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“Bizarre”: Showtime’s 1980s variety show featured Super Dave stunts & bare-breasted babes
In 1980, the Showtime cable network began airing a groundbreaking off-center comedy variety show called “Bizarre,” which featured lots of unpardonable puns in comedic vignettes and blackout sketches lampooning various aspects of every day life.
The “uncensored” version of the show was also noted for its use of coarse language and the appearance of busty, bare-breasted babes, and for featuring Super Dave Osborne’s wacky daredevil stunts.
After Showtime had picked up the show from ABC, it was the first time a cable channel would have a successful run with a show that had originally failed on network TV.
The mostly-forgotten show — 141 episodes aired over six seasons during the early ’80s, from 1980 to 1986, making it one of cable TV’s most popular and longest-running comedy series ever — was actually produced in Toronto, and an edited or “censored” version aired on Canada’s CTV.
“Bizarre” featured host John Byner — taking over from the original one-and-done host, Richard Dawson — and an ensemble cast in a wide range of sketches were often offensive or at least what we’d now call “politically incorrect.”
Like it says on the DVD box set collecting the best episodes, “If politically incorrect humor, stupendous stunts and bodacious babes are what you’re looking for, it’s all here in The Best of BIZARRE!“
It should really come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the network TV terrain in the late 70s that every major network was not only looking for their own popular primetime variety show at the time — and there were literally dozens of them sprinkled throughout the TV Guide schedule, most of them actually as short-lived replacement series, usually airing during the summer — but they were also looking for their own edgy “Saturday Night Live”-type late night series, after that successful series launched on NBC (“SNL” premiered on October 11, 1975).
Who better to turn to, then, than the successful TV producers Allan Blye and Bob Einstein, who headed up their company, Blye/Einstein Productions.
Einstein was born into a very funny family. His mother was a singer and an actress, his father had his own comedy radio show, as “Nick Parkayakarkus,” the host of “Meet Me at Parky’s” (he died of a heart attack in 1957 while doing a Friar’s Club Roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), and many of you likely already know that Einstein is the older brother of comedian/actor/filmmaker Albert Brooks, whose real birth name was, yes, Albert Einstein.
In 1981, Bob Einstein appeared with his brother Albert in Albert Brooks’ film Modern Romance, which also featured performances by his mother and their other brother, Clifford. (Columbia Pictures)
In 1968, Tom Smothers — of the edgy comedy brother duo, the Smothers Brothers — spotted him on a local L.A. TV show, playing a character who claimed to be the man responsible for choosing who got the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, an apparently hilarious bit that earned him an invite from Smothers to join the writer’s room.
Einstein ditched his then-current career as a succesful advertising copywriter and began what turned out to be an even more successful career writing and producing TV shows, many of them primetime variety shows, and quite a few of them at the beginning featured Tom and Dick Smothers.
Backstage at “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”: Clockwise from left: Bob, Tom and Dick Smothers, singer Don Wyatt, and Billy Barty – 1969 (photo by Jasper Dailey).
These shows would include “The Summer Smothers Brothers Show” and a later show, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” the latter earning Einstein his first Emmy award, for the Best Variety series of 1977 (the show’s writing team also included TV legend Carl Reiner, comedian Steve Martin and Keith Moon’s favorite comedy writer, Murray Roman; check out this WFMU blog about him, “The Forgotten Murray Roman“).
Backstage at “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”: Show writer Murray Roman, Bob Einstein, and show writer/performer/musician Mason Williams – 1969 (photo by Jasper Dailey).
Einstein would occasionally appear on the Smothers’ show as a performer, too, creating the memorable character of Officer Judy, a motorcycle cop who loved to hand out speeding tickets (he even gave Liberace a ticket for playing too fast).
He would balance out the writing with occasional roles in movies, too, including Get to Know Your Rabbit (a 1972 feature starring Tom Smothers), and he made his debut as a writer/director with Another Nice Mess, which starred Rich Little.
After CBS yanked the Smothers Brothers off the air, Einstein continued to make guest appearances doing stand-up routines on lots of late night talk shows, appearing on “The Steve Allen Show,” “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,”
During the rest of the ’70s, Einstein wrote for a couple of short-lived Smothers-related spin-off series, “Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour” (1970) and “Tom Smothers’ Organic Prime Time Space Ride,” as well as numerous other TV specials and lots of variety shows, including “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” (1971-1974), “The Sonny Comedy Revue” (1974) “The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show” (1974) and he earned his second Emmy for writing on the “Van Dyke & Company” variety show (1976).
Backstage at “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”: Steve Martin, Bob Einstein, and show producer Allan Blye – 1968 (photo by Jasper Dailey).
