Sometimes when a musician becomes famous, you can listen to their earlier recordings and catch glimpses of the talent they would become after a few more years of experience. Sure, that now-hot guitarist is young and still finding his way. But every so often in those early recordings he’ll play a riff that seems familiar and you realize that even then he was finding his way.
You don’t always get a chance to see that with comedians, particularly on television. Most comics don’t get their firsttelevision job until they have some seasoning and that makes those then-and-now comparisons pretty difficult. But back in the 1970s television summer programming was filled with variety shows and those required ensemble comedians. Lots of them. So a young comedian such as David Letterman could get a job more-or-less hosting a show without having all that much experience in front of the camera.
When the STARLAND VOCAL BAND SHOW premiered on CBS in 1977, the summer variety series trend was showing as much of a sign of life as that last tour by The Who. The weekly variety shows were typically built around a band or solo musician and unfortunately selling some records doesn’t require the same skill set as being entertaining on camera. By the time this show premiered, TV had already run through all the obvious choices like Mac Davis, Glen Campbell and Tony Orlando & Dawn. So in the case of the Starland Vocal Band, a single hit (“Afternoon Delight”) was enough of a qualification to get them their own limited run variety series.
In theory, building a show around a band with a current hit single and one that includes a couple of cute women makes some sort of convoluted programming sense. But the resulting show is the “Ishtar” of variety programs. All the basic ingredients are there, but a lot of the items are unfortunately way past their expiration date.
THE STARLAND VOCAL BAND SHOW was a perplexing mix of cringe-worthy jokes that seem to have been rejected from the final season of LAUGH-IN combined with some flaccid musical segments and a live set from grandma’s favorite political satirist, Mark Russell. But the show also included a young David Letterman, who managed to sometimes rise above material that had all the comedic potential of a industrial test equipment training film.
While the ensemble cast also included Jeff Altman and the comedy duo of Proctor & Bergman, Letterman did the bulk of the “hosting.” In the pilot (which I’ve included here), he opens the show and then provides a running narration that stylistically doesn’t sound that different than what you’d hear a few years later on his late night talk show. The band resided in Georgetown, which Letterman referred to as “the entertainment capital of the colonial world.” Letterman then showed up dressed as a mailman and explained that “as this noticeable lull in the program indicates, it’s time for the Starland Vocal Band mailbag.” The jokes aren’t as sharp, but the delivery and pointed spoofing of the genre he would later bring to late night television is already locked into place.
The viewer mail bit comes across like a very early version of “Viewer Mail,” complete with the comment “and if you laid the Starland Vocal Band end-to-end, and I’ve seen that done several times, they would be long enough to prompt passerbys to remark ‘Call the authorities.'” The bit in the pilot wasn’t hilarious, but did include the odd little asides that Letterman fans would fall in love with years later, such as “remember, we can’t return your letters. So only send us mail in envelopes you don’t need anymore.” The delivery of the jokes was still self-conscious and often lacked confidence. But there’s enough there to prompt any fan to say “Hey, that’s my Dave.”
The show itself was an odd mash-up of documentary footage and running gags. Oftentimes it seemed as if the band was only a visual prop for the jokes. A later bit in the pilot involved footage of the band touring a Renaissance Faire, with the action described by a rambling and often impossible to decipher “bit” from Jeff Altman. while the band is shown walking through the crowd in costume, they don’t talk and there aren’t even any real closeups. Instead, we get a characteristically odd bit from comedians Proctor & Bergman.
And that was the format of each of the episodes. Some awkward segments with members of the band (usually featuring band leader Bill Danoff) and a live performance or two. It’s not that the band was bad exactly, it’s that for whatever reason they were essentially a guest star on their own show. But while is horrifically clunky overall, Letterman shows brief bursts of genius and it’s not surprising that he later showed up again on CBS as part of the equally disastrous 1978 variety series MARY. But despite the setbacks, even at that early point in his career, it was clear that David Letterman was destined for something much better.
THE STARLAND VOCAL BAND SHOW was a strangely written program, despite a writing staff that included April Kelly, who went on to co-create BOY MEETS WORLD and GIRL MEETS WORLD with Michael Jacobs. But it did give the world a first look at David Letterman. Even if he only looked like a star after quite a bit of hindsight.