Please, network TV, just let Maya Rudolph be great.
Earlier this year NBC announced that the network had given Maya Rudolph a variety show, and the Internet squealed with joy. For longtime fans of Saturday Night Live, this is a dream come true: Rudolph is a seasoned performer and incredibly gifted comedienne. She can sing, dance, act and is armed with a basket full of incredible impressions (most notable ones being: Donatella Versace, Oprah Winfrey, Whitney Houston, and Beyoncé). The Maya Rudolph Show premieres on NBC on May 19th, at 10 p.m., and will follow the classic variety show format with guest stars like Andy Samberg, Kristen Bell, Fred Armisen, Sean Hayes, and musical guests like Janelle Monáe and more.
Rudolph's Oprah was scarily accurate, her Whitney Houston was revered, and her Donatella Versace had you in stitches within seconds of the character appearing onscreen.
The variety show was a once important part of television that has seemingly gone extinct. Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Carol Burnett and most famously, Sonny and Cher had their own variety show, as it was a long-time staple of the industry. The last major variety show to air on a major network was in 2004, with Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey’s outing. (It wasn’t particularly memorable.) Lady Gaga did two holiday television specials in 2011 and 2013, and last year Kelly Clarkson hosted a Christmas special that featured some skits in addition to musical performances.
Today, the variety show has been replaced by talent competition shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice, shows that entertain in a similar way and that audiences have welcomed wholeheartedly (American Idol has been renewed for its 15th season and The Voice remains NBC’s #1 show). The return of the variety show is interesting considering the current state of network television—if it proves to be a success, what effect will it have on the ongoing argument to diversify late night?
In recent months we've seen a major shift in how networks are attempting to change up the television landscape in light of Netflix and on-line streaming. Networks are ordering fewer episodes of new series, bringing back older shows for small event-series (24: Live Another Day premiered to great numbers for FOX), and trying to put a lot of familiar faces back in that little box (Robin Williams, Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes all returned to television this year, and all of their shows were cancelled due to low ratings). NBC seems to be taking the most risks, currently airing its four-episode mini-series adaptation of Rosemary's Baby (a ratings disaster and the reviews aren’t any better). During the holidays we all endured NBC's The Sound of Music Live, which was panned by critics but was a massive hit in the ratings department (accounting for DVR, it was watched by 22 million people). This kind of programming is a gamble, of course, but like with The Sound of Music Live, they can sometimes pay off and start a trend. The only thing networks seem to not be willing to gamble with is late night.
The unspoken rule of late night is that in order for a new host to step up, the older white guy must retire or get fired. For example, Jimmy Fallon took over for Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show when Leno announced his second retirement, and Seth Meyers took over Late Night for Jimmy Fallon. The problem with this is that while Seth Meyers is adored and a fine late-night host, there seems to be little out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to diversity in hosts. It seems virtually impossible for anyone who isn't a straight white male to host their own late-night talk show on a major network. While Maya and NBC may not be actively campaigning for her to get her own late-night show, if The Maya Rudolph Show works, this may be the exact kind of permanent diversity late-night and primetime needs. Giving Maya Rudolph her own late-night show or having The Maya Rudolph Show become a weekly or monthly event would help shake up the tired network structure, a shake up not just with gender and race, but also in variety—literally.
Maya Rudolph spent seven years on Saturday Night Live making a name for herself with her incredible impressions. Her Oprah was scarily accurate, her Whitney Houston was revered, and her Donatella Versace had you in stitches within seconds of the character appearing onscreen. With those characters and her success post-Saturday Night Live (Bridesmaids and the unfortunately cancelled but tenderly missed Up All Night), her wide range of talent has become even more prominent and accessible. In an interview with New York Magazine, she said that stand-up was never her thing and that if she ever got a permanent late-night show she would “sing and dance the entire time" because she’s "such a ham.” A ham. That only makes us want this more. We don’t need another stand-up comedian to host a late-night talk show. We especially don’t need another white male stand-up comedian. What we do need is more diversity in the greatest sense of the word and Maya is as wonderfully diverse as it gets and could be the one to change the face of late night.
Jordan Appugliesi is a writer based in Toronto. He tweets here.