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The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour
by Billy Ingram
was a guest spot on the 'The Merv Griffin Show' that convinced CBS programming head Fred
Silverman that Sonny and Cher, two of the top touring acts of the sixties, could be the
network's next big thing. The on-stage bickering of the husband and wife team,
interspersed with bright musical arrangements, scored big with the home audience. (This
was an act that many say was largely inspired by Louis Prima and Keely Smith's
long-running Las Vegas act).
When The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted on CBS the first day of August in 1971 as a five-week summer replacement series, it was an immediate ratings hit. CBS was looking to regain the young audience they lost when they canceled the popular but controversial 'Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' two years earlier and this proved to be the show the network was looking for. And with good reason, the show's producers, (Allan Blye and Chris Bearde) and the writers were all Smothers Brothers' alumni. Tommy Smothers once commented, "I turned on the TV one night and there was our show. Only it starred Sonny and Cher!"
By the fall of 1973, in its Wednesday night at 8:00 time slot, the show became a consistent top-ten winner. The show featured regulars Terri Garr, Freeman King, Peter Cullen, Billy Van, Murray Langston (later the 'Unknown Comic'), Ted Zeigler, and Chastity Bono, the couple's toddler. Produced by Allan Blye and Chris Bearde, the series was famous for the outlandish outfits designed by Bob Mackie, (who did the costumes for Cher only, as he was under contract to Carol Burnett for her entire show) and the great musical numbers scored by Billy Barnes.
But all was not happy in Sonny and Cher land. By 1973, the tabloids were ripe with stories of their shouting matches, canceled gigs (including a last minute cancellation in Vegas, filled by Johnny Carson), and even reports of Cher sporting a black eye. With the show finishing 8th for the 73-74 season, Sonny Bono filed for divorce, and 58 hours later on February 22, 1974, the final episode of 'The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour' was taped. The show left the air May 29, 1974.
CBS signed Cher to star in her own variety series for early 1975, but Sonny signed a deal with ABC that would put him on the air in the fall of 1974 with the same producers, writing staff and all of the regular players and comedy bits from the 'Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour'. Sonny Bono said at the time "We'll have all the same players," then added, "We'll be missing one, actually". Network watchers geared up to see what would happen when the Cher show, scheduled for Sunday nights at 7:30 on CBS in February, went up against The Sonny Comedy Review which was scheduled for Sunday nights at 8:00 on ABC.
Each episode of 'The Sonny Comedy Review' featured a different female guest star to rib Sonny about how short and untalented he was. The audience didn't need to be reminded, the show was a dismal failure, partly because the Sonny show started at 8:00, half way into the running time of the other network shows that started at 7:30, and partly because it was obvious that Cher was the glue that held this act together. Many skits from the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour were carried over to the Bono show (including 'Sonny's Pizza' and 'The Convict' skits that featured Sonny as a convict being visited by his footloose wife, now played by Terri Garr). New bits included 'The Newstand', quick joke set-ups revolving around the news, and a mime routine with Sonny and the regulars as The French Foreign Legion (awful).
But writing on the new show was uneven at best, good guest stars were scarce and Cher even fought to keep Chasity from guesting on Sonny's show, relenting only in the series' last weeks after the lawyers got involved. 'The Sonny Comedy Review' was canceled with the December 29 episode, the head to head on-air battle of the former team only came about when Sonny guest-starred a few months later on the show that replaced his - 'The Six Million Dollar Man'.
The Cher show debuted on Sunday February 16, 1975, six weeks after Sonny's show was canceled, with guest-stars Elton John, Bette Midler and Flip Wilson. "I'm scared to death" Cher said at the time. "I'm so afraid of that first walk-out. Here I am- alone, naked to the world. What do you think world? Do you forgive me?" The series was produced by Laugh-In vet George Schlatter, and always started with Cher draped in the dark, singing low over a lone piano slowly beginning the opening song. Then, throwing off the covering as the music picks up tempo, Cher struts to the front of the stage, revealing her latest navel-exposing Bob Mackie outfit. A lot of press was generated by Cher's exposed belly-button, it had never been done on television before. Even 'Jeannie' obscured hers with scarves.
After a spectacular premiere, the show settled into less than spectacular ratings. 'Cher' was renewed for another season, but ratings were flat, so in January of 1976, Cher called it quits and announced that she and Sonny Bono were re-teaming for a brand new 'Sonny and Cher Show'. "I made the decision after I'd done four Cher shows last Fall. Nothing to do with the ratings." Cher said later, "Doing a show alone was more than I could handle. I had to be into everything, from helping on scripts to picking the music. And they had me doing a monologue. That's not like me, to be out there alone making with the jokes."
Febuary 1, 1976, just a month after the 'Cher' show went off the air, with Cher pregnant by her estranged new husband, rock star Greg Allman, 'The Sonny and Cher Show' debuted to spectacular ratings and high expectations. "When we go out there in front of our first audience tonight", Sonny Bono commented "we'll be telling them everything they already knew about Sonny and Cher, but were afraid to ask." The new series was produced by Nick Vanoff ('The Hollywood Palace') and featured regulars Ted Zeigler, Billy Van, Shields and Yarnell, Galaird Sartain (the Cher show's only regular), and of course daughter Chastity Bono was on hand to help them say goodnight. At least by now she could talk. CBS censors took a stronger look at this new show, now on an hour earlier than the original series. The network complained that Cher's clothes and image were not appropriate for a recent divorcee. "Suddenly I should start coming off like Julie Andrews" was Cher's answer, "Hell, Sonny didn't die."
Over the next few weeks, the show's ratings fell steadily, as did the quality of the writing. For legal reasons, it was decided that none of the characters or skits from the previous shows could be reprised for this new hour and the new regular features they came up with (like 'Sonnytone News') were awful. Still, based on the early strong ratings, the show was renewed for another season.
The 1976-77 season saw the
return of the 'LaVern' and 'Vamp' sketches that were popular on the first series, former
regular Terri Garr was brought on as a guest more often, and seven year old Chastity even
started appearing in some skits. The show re-ran the very popular musical films from the
original 'Comedy Hour' series (like the 'Big Yellow Taxi' cartoon) and CBS even ran the
same ads they were running for the original show, complete with six year old pictures, but
this proved to be too little too late. It didn't help the couple's image any that the
second season started with Cher now officially divorced from her new husband, the father
of her three month old baby. 'The Sonny and Cher Show' hovered near the bottom of the
ratings for most of the second year before limping off the air on August 29, 1977, the
last episode broadcast was actually a re-run of an original 'Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour'.
Sonny and Cher were canceled for good after hosting four different variety series between
them in just six years.
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