Back to the Smothers Brothers’ “Comedy Hour,” again, it was on that show that Einstein would also meet his future writing/producing partner, Allan Blye, a relationship that ended up with their forming a company of their own, one that ultimately produced more than five hundred episodes of primetime TV.
Bob Einstein with partner Allan Blye on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, CA, across the street from a billboard promoting “Super Dave,” which was well into its third season on Showtime when this photo was taken in 1990 (Showtime)
In 1979, the Blye and Einstein writing producing team were signed to an exclusive term ABC-TV deal as writer/producers for two new shows, a sitcom called “Big Time Charlie,” and “Bizarre,” which was originally developed as a variety show that was to star British-American actor, comedian and TV game show host Richard Dawson.
Dawson was, at the time, hosting ABC’s “Family Feud” (he was the original host of the series, from 1976 to ’85).
With the proven Blye/Einstein writing & producing pedigree, and beloved Richard Dawson — who had been acting since the early 1960s, gaining his largest audience and fame with “Hogan’s Heroes” (1965-1971) before becoming a regular on shows like “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” (1971-’73), “Match Game ’73” (1973-’78) and then-current host of the hugely popular “Feud” — it was really something of a no-brainer that “Bizarre” would be a potential hit for ABC.
That’s not how it turned out, however.
Bob Einstein behind the camera during a taping of “Bizarre” (C. David Batalsky/Showtime)
The network taped the pilot episode at CBS Television City in Hollywood, in front of a happy studio audience, and most of ABC’s affiliate stations across the country aired the show’s debut in the late night time slot of 10:30pm on Tuesday, March 20, 1979.
If you watch this clip, archived on Fuzzy Memories, you can tell, at the top of the show, that it just wasn’t going to work with Dawson as the show’s host.
Shortly after joking about suddenly finding himself off the “Family Feud” set, Dawson starts off the new show by defining the word “bizarre” by quoting its definition from Webster’s dictionary — “Departing from ordinary usage, eccentric, extravagant, whimsical, odd, fantastic” — before he tells the audience that, in the next half-hour, he hopes they’ll see something “a little eccentric, a little strange, a little odd, a little weird,” before making a dumb joke about then-president Jimmy Carter’s oafish brother Billy.
The jokes obviously fell pretty flat, and even though “Bizarre” was reportedly critically acclaimed and drew a mostly positive audience reaction, execs at ABC felt that the material that Einstein and the writers had written for the variety show was ultimately going to be unsuitable for primetime network TV audiences.
We’re not sure why “Bizarre”‘s slapstick sketches, monologues, and television parodies — all featuring a rotating ensemble of supporting actors — turned out to be a little too much for American TV audiences at the time.
Perhaps ABC execs realized the show wasn’t going to avoid being offensive or “politically correct” (as it applies to humor, not politics, although the term probably wasn’t in common usage much in the late ’70s), as they knew there was going to be a recurring sketch for the show about the “Bigot Family” which was sure to offend a lot of their viewers.
Watching these clips we found on Youtube, it does seem that someone at the network must have thought the writing was a little too risque and decided to pull the plug, rather than ask the writers to go back to the drawing board and try again.
Perhaps there was also some discussion that Dawson wasn’t the right host for the sketches, or there was some concern about the guest stand-up comics who were going to be booked for the show?
We really don’t know about the production of the show, but what we do know is that, rather than just let the variety series die off naturally, Blye and Einstein ended up making a deal for “Bizarre” to air in two completely different markets.
One version of the show would air in Canada, on the CTV television network, which would be an edited version of the show, taped before a studio audience at the CFTO Glen-Warren Studios in suburban Toronto for first-run airing in Canada (GW was owned by Baton Broadcasting, who also owned CFTO).
A second, unedited version of the show, would air in the United States on the Showtime premium cable network.
Showtime had begun operation on July 1, 1976, and were the first cable network to challenge HBO’s dominance as a premium channel. As such, they were always trying to come up with edgy content that would attract new viewers.
Perhaps the Canada deal came about because the producers elected to replace Richard Dawson with comedian (also an impressionist) and actor John Byner, who was quite a hot property at the time.
Byner was well known to American audiences (and we presume to Canadian ones too) ever since the early 1960s, having his big break in ’63 when he appeared in the “talent-scout” segment of “The Gary Moore Show,” where he appeared with Lily Tomlin, Pete Barbutti, Ron Carey and Jackie Vernon.
That eight-week show led to thousands of one-night comedy club show appearances, which then led to multiple appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which, naturally and eventually, led to his hosting, in 1970, twenty-two episodes of a syndicated half-hour musical variety series called “Something Else,” which we told you about in this blog.
In 1972, Byner was then given his own short-lived TV series on CBS, “The John Byner Comedy Hour.” where the character of Super Dave Osborne, played by Bob Einstein, was first introduced.
