As anyone who’s ever turned on a TV knows, there’s lots of bad television out there. There’s even a lot of really bad television.
Very rarely has been there anything on television as bad as The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, a show that ran for a mere nine episodes in 1976-1977.
- The show was a typical 1970s song and dance variety show, but except for Brady mother Florence Henderson, none of the cast had any real experience, and in most cases, any real talent, for song and dance. Several cast members could barely carry a tune.
- One of the original Brady Bunch cast members, Eve Plumb, who played Jan, refused to participate, meaning the part had to be recast with an unfamiliar actress, later dubbed “Fake Jan.”
- Since the show was produced by Sid and Marty Krofft (of H.R. Pufnstuf children’s television fame), the sets and costumes were as garish and as outlandish as possible. The equally outrageous Rip Taylor co-starred.
- The centerpiece of the show’s set was an enormous swimming pool – a take-off of the ice-skating rink on Donny & Marie – where dancers also performed water ballet.
- The show pretended that the stars of the show were not the actual actors who played the roles on The Brady Bunch, but the actual characters themselves. In other words, Mike and Carol and their kids moved to Los Angeles and were given their own variety show!
In short, the surreal badness of a The Brady Bunch Variety Hour is an amazing thing to behold! Indeed, in 2002, TV Guide named the show the 4th Worst Show of All-Time.
For years, many of the cast members were understandably embarrassed by the show. But after Nick-at-Night and TV Land aired portions of the series in the early 1990s (and after it was hilariously parodied in 1997 on The Simpsons as the The Simpsons Family Smile-Time Variety Hour), the thing began to develop a “so-bad-it’s-good” cult following.
In 2000, pop culture historian Ted Nichelson started a website, The Complete Guide to the Brady Bunch Hour.
Now he’s teamed up with Susan Olsen, the actress who played Cindy on both The Brady Bunch and The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, and co-author Lisa Sutton, to produce Love to Love You Bradys: The Bizarre Story of the Brady Bunch Variety Hour, an incredibly detailed account of exactly how this TV debacle came to be.
Recently, we talked with Olsen and Nichelson about their book (the interviews were conducted separately):
AfterElton: Susan, at what point did you realize that The Brady Bunch Variety Hour wasn’t just “bad,” it was “so-bad-it’s good”?
Susan Olsen: Ted had a website devoted to the Variety Hour. He was already friends with [Geri Reischl, who played “Fake Jan”]. She called me and we kind of reunited, and she told me I should know Ted. So I met him, and I went to the website, and I was really shocked that there was a lot of it on there that I didn’t remember. Now I remember all of it, but I have this really weird memory [capability]. My whole family is like this. We have total recall of our childhood.
It was strange because there were things that I think I blocked out, so I was really fascinated by his website because I was looking at all this stuff. I didn’t remember that we had Red Foxx on the show! Now I do, but at the time, I was like, "Whoa! Whoa!" It’s so unusual for me to see pictures of myself and not remember being there.
AfterElton: You have total recall of your childhood, but at the same time, you were subconsciously blocking out your memories of this show. Why?
Susan Olsen: Because I felt ashamed. I was horribly embarrassed. At the time, I was just starting to get the idea that maybe I wanted to be a rock star, so I was thinking, "How am I ever going to live this down?"
One of the things that makes me feel kind of bad [about the book] is that I do go into the fact that I hated all Sid and Marty Krofft shows, and I really hated the Donny & Marie show, I hated disco. Aesthetically, this was the opposite of anything I was into. Being fifteen-years-old and wanting to voice my own artistic opinion – that in itself was almost kind of scarring.
There have been other incarnations of The Brady Bunch that were not good. This one was just so spectacularly bad. It was a celebration of bad TV, which really wasn’t considered bad back then. If you look at any of the variety shows of the day, it’s not that different. It’s just that it’s the wrong people doing it.
It’s not just a turd. It’s a turd on velvet. With Jesus beams coming out of it.
