To commemorate the March 1980 premiere of Pink Lady and Jeff, we’re looking back at our My World of Flops column about the odd variety show.
My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
The famously disastrous 1980 variety show Pink Lady And Jeff (alternately known as Pink Lady) was a staggeringly odd proposition. It was an attempt to create a glossy, English-language television vehicle for a pair of Japanese pop stars (the titular Pink Lady) who, in an amusing turn of events, turned out to not actually speak the English language.
But Pink Lady And Jeff remains a strange watch today because variety shows were such an inherently bizarre and artificial concoction. As with conventional multi-camera sitcoms where unseen but overly enthusiastic audiences bray with laughter over every pratfall (like recent case file Mulaney), the variety show was once such a ubiquitous fixture of the entertainment world that audiences were socialized to see it as natural when it was anything but.
The vast majority of variety shows have been completely forgotten. Only the best and the worst have survived in the public imagination; the great and greatly mediocre have all but disappeared. The Smothers Brothers and Ed Sullivan shows (especially due to that Beatles appearance) have endured, but so have The Brady Bunch Hour and Pink Lady And Jeff, although host Jeff Altman may wish that the show was the beneficiary of culture-wide amnesia. Altman introduces episodes of a long-out-of-print Pink Lady And Jeff DVD set with biting self-deprecation and gallows humor, rightly viewing it as an abomination that ended up being his life and career for a very short time.
Pink Lady And Jeff represents an unpalatable combination of institutions that were on their way out, like variety shows, disco, and the stoned television empire of creators and puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft (who have the curious misfortune of being behind both The Brady Bunch Hour and Pink Lady And Jeff). The show also hosted modest but gifted performers on their way up, like Altman and Pink Lady And Jeff repertory player Jim Varney (soon to reinvent himself as camp-attending, Christmas-saving hillbilly icon Ernest P. Worrell), as well as pop-culture phenomenon that would never happen, like Pink Lady as American television stars.
According to pop-culture lore, NBC President Fred Silverman had seen a news report on Pink Lady’s extraordinary fame in Japan and decided that the key to turning around NBC’s then-dire fortunes lay in exploiting the duo’s popularity. But American television audiences had no idea who Pink Lady was, as the duo had scored only a single modest hit in the U.S. with “Kiss In The Dark.” So in the first episode, host Altman, who so thoroughly dominates the show that a more accurate title would be Jeff, tries to dazzle home audiences with a brief clip of Pink Lady waving at the crowd in an enormous, packed Japanese auditorium from the inside their cars.
Judging from this clip, Pink Lady group mates Mitsuyo Nemoto (Mie) and Keiko Masuda (Kei) are either extremely popular musicians, cult leaders, Imelda Marcos, or all three. Altman tells the audience, “I think you can see now why I wanted to do a show with them. These girls are really special.” But this clip only illustrates that Pink Lady is extremely popular in a different country. If there’s anything special about Pink Lady, it is not apparent from the clip.
There is, however, something special about Jeff Altman. If Pink Lady is on American television in violent defiance of all logic, Altman seems born to be on television. His persona has a natural effortlessness that’s enormously ingratiating. The performer he reminds me of most is Johnny Carson, another clean-cut, good-looking all-American boy with a background as a magician. Like Carson, Altman is a genius at getting the audience on his side. Just as Carson famously got bigger laughs from milking jokes that didn’t work than jokes that did, Altman has a casually conspiratorial persona that suggests that he knows just how terrible this material is, and looks back on the shows not unlike one might recall a fiery car accident he can’t quite believe he survived.
The material Pink Lady And Jeff saddles Altman with generally runs the gamut from agonizingly terrible to passable. When the show tries to honor its overwhelmed stars’ heritage, the results invariably veer into childish racism, like when Altman responds to his co-stars busting loose with a stiff disco number with, “I didn’t realize your ‘honorable ancestors’ had ‘boogie fever.’” As one of the women awkwardly flirts with him, he replies, “You just get turned on by my sexy round eyes.”
In Japan, Pink Lady’s shtick was that they were in such perfect harmony that they were all but indistinguishable, but the aggressively dumb, broad comedy favored by variety shows demands characters that are recognizable as broad archetypes the moment they open their mouths. So Pink Lady decided that these gals would be a study in contrasts: one would be chipper and upbeat, excited about the United States and innocently flirtatious with Altman, while the other would have the sullen sass of a belligerent sitcom teenager. The women didn’t seem terribly attached to their personas, as if they came up with them minutes before they popped onscreen for the first time. But that obviously wasn’t the case, since their inability to speak all but the most rudimentary English rendered ad-libs and improvisation impossible and mandated that they learn English-language songs phonetically, then lip-synch them during the show. Mie and Kei show no interest in, nor aptitude for, lowbrow comedy. Their entire philosophy as comic performers as well as musical entertainers could succinctly be summarized as “smile and nod.” But Mie and Kei weren’t just there to smile and nod: They were also there to be ogled. The show had them wear traditional Japanese costumes, then dramatically rip them off to reveal contemporary disco wear. Episodes ended with Pink Lady trying to lure Altman into a hot tub, often while outfitted in skimpy bikinis. For audiences who found that sexuality too subtle, the show brought on Hugh Hefner and a bevy of Playmates (one of the Kroffts was married to a former playmate, and not shy about calling in favors). Mie and Kei wore Playboy bunny costumes as a deeply bored Hefner croaked his way through a painful version of “My Kind Of Town” in front of a cheap cartoon backdrop of Chicago.
