’ because I felt people thought I was going to do something with bell-bottoms and glittery curtains and large exposed light bulbs,” Rudolph said. But if anyone could bring variety into the present, Rudolph felt, it was Michaels.
“He kept using this term, ‘shiny black floor,’” she said. “‘There will be a shiny black floor [onstage].’ And I was like, ‘OK, I get it.’ I know that we are speaking the same language.”
Michaels said that if the ratings take off, NBC has left the door open for more — possibly even a weekly show. Variety shows were weekly for 40 years, he said, and they could be again.
Rudolph just hopes that viewers watching her show will get the same sense of family they used to get on the old-school variety shows.
“When I think of ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ I think of Carol, but I also think of the cast with Carol. It’s Vicki [Lawrence] and Tim Conway and Harvey Korman,” she said. “That group is such an essential part of why I love that show so much — because of their interactions and how you saw them cracking each other up.”