To be able to look at it [now], it’s almost vindication, but it’s also lighthearted. It’s not a bad memory anymore, because in its badness, in my opinion, at this point it’s art.
AfterElton: Now it puts you in such an enviable position. It’s so bad that it’s cool.
Susan Olsen: Exactly. Now I’m proud of it, how ridiculous it is. It’s lovely. It’s really fun doing the publicity for it, too. This is a Brady project that I’m eagerly endorsing and I’m really very proud of. It’s not like I’m actually doing the show thirty-some years ago when I had to promote something I thought was a piece of crap. [laughs] Which is usually what I have to do regarding a Brady project. [laughs] "Oh yeah, it’s really great! Tune in! It’s about the Bradys and it’s a serious drama, and it’s really good!" No…! You could always do a book about The Bradys, because that was the last series, but it’s not funny. It’s just bad.
AfterElton: Ted, tell me how you discovered the show?
Ted Nichelson: I had actually seen [the show] when they reran the pilot episode on Nick at Night. When I was growing up I remember when they reran that one time around 1990, and I sat there with my dad and we watched it and thought it was hysterical. [But] I wasn’t familiar with everything that had been involved. It was like an archaeological dig, the deeper you get, the more you want to find.
I thought it would be interesting to do a television-related website, and I found it curious that The Brady Bunch Variety Hour was never mentioned, acknowledged, or discussed in any of these [Brady] documentaries, which at least at that time were coming on the air quite frequently. This was back in 2000. It fascinated me that this show had never seen the light of day, yet it existed.
Really, to me, the thing that makes this show incredibly unique is that it’s a stunt program, kind of like Dancing with the Stars. It’s putting people in a situation you would not expect them to ever be in. I think that’s the first part that really grips people. Then on top of it, you add the 70s variety show format, then you add Sid and Marty Krofft to it, and you just have something that is this incredibly insane combination of elements. When I really saw what was going on, it was just something that had to be exposed, something we wanted other people to enjoy.
When I would show these shows to people, everybody was laughing. People had huge reactions to this show. Whereas if you watch something like Donny & Marie, it’s the Osmonds, they sing. We all know that. It’s to be expected. You throw Mike Brady in a dress and Peter Brady in the pool, you have something that people kind of shake their head at, raise their eyebrow at. They can’t quite figure that out.
AfterElton: From my point-of-view, the show has enormous camp appeal. Is there something uniquely “gay” about this?
Ted Nichelson: I definitely believe there’s something uniquely gay about it. I don’t know if that’s what drew me to it completely, but certainly the content of it, I think a lot of people in the gay community enjoy musical theater. The Bradys are kind of like a fantasy kind of family. I think in some ways, anybody who is in a situation where they’re not completely accepted finds comfort in something such as The Brady Bunch, a group of people who all get along and the like each other. I think those were the combination of elements, the music, the Broadway show style, and the fantasy family that was just so incredibly lovable.
AfterElton: One of the things I thought was hilarious in the book is that you tell the story of Robert Reed, who was of course gay, how he famously thought The Brady Bunch was stupid and hated doing it, and yet he loved doing the variety show.
Susan Olsen: Florence kept making these little remarks about, Bob had to wear a dress for one of the things, and she kept saying how much Bob was enjoying himself. I don’t think Florence knew, though, when she was making these little remarks that we all knew what she was talking about. [laughs]
AfterElton: When did you learn he was gay?
Susan Olsen: When I was nine.
AfterElton: Did he tell you?
Susan Olsen: No! I don’t think that Bob ever knew that any of us knew. We didn’t know that we knew. It wasn’t until Maureen McCormick’s wedding, we all kind of broke into Maureen and her husband’s honeymoon suite just being silly. And we all kind of gathered around, and she said, "It’s such a shame that Bob didn’t come to the wedding. I really miss him. I wish he could have known that it was okay to bring a girlfriend or a boyfriend or whatever he wanted to bring."