In theory, variety shows required a remarkable combination of talents. In actuality, variety shows only required their stars to do a few things passably: sing acceptably; read cue cards without stammering, getting lost, or cursing profusely; and maybe dance a little. The closest thing we have to variety shows now is Saturday Night Live, which looks awfully difficult from the outside—starring in a live 90-minute comedy show broadcast around the world—but it’s also a test everyone from Joe Montana to Nancy Kerrigan to Ralph Nader has passed. That’s not because they’re all secretly dynamite hoofers, have the voices of angels, or are unrecognized comic geniuses: They passed the test because Lorne Michaels and the gang made it as easy as possible for them.
The makers of Pink Lady And Jeff tried to make things as easy as possible for Pink Lady, limiting their involvement to some awful early banter with the stiff, punishingly arbitrary quality of awards-show drivel, a few sketches, and production numbers that played to their strength of looking good while dancing adequately. To compensate for the black hole at the center of the show, the Kroffts piled on the guest stars, so that much of Pink Lady And Jeff had almost nothing to do with the exceedingly limited skills of Pink Lady. Donny Osmond was a superstar of variety shows, yet he somehow seems as uncomfortable as Mie and Kie as they croon a disco medley together.
Pink Lady & Jeff brought out television legend Sid Caesar for half of its six episodes (the final one never aired); he had a recurring character as Pink Lady’s Japanese-gibberish-sporting dad, and it’s almost heartbreaking seeing how excited Caesar is to be doing shtick on television, even under the most depressing of circumstances. Also lending Pink Lady And Jeff a geriatric vibe were oldsters Bert Parks and Red Buttons, who similarly hammed it up, vaudeville-style. Jerry Lewis contributed a rare and bizarre appearance that dominated his episode and ended with a hilariously narcissistic credit specifying that Jerry Lewis’ special material was specially written by Jerry Lewis. Knowing Lewis, he probably tried to get a directing credit as well for the bit where he all but dry-humps a camera.
The elements of Pink Lady And Jeff that work invariably had nothing to do with Pink Lady. Although it’s embarrassing watching Teddy Pendergrass attempt broad comedy, his singing is always going to be entertaining. In its weirdly heroic attempt to pad out the episodes to hour length, the people behind Pink Lady And Jeff routinely featured musical clips that weren’t produced elsewhere. They also seemed to inhabit a different universe than the show. There’s more than one clip of Blondie in the band’s sexy, glamorous, trashy uptown prime, and it’s hard to reconcile the arctic cool of Debbie Harry with a show whose typical bit involved Pink Lady’s “bodyguard,” a massive gent in a sumo get-up, or an 18-year-old Byron Allen performing stand-up rooted exclusively in racist stereotypes.
As each episode of Pink Lady And Jeff lurches unsteadily toward its close, something strange happens when the show swans its way through the big closing production number. The show’s stilted awkwardness morphs into something weirdly, unexpectedly celebratory, though it’d be more honest to describe this feeling less as one of triumph than one of relief. That sense of relief extends to the audience. It’s not just the writers, producers, and stars who are understandably relieved to have somehow pulled off the Sisyphean feat of making another hour of English-language television built around a pair of women who do not speak English. Watching a team of hard-working, questionably talented professionals grind out an hour of Pink Lady-based English language television made me feel like I had accomplished something as well, and I am someone who has made enduring terrible entertainment the cornerstone of my life and career.
More than once on Pink Lady And Jeff, Altman performs a signature bit of physical comedy he describes as a “party tricks for laughs”: He slams his head against a stool, then plummets to the ground, only to pick himself up instantaneously, none the worse for wear. The fact that this weird bit figures prominently in the show’s first 10 minutes, then is repeated later on, speaks to the clammy desperation even apparent in the parts of the show the producers had every right to be confident about, like Altman’s skills as a comedian and television performer.
But this “party trick for laughs” also symbolizes the show and Altman’s relationship with it. He took one of the biggest, hardest professional falls in television history, the accidental focus of a misconceived disaster. But the eternally resilient Altman picked himself right up and soldiered on regardless, scoring more than 40 appearances on David Letterman’s shows, even if his career never quite reached the heights it probably should have. The same could not be said of Pink Lady, as far as the U.S. is concerned. The two may have been huge in Japan, but in the states, they are remembered, if at all, for a show that put the final nail in the coffin of variety shows and killed an English-language television career that never should have happened in the first place.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco