I am not afraid of clowns. I just want to get that out there right up front, because if it starts to sound like I am unimpressed by the new breed of cabaret/vaudeville/variety acts that are populating Fringe Festivals these days, I don’t want anyone to think it’s because the occasional clown is involved.
No, the reason I’m unimpressed by the supposed resurgence of so-called “variety” acts has nothing to do with the acts themselves: like anything else, there’s lots of amateurish, self-indulgent crap, some cheesy fun, and a few works of genuine originality and imagination. My problem is with the idea that this stuff ever went away in the first place.
Sure, The Ed Sullivan Show is long gone, but the variety show never really died – it morphed into evenings at PS 1, Circe de Soleil and its various imitators, and, yes, Fringe Festivals. I’ve seen it in Black 47 frontman Larry Kirwan’s venture into puppet theater, and London performing troupe The Cholmondeleys (pronounced “Chumleys”) creating site-specific theater with a car and a boombox in a busy London square. You’ve seen it too, every time a musician or band decides it isn’t just what they sound like but what they look like that matters. Kiss? C’mon, if that’s not a demented variety show, what is it? David Bowie made his career out of creatively twisting the variety show format, as in his 1980 Floor Show (from 1973, actually). Pop music concerts have often been a big, bloated version of the variety show, from Britney and her dancers to the Insane Clown Posse.
Again, I am not afraid of clowns. But in their case I’ll make an exception…
What do you think of the “new variety/caberet” revival? Leave a comment.