Tune in Tonight: "The Brady Bunch Hour"
There are some things in your childhood where you know they existed, but you simply can’t believe they existed. “Pac-Man Fever,” for instance. This was a song about a video game performed by adult men, from an album consisting entirely of songs about video games, and it ended up being among the top fifty pop songs of 1982, ranking above “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Then there’s 1980′s The Apple, a musical Biblical allegory set in a dystopian future where disco lives forever, and only a pair of Canadian folksingers can restore the world to its purest state. When we get all moist-eyed and wistful about our clearly superior childhoods, where kids could play outside from dawn until midnight, and we could step on all the rusty tin cans and broken glass we wanted because it helped build character, goddammit, we never mention this kind of nonsense.
I have no recollection of watching The Brady Bunch Hour (originally called The Brady Bunch Variety Hour) when it was in first-run, but I know it existed. Other people have written about it. A coffee table book dedicated to it, co-written by Susan Olsen, was published in 2009. Episodes of it are available on YouTube, and I watched one. I still can’t believe it existed. I can’t believe this was a thing that people got paid to work on, for which set builders and makeup artists and caterers were hired. Actual writers, who wrote many other, less bafflingly terrible things, wrote it. It shouldn’t exist, and yet it does, like the pop culture equivalent of a platypus.
After an appearance by some of the cast of The Brady Bunch on an episode of The Donny and Marie Show proved to be a ratings hit, ABC decided to give them another shot at a series. It should have been an easy enough concept–the Bradys, three years after the original show ended, when the kids are dealing with the travails of either young adulthood or the difficult teenage years, and Mike and Carol are faced with impending empty nest syndrome. It wouldn’t have been the most exciting TV show, but then again, neither was the first one.
However, that was not the route that was taken. Sid and Marty Krofft, producers of many other TV programs children born in the 60s and 70s are sure they only hallucinated in a fever dream, were brought on board, and the new show was packaged as an hour long variety show. Let’s be clear, though–this wasn’t a variety show featuring the actors from The Brady Bunch singing and dancing as themselves. They were in character performing for a “live” studio audience, evidently after Mike, Carol and the whole family (Alice included) were just randomly offered their own TV show, a very common occurrence in the 1970s. Everybody got a variety show in the 70s, you see. I have such fond memories of my father performing a cover of “Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose” with Dinah Shore, Paul Williams, and Madame.
Anyway, The Brady Bunch Hour promised to be all things to all viewers, with the stars performing both old standards like “Baby Face,” as well as the latest hits, like Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby,” a disco song about fucking, so not at all weird when covered by a musical troupe that’s pretending to be a family. As far as the performers’ appearances, it’s all very of the time (that time being 1977), with some impressive white guy Afros, sequined cocktail dresses, exposed chest hair, gold chains, and Farrah wings, and yet a considerable amount of screen time is also given over to the “Krofftettes,” a group of aquatic chorus girls who perform endless Busby Berkeley style routines in a swimming pool. If you guessed that one of the Bradys gets pushed into the pool at some point, go buy a scratch-off ticket, because it is your lucky day!
In trying to make a show that could be enjoyed by the kids, Mom, and even Grandma, they ended up with a show enjoyed by no one. A singing and dancing Brundlefly, it’s a perfect illustration of why there is nothing more painful to watch than forced jocularity. Half the cast looks like they’d rather be strapped into a dentist’s chair than on that stage, and the other half overcompensates with terrifying, glassy-eyed grins, the type that you see before someone gives you a cup of Flavor Aid.
Meta before meta existed, The Brady Bunch Hour breaks up interminable musical numbers with faux “behind the scenes” banter, as well as the cast introducing the studio audience to pre-recorded scenes at home. The at home scenes are merely stiff, with all the action taking place in one crowded room and consisting mostly of the characters making the lightest, most inoffensive wisecracks possible, still playing to the audience despite ostensibly being off the clock. In the episode I watched, Rip Taylor makes an appearance as a moving man/real estate agent/con artist that Mike Brady inexplicably doesn’t immediately have removed from the premises, returning in later episodes and eventually striking up a romance with Alice.
Later in the episode, Taylor tells the Bradys that he “accidentally” rented out their home as a weekend vacation spot to a “nice young couple,” who turn out to be–holy cow, can you believe it??–Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, who show up for less than ten minutes, smile wanly, and then are never seen or mentioned again. Other celebrities that fulfilled contractual obligations in future episodes included Redd Foxx, Charo, Rich Little, Rick Dees, and the cast of What’s Happening!!
The musical numbers are where The Brady Bunch Hour really shines, though, and by “shines” I mean this is what Alex DeLarge was actually forced to watch as part of his “therapy.” If you’ve ever wanted to see a bunch of white people, including Rip Taylor, perform “Car Wash” while dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz, this show fulfills that dream. If you’ve ever awoken in the middle of the night, drenched with sweat, after having a nightmare in which Florence Henderson sings “Send in the Clowns” while various Bradys dressed as sad clowns perform mime in the background, I need to tell you that that isn’t a nightmare, it’s a flashback, because that actually happened.
It’s sad to see how much money clearly went into elaborate costumes and set design, for a TV show that’s so labored and incoherent. Nothing works in this show. Nothing makes sense in this show. Why are Alice and Rip Taylor suddenly part of the stage performance? Why are they singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in a show that’s supposed to take place in January? Why can’t Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett-Majors just stay at a goddamn hotel somewhere? Why are the Brady kids still squabbling like a bunch of 10 year-olds, when almost all of them are old enough to vote? Why is Rip Taylor? Why is Rip Taylor???
One bittersweet nugget o’trivia to share before I wrap up this abomination and hopefully put it to sleep forever: though he never felt comfortable playing family patriarch Mike Brady, evidently Robert Reed loved doing this show, despite being among the least adept at singing and dancing (Mike Lookinland is probably at the bottom, but only because you can practically see his will to live draining out of his pores). Though you’d think “Hey, remember that time we had our own TV show?” would often come up in family conversation, later incarnations of the Bradys, including The Brady Brides and The Bradys, never mentioned it, not even in the slightest passing. It seemed that for everyone but Mike, it was as much a horrifying experience to remember as it was for us to watch it.
Original airdate: January 23, 1977