Watching TV: Maya and Marty Bring the Variety Show Roaring Back

When I saw the promos for Maya and Marty on NBC, I was skeptical. Maya Rudolph and Martin Short are good actors, especially in the field of comedy.  But what kind of show was this going to be?  The show has a strong pedigree: it’s produced by Lorne Michaels and thus has strong connections to SNL and a string of late night shows and films with a virtual repertoire company of comic actors. The guest stars have included big names: Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Miley Cyrus, Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Savion Glover, Larry David, Jimmy Fallon, Drake, and Kate McKinnen.  The supporting cast includes SNL alumni with a string of writing and acting credentials: Mikey Day and Kenan Thompson.

I watched the first show with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised. The skits were funny, the satire was clever and I also discovered that Miley Cyrus can sing (!).  I looked forward to the second show. It was hilarious. In the course of the two shows Maya Rudolph sent up Oprah Winfrey, Melania Trump, and UK/New York fashionista Anna Wintour.  Martin Short revived Jiminy Glick and portrayed Karl Lagerfeld. Kenan Thompson did a perfect Steve Harvey hosting Little Big Shots, interviewing Short and Jimmy Fallon playing annoying, out-of-control twins with no particular talent.  The musical numbers were entertaining and good natured without overwhelming the rest of the show. The makeup artistry was excellent, transforming the actors into easily recognizable imitations of well known celebrities.

At this point I should acknowledge that the critical reviews of the show have been uniformly negative. The current crop of TV reviewers has dismissed this show as anachronistic and bland. This is your grandparents’ TV variety show.  However, it’s not the Ed Sullivan style of variety show that evolved from Vaudeville and burlesque – a collection “acts,” whose appeal was, indeed, their variety: comics, impressionists, ventriloquists, circus acts, singers, dancers, and the occasional big film or popular music star.

Maya and Marty actually harkens back to The Carol Burnett Show: a talented cast of regulars augmented by guest stars taking obvious pleasure in performing absurdist comedy skits and musical numbers. Like Carol Burnett, Maya and Marty features a talented ensemble, clever satire, cheery musical numbers, and, especially, skits we look forward to seeing because they are unpredictable and downright funny.

The problem I find with the bad reviews is that Maya and Marty is no less vacuous and boring than the cookie cutter late night shows where a host conducts behind-a-desk interviews with actors promoting their latest films, musicians flogging their latest albums, writers (including celebrity “authors”) selling their books, and politicians promoting their latest selves. These shows are, somehow, highly popular and seem to go on forever.

I have to admit that I never watch the late night talk shows. But I did watch two episodes of Maya and Marty and I found them pleasant and charming. When I wasn’t laughing my ass off.

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