'Big Show': variety grab-bag with a big-is-better premise

"The Big Show" is about as subtle as its title. Despite the unpopularity of the variety show in the fickle, post-'50s hearts of the American public, NBC president Fred Silverman decided to fly in the face of ratings on wings of the shaky premise that big is better. Throw in enough big names, big sets, and big numbers, and maybe you'll hit the big time.

The premier effort, week before last, was hosted by show biz veteran Steve Allen and child star Gary Coleman ("Diff'rent Strokes") seemed more like a three-ring circus than a variety show, with spots following in such lively succession that they almost seemed to be going on simultaneously. And wherem they were going on! On a set that encompasses a swimming pool, an ice skating rink, and a proscenium stage, and in an atmosphere that mingles the dewiness of Esther Williams and the mistiness of Peter Pan. Nostalgia clearly figured big here, as if we were watching a montage of snippets from old Holywood musicals, the Ed Sullivan Show, and even the Ted Mac amateur hour.

About the only conclusion one could draw from the debut of this series (Tuesdays, NBC, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings) is that in a grab bag there's always something for someone, even the television industry to which the show made several satiric and self-conscious references. Given the flagging status of NBC's ratings, one can readily understand the impulse to attract as wide an audience as possible (and to provide a showcase for network stars), but the only danger in trying to appeal to everyone's taste is that one ends up with no taste at all.

For example, in premier show the delicate pas de deux by prima ballirina Cynthia Gregory and Alexander Godunov, who defected last August from the Bolshoi Ballet, shared the stage not only with roller disco but a celebration of sex and violence, derivative of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," by the Shabbadoo dance group. On the middle ground, calculated to appeal to everyone and defend none, was Olympic gold medalist Peggy Flemming, gliding gracefully across the ice like a lost nymph in a frozen gold fish bowl.

Send in the clowns. Here, too, the taste oscillated wildly, with the kudos going to the lesser knowns, such as the "authentic American," Charlie Hill, whose sardonic quips about the Indian problem, showed intelligence as well as wit. Kudos also to Gallagher, who beat deserved laughs out of the audience with his slapstick "sledgamatic" parody of kitchen gadgets.

Also on the plus side was a skit involving bored airplane pilots scaring their passengers and Steve Allen bumbling good-humouredly through a timely take-off on the "me decade." The biggest disappointments were Steve ("The Jerk") Martin poking not-so-funny fun at Terre Haute, Ind., and a spoof of the Three Mile Island incident that suggested the shameless extent to which the show would go to get a laugh.

Yesterday's show, second in the series, highlighted Marie Osmond and Gavin MacLeod as hosts with Bert Parks and the cast of "Ain't Misbehavin'" among the special guests. Regulars are the comedy ensemble, which includes Graham Chapman and Mimi Kennedy, the water ballet team, and the ice skaters. Whether the "Big Show" will prove a big hit or a big flop this and future shows will decide.

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