Then, after guesting on Carol Burnett’s variety show, and a couple of episodes of The Odd Couple” — in one episode (“The New Car,” first airing on October 19, 1973, he plays an abrasive parking garage owner who has a hilarious encounter with Felix and Oscar), and more than thirty appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” Byner had a featured role as Detective Donahue on the late 70s’ TV series “Soap,” created by Susan Harris (we talked a bit about Harris and “Soap” in this blog).
John Byner had also appeared as Dr. Roland Caine on “The Practice,” Cotton Dunn on “Silk Stalkings,” and he’d had the lead role of Johnny McNamara on the forgotten show, “McNamara’s Band,” but he wasn’t quite sure what to make of “Bizarre,” not at first.
In an article archived on People magazine’s website (“Rude, Crude and Outrageous, John Byner’s Bizarre Behavior Makes Him Cable’s King of Comedy,” December 12, 1983), Byner seemed a bit defensive about the material he’d been performing for a few years, at that point, saying:
“There are a lot of grosser programs. On ‘Saturday Night Live’ I saw some people eat vomit. We wouldn’t do that. We’d snort vomit.”
“Bizarre” ended up feeling like the perfect fit for Byner, who was ready to get a little edgy in his comedy after playing it relatively safe in a lot of his previous shows, even his own TV shows and stand-up comedy routines.
It would end up being a big payday for him, as it turned out.
Not only was he given a piece of the show’s profits (a huge sum of money after the show went into syndication), but Byner was conveniently also able to shoot a season’s worth of shows, twenty-four episodes at a time, during a ten-week stretch each summer, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, at CTV’s Agincourt studios.
The short shooting schedule gave him the rest of the year to relax on the 150-acre Fiji island of Tovu, which Byner and his partner Jay Handelman purchased (in 1981). He also owned a 30-foot fiberglass cabin cruiser and a 17-foot, 800-pound submarine, which one assumes would be something nice to have to travel on between the islands.
“Bizarre” was shot live in front of a studio audience in Toronto, Canada, after just one day’s rehearsal (for comparison, the comedy sketch show “SCTV” usually filmed the skits without any rehearsal for the actors).
Memorably, Byner would also frequently break the “fourth wall,” interacting with members of the studio audience and/or co-producer Bob Einstein would also interrupt sketchs, calmly berating Byner, only to suffer a litany of insults for his trouble.
Byner appeared on the show in number of recurring character sketches, appearing as “Mr. P,” the world’s greatest and oldest bodyguard; “Mr. Godwrench,” faith healer to the cars; “Reverend T.V. Seewell,” who broadcast from the Enzlo Veal Animal Healing Pavilion (the location of which changed from bit to bit); a Yoga For Health instructor with fake stretchy legs who invariably closed his sketch to Devo’s “Whip It”; a perennially bottom-rated news team featuring a sportscaster who only favored black athletes; a drunken film reviewer (“Saul Rubinek” in some sketches) kept on a leash; a clueless weatherman (“Don Lake”) with an atrocious toupee; and the proprietor of a video store selling “rare tapes of McLean Stevenson getting a laugh.”
Long before Conan O’Brien thought he came up with the idea, the creators of “Bizarre” superimposed real lips over cardboard celebrity cutouts.
Bob Einstein with John Byner in an episode of “Bizarre,” coproduced by Einstein and Allan Blye (photo by C. David Batalsky/Showtime)
The iconoclastic comic — who is also known for his great impersonations — would end up spoofing Gandhi, the Godfather, Stevie Wonder, a Neanderthal football player and Donald Duck, to name just a few.
The Canadians had their own content regulations, and so they weren’t able to use profanity and show the naked breasts, but there were no such restrictions for the Showtime network, which may be one reason why “Bizarre” is one of the only variety shows to ever show nudity (we can’t really think of any others, can you?).
Some of the sketches were shot in two versions: the edited version would feature women seen from behind when it was clear they were exposing their breasts, and occassionally, when a woman was shown naked below the waist, the skit would come to an abrupt end.
The version that aired on CTV (and later in syndication) playfully had the nudity blurred, and the coarse language bleeped by the funny sound of a horn honking. Today, the Canadian network is a bit more lenient than it was in the 1980s.
The “adult” version was also shown regionally on ITV in the United Kingdom, usually airing after 11pm in the evening, and with some of the more extreme language bleeped out conventionally.
Besides Einstein, and show host John Byner, who was the only real series regular, the supporting cast included future “Saturday Night Live” breakout star Mike Myers (who appeared as Byner’s son Timmy Byner in a Season 1 episode); the late Billy Van (who most memorably produced the Canadian cult hit The Hilarious House of Frightenstein); Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Luba Goy (at that time primarily a Canadian radio troupe); Dave Thomas, Jayne Eastwood and Debra McGrath (all three of “SCTV” fame); diminutive actor Billy Barty; former MuchMusic/City personality Ziggy Lorenc; and Donnelly Rhodes, another Canadian mainstay who had a memorable run on “Soap.”
There were frequent cameo guest appearances by: Steve Allen; Dick Van Dyke; Eddie Murphy; Red Foxx (who appeared as a prirest in a sketch filmed in an L.A. cemetery, sending bad TV shows to their rightful resting places, surrounded by a platoon of “Let’s Make A Deal” contestants); Pat Morita (a.k.a. Arnold from TV’s “Happy Days” and known for his appearance in The Karate Kid), “Saturday Night Live”’s Victoria Jackson, ventriloquist Willie Tyler & Lester; stand-up legend Henny Youngman; Howie Mandel; and Murray Langston, a.k.a. the Unknown Comic of “The Gong Show.”
Speaking of “Happy Days,” Byner was originally cast as Mork from Ork for the series, but he found the role ridiculous, and walked away from playing the part days before shooting, leading to Robin Williams getting the role (and his own series) instead.
Doing his part to prevent animal cruelty, Super Dave Osborne (Bob Einstein) comes up with a new form of bullfighting… using an automotive bull! (Showtime)
The most memorable regular running gag segments on the show were the skits in which the Evel Knievel-style daredevil Super Dave Osborne (played by Bob Einstein) would perform an elaborate faked-up stunt which would Inevitably fail in a spectacular fashion, usually resulting in a severe injury to Super Dave.
Super Dave — billed as “the greatest daredevil superstar entertainer of our time” — would spend a considerable amount of time setting up the stunt, meticulously showing the audience how it was all going to work, before the stunt was attempted, which inevitably always backfired.
Then, after suffering a calamitous, hilarious failure, the audience would listen to Super Dave discussing why the stunt hadn’t worked, sometimes while buried up to his neck, or injured, his disfigured legs bent awkwardly or his arms broken, writhing in agony but putting on a good face for the folks watching at home.
In one popular favorite stunt, Super Dave attempted to avoid getting hurt by being crushed by a wrecking ball dropped on his head by saying “Balloon Ball” over and over again, but to no one’s surprise the stunt fails and the end result leaves Super Dave as just a head sitting atop two shoes.
The skit was so popular that, for the following season, Showtime promos for “Bizarre” featured a cartoon logo of Super Dave’s helmeted head and shoes.
Producer/writers Allan Blye and Einstein had first came up with the idea of Super Dave as a special event on the aforementioned 1976 show, “Van Dyke and Company,” after wanting to poke some fun at image of arrogant, ill-prepared daredevils of that era who never really seemed to suffer any bodily harm (like Evel Knievel, who literally broke every bone and tore every ligament in his body while attempting and failing at almost every stunt in his career).
They’d spent weeks trying to cast an actor to do the stunt for the “Van Dyke and Company” skit before Blye suddenly realized that his partner Bob Eintein was the perfect “Super Dave.”
Einstein and Blye resurrected the character for the “Bizarre” series, and it ended up becoming one of the show’s most popular segments, eventually leading to more and more outrageous set-ups.
After the show’s sixth season aired on Showtime, the syndicated (edited) versions have aired occasionally, beginning with their run on The Comedy Network, from 1997-2003 (from 2000 on, after airing the entire series, select episodes aired until the show was dropped from the channel’s schedule.
In late 2005, Canadian video label Visual Entertainment obtained the physical product rights and began releasing DVDs of the unedited version (they’re uncensored as far as language and nudity is concerned), titled The Best of Bizarre Uncensored. Check Amazon for details.
In 2008, “Bizarre” was sold to TV Land Canada (later Comedy Gold), a classic TV channel in Canada., who aired it during a marathon on New Year’s Day 2009.
Einstein’s Super Dave Osborne character was such a breakout that it pretty much took over his career, which then made a lot of comedy fans forget just how important he was in the development of TV shows in the ’70s and ’80s.
In 1986, Super Dave got his own Showtime one-hour comedy special — “The Life and Times of Super Dave Osborne” — followed the next year by his own variety show, “Super Dave,” which ran from 1987 to 1991 on the Canadian Global Television network as well as Showtime.
He also got his own Fox channel animated series in 1992 (“Super Dave: Daredevil for Hire”), in then starred in the 2000 movie, The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave.
Einstein also appeared on TV’s “In Living Color,” Hollywood Squares,” and Charlie Sheen’s “Anger Management,” as well as making numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” “The Tonight Show starring Jay Leno,” and “Late Night With David Letterman.”