Maya Rudolph's Variety Bid

The former “SNL” star’s “Maya Rudolph Show” vies to revive the variety show genre.

By Jere Hester
|  Friday, May 16, 2014  |  Updated 4:46 PM EDT
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"The Maya Rudolph Show": (l-r) Sean Hayes, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Bell

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During the October ceremony saluting Carol Burnett as the latest winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, former "Saturday Night Live" player Maya Rudolph serenaded the guest of honor with "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together." But instead of delivering a faithful rendering of Burnett's closing theme song, Rudolph filled the tune with nonsense lyrics ("turkey bacon, lederhosen, Captain Stubing").

The gag earned a big laugh from Burnett, whom Rudolph clearly adores. The performance also offered a reminder of the musical-comedy talent the versatile Rudolph displayed during her eight-year "SNL" run (remember "Santa's My Boyfriend?”).

Now Rudolph will be put to a new test beginning Monday as she returns to NBC to launch an old-school variety show special – a genre virtually dead since Burnett's final show-ending ear-tug 36 years ago.

Before "SNL" came along in 1975, CBS’ long-running "The Carol Burnett Show" stood as the standard in TV sketch comedy. Lorne Michaels' "SNL" quickly established itself as the network spot for counterculture humor and top musical guests, which included Paul Simon, Patti Smith and Jimmy Cliff in the first season alone. "SNL" offered a clear-cut alternative to Burnett's gentler, family friendly prime time humor and music mix, which harkened more to a Broadway sensibility than a rock and roll ethos.

Rudolph, at 41, is just about old enough to remember the end of "The Carol Burnett Show" and the early years of "SNL." She clearly absorbed the influence of both shows, as did her "SNL" contemporaries Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who also honored Burnett last year. “I love you in a way that’s just shy of creepy,” Fey told Burnett.

Rudolph hasn’t yet enjoyed the post-“SNL” success of Fey or Poehler, and she wasn’t a breakout player during her stint on the show. Still, she proved a strong all-around performer, and comic chameleon whose imitations ranged from Beyonce to Oprah Winfrey to Maya Angelou. Those strengths will serve her well on “The Maya Rudolph Show” – as will her apparent variety show reverence, even (or especially) when it’s cloaked in comedy as with her funny song-mangling at the Burnett event.

Like Burnett, Rudolph also is a generous performer who thrives in ensemble comedy. Her guests for Monday’s special, produced by Michaels, include fellow former “SNL” cast members Fred Armisen, Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg.

As Rudolph taps the Burnett legacy for a new phase of her post-“SNL” career, check out a promo clip below:   

Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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