And we all look at each other and it’s like, "Oh, you know?" "You know?" "Do you know?" "Well, how long have you known?" "Well, I knew when I was nine." And then the cat was out of the bag, and this was well after The Variety Hour.
AfterElton: But while Bob wasn’t a good singer or dancer, he was attracted to this show on some level?
Susan Olsen: Yes. He was attracted to the glitter and, I suppose, the gayness of it. What struck me the most was how much he was attracted to the comedy in it. That didn’t really have anything to do with being gay, but he was a very silly man, which most people didn’t know. He certainly wasn’t willing to be silly on The Brady Bunch. He refused to participate in the pie-throwing scene because it would be too undignified for Mike Brady. And yet, he appears on The Variety Hour wearing a bunny suit.
AfterElton: Do you think he got the camp appeal of the show on some level?
Susan Olsen: I think that he enjoyed doing really broad comedy. He liked to sort of spoof the Mike Brady character, but he just didn’t like working for the Schwartzes [who created The Brady Bunch]. This is the man who would throw a fit over whether or not strawberries had an odor when they were cooked. He refused to do a line in a scene where he has to walk in and Carol and Alice are cooking strawberries preserves and he has to say, "Mmm, smells like strawberry heaven." And he’s going, "No, no, no! Strawberries have no odor when they’re cooked. I looked it up in the encyclopedia."
Why? Why would you do that? Seemingly, he was a man with no sense of humor. But we kids always knew that there was a funny, silly side to Bob. He loved Laurel and Hardy, he was often silly with us kids, so now you’ve got him on The Variety Hour. There was a sketch where he plays a retarded Christopher Columbus, and you’ll never see Bob having a better time as an actor.
AfterElton: Did you ever speak to him about being gay?
Susan Olsen: No. To me, it was always just none of my business.
AfterElton: Sure. It was a very different time.
Susan Olsen: This was the saddest thing about Bob. I’m the mother of a son, and this is why I would never want him to feel bad about himself if he finds out that he’s gay. It wasn’t just that Bob didn’t come out of the closet for the people, he couldn’t accept it within himself. Because of that, his best friend Anne Haney, told me at the time, she said, "The saddest thing about Bob is he never let himself have a true love."
I think about Bob, what a handsome, intelligent, talented, fun, great partner he would have made someone. But he wasn’t going to make a great partner to a woman and he kept trying that. Gosh, if he had found the right guy and settled down, it would have been so great.
AfterElton: It was such a different era back then. So much has changed for the better. We take that for granted.
Susan Olsen: Yes, thank God. I think he was also dealing with the fact that his parents didn’t accept it. I’m pretty sure his mother didn’t. A lot of people are unfortunately of the mindset that this is evil. If you choose this “lifestyle,” you’re evil. It’s just like, there aren’t too many people who would choose this lifestyle.
AfterElton: Susan, I don’t want to go into all kinds of gossip about your costars, but you do write about the problems that Maureen McCormick, who played Marcia, was having at the time.
Susan Olsen: Yeah.
AfterElton: You also write, which I think is quite touching, how protective you actors all are of each other, and how you probably wouldn’t have written about it in the book had she not written about it in her own recent memoir.
Susan Olsen: Yeah, and I know that was frustrating for Ted [before Maureen had released the memoir]. In several instances he would say, "If there’s a way that we can kind of hint about it." And I was like, "Oh Ted, I know it would probably help to sell books, and if you want to do it I can’t stop you, but I can’t be a part of the book. I can’t be a part of that." None of us have ever told on her. God damn it! I’m not Cindy Brady! I’m not a tattltetale! [laughs]
AfterElton: Well now I can’t help but wonder are there other secrets about your costars that you’re not telling?
Susan Olsen: You’ll just have to wonder!
AfterElton: Ted, let’s talk about the concept of the “show within a show.” I remember watching the show as a kid, and I remember thinking, “They just told us these are actors with names like Chris Knight and Susan Olsen, and now they’re pretending they’re not actors, like these characters are real – that the Bradys are a real family and they’re putting on a variety show.” You mention in the book that there was a short tradition of other shows doing this, and the Kroffts thought this would be a particularly clever way to present the Bradys.
Ted Nichelson: Yeah. It says in the book that it was sort of modeled after Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and Bob Cummings. Those were the three who had done it. In those programs, you would often see George Burns and Gracie Allen, there would be applause, and they would come out in front of the curtain and talk about talk about some situation that happened, and then it would fade back and show what happened. That’s exactly what happened with the Bradys. There would be some kind of monologue, and then the Bradys would say, "Well, why don’t you see for yourself?"
AfterElton: But Burns and Allen were actually a real life couple. So were Sonny and Cher.
Ted Nichelson: That’s what makes it even more bizarre, because it’s just these characters. They were trying a new format called the “sitvar,” combining the sitcom with variety. They really thought at the time that they were going to be coming up with something new and novel, but that’s what happens when you’re experimenting with things. It doesn’t always go well.
On the back of the book, there’s the quote from Bruce Vilanch [who wrote for the show], "You have to get stoned and watch The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, because it all makes sense when you’re stoned." Bruce was really great for the show. He would provide these great one-liners. For instance, when he was talking about the choreographer, "Joe Cassini took chicken sh*t and turned into chicken salad." It’s so Bruce Vilanch. He was great with this book, very supportive.
AfterElton: Clearly he got the show.
Ted Nichelson: Well, he wrote it. He wrote that and the Star Wars Holiday Special and the Paul Lynde Halloween Special, all these things that are now camp classics. He has a legacy now…that he has to answer for. [laughs]
AfterElton: Susan, at the time, did the “show within a show” strike you as bizarre?
Susan Olsen: It was weird because it was not us. It was our characters doing it. I actually sort of liked that because it’s like, "Okay. Susan’s not having to do this crappy disco music. It’s Cindy, and Cindy probably loves it!"
But it made it even more bizarre that the Kroffts thought they could do this. That’s the weirdest thing about the show. Nobody questioned whether or not the Kroffts had the permission to do a Brady Bunch show. You just figure who would have the nerve to do something like this without permission. They just went ahead and waiting for somebody to stop them, and nobody ever stopped them.
The Schwartzes were looking in the TV Guide and saw it was coming on and were like, "Wait a minute! A Brady Bunch show?" And here we are playing the characters that the Schwartzes created, totally illegal, but that’s what I love about the Krofft Brothers. "Well, we’ll do it until somebody stops us."
AfterElton: My next question is about how The Bradys really didn’t have any singing and dancing talent. I thought it was fascinating how they would record the vocals beforehand, then they would bring in a chorus to go over the vocals, so it sort of sounded like the Bradys, but they had the richness of a professional singer. They were doing everything they could, shooting these dance scenes over and over to make these people who have no professional musical talent look like they’re talented. It seems like they were making the already difficult job of a musical variety show much, much, much more difficult.
Ted Nichelson: Yes, that’s very true. They did most of their singing, but I could name a few specific numbers where I could hear and realize, no, that wasn’t them. The Bradys did go in and do much of the singing, but it was “augmented.” It wasn’t like the Partridge Family where they were not singing at all. The Bradys did most of their own singing, so I have to give them some credit for that, but it was difficult, I think.
AfterElton: Was that ever considered, having somebody else sing completely like with The Partridge Family?
Ted Nichelson: I don’t think so. Now if you watch the pilot episode, that’s 100% their singing. When it came back is when they knew they had to change it. The very first pilot episode, there was absolutely no dubbing, and you can hear there’s not great quality of singing in that episode.
None of them were singers and dancers except for Florence. They had varying degrees of talent, Barry had started to do some Broadway at the time, but part of the entertainment value is the fact that they had no talent.