Season: 1 (Cher)
Guest(s): Flip Wilson, Elton John, Bette Midler
CBS Air Date: February 9, 1975
(some online lists use February 12, but Timelife has the date as February 9)
Also aired: VH1, GetTV, S&C Timelife Set (first edition), Cher Timelife Set
Overview: In the Timelife interview Cher says she wanted to stay working on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. She liked that show and had a good time working on it, even after Sonny and Cher were separated. But on that show she was only an employee in Sonny’s company Cher Enterprises. She had naively signed away all her rights to any profits all those years when Sonny said "Trust Me (sign this)."
So when she asked to be made a partner in the business after they separated (since she was still a partner in the act), Sonny said no and he would not budge, likely feeling he had handled the business side of things for 10 years and was thus entitled to the entire business. Cher says she told him, “I can’t leave my life to your benevolence.” And that was that. It went to the courts.
The only elements this show took from the previous show was the director Art Fisher, Bob Mackie and Ret Turner (costumes), Renata (now going as Rena Horten), the Jimmy Dale orchestra and Cher. Everyone else, the old producers, cast, etc. went over to Sonny’s earlier 1974 flop The Sonny Comedy Revue. It took Cher (and arguably the genius of David Geffen) for Cher to extract herself out of the legalities of being an employee of Cher Enterprises (and not a partner) before she could move on to create this new show and her new album Stars.
This show was nominated for many more Emmys than the previous show: for set design, costumes and overall show. And the style of the show is much improved. Cher also had bigger ambitions fpr musical guests that didn’t fully pan out but the guests who did appear made for some classic television. The book Cher Strong Enough by Josiah Howard is a typical Cher biography but one that pays particular attention to this show, which means it operates in the opposite way of all other Cher biographies that gloss over the show. Worth a read if you're interested in the dish behind the episodes.
This show is not seen nearly as much in syndication as the Sonny & Cher shows and so it's still a bit of a mystery. It’s biggest Achilles Heel is the comedy writing and Cher’s discomfort with flying solo during the show openers.
Even though this was billed as a TV Special (complete with the whirling, rainbow CBS Special graphic), the show contains all the elements of the series which picks up the following week. Producer George Schlatter even calls this the pilot episode in the Timelife interviews.
The 0rdering is different on all subsequent airings and, sadly, even the Cher Timelife set contains an edited version of the show. The ordering below is from the TV.com ordering.
Title sequence: The show begins with blackout videos of all the guest stars mugging it up.
The theme song then uses a montage of new glamour Cher photos and stills from The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. These are interspersed with little Cher videos, like Cher coughing over a cigarette, Cher crossing her eyes, Cher kissing that little weird yellow statuette thingy (what the hell is that?).
Torch Open/Opening Song: “Let Me Entertain You” (Video)
Cover from the musical Gypsy (1959)
The show starts with a blackout torch blackout (including a flirty little “yes, sir” moment) and then Cher throws off part of her costume (usually a matching wrap) and finishes with an up-tempo part of the song or another up-tempo song.
On this first show, Cher wears a white dress, very sparkly with skin-colored mesh over her breasts. (The censors were allegedly having heart attacks over these Mackie dresses). The sequins are really catching camera flares. The set is very mid-1970s with dropped fringed ropes behind her. Something makes them keep swinging. She’s showing more skin and is less tan than she was at the end of the last show. Her hair looks amazing. The set is very white and bright. A tongue of the stage rolls forward to catapult Cher into the audience as she sings. Mr. Cher Scholar says it's worth noting that Cher is walking and singing on a moving stage. The tongue is bordered with a silvery trim that catches the light in a rainbow. There are big blocks on either side of the stage that spell out Cher.
In the Timelife interview George Schlatter says Cher hated this song and didn't want to do it. Schlatter wanted her to appear vulnerable in the beginning. Cher said she didn’t feel vulnerable. Schlatter told her to fake it. He said she owned the song by the end of it.
Monologue: You can tell Cher is uncomfortable and shy holding down the spotlight by herself, but that edginess almost works for her, humanizing her. She announces she’s been gone (for those who haven’t noticed) and is now back. She askes for “a little commotion for the dress” and then some for the back of the dress. She claims she is 28 years old, 5-foot-7-and-a-half inches tall, has black hair and brown eyes (and what pretty brown eyes they are) and is 104 pounds when she’s happy and 108 when she’s miserable. She’s 106 now and her fate is in our hands. She says she’s missed working and is thrilled to be back. She asks us to sit down and "be cool."
In the Timelife interview Cher says the opening was “a nightmare for me.” With Sonny, if she forgot part of the dialogue she would make something up and then Sonny would play off that improv. They were close enough to do that, Cher says. She wasn't a stand-up comedian. She could tell stories but not jokes. “Openings were always very lonely places.”
Guest spot: Elton John sings “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Video)
Cher in a black-sequined outfit and head wrap provides us with the definition of a friend, someone who is "really there when you need him" and she says Elton John is a real friend. He’s wearing a puffy tinfoil outfit with a large hat. He sports a big diamond ring and nifty scalloped-looking glasses. The set is draped with silver mesh fabric with blue stars. A classic 1970s television performance.
Life with Laverne (Video)
It's not called The Laundromat anymore because Laverne has been emancipated and we will never return there. I’ve starred this because it's very satisfying to see fictional characters from two TV shows mashup (kind of like superhero supergroups). It’s the class of 1965’s high school reunion (although Cher would only be 19 then in Cher years).
Laverne is alone at first in the gym remembering how she “played around here more than the team” and there’s so much beef at the buffet, it’s like she’s “walked into the boy’s locker room.” Although the monologue has tamed Cher a bit, not having Sonny there to bounce double entendres off of, Laverne’s free sexuality is re-asserted here.
Laverne Lashinsky and Flip Wilson’s incomparable Geraldine Jones do not recognize each other at first but then remember they were cheerleaders together. Geraldine tells Laverne she would look good “as good as me” if she lost 20-30 pounds (they’re so catty these two). Laverne retorts and Geraldine says if she doesn’t watch it she’ll be missing some spots from her leopard dress. They do a variation of a street-wise handshake that ends in a hip-bump.
Laverne says she can still fit into the same dress size and Geraldine says she could swear it’s the same dress. Laverne says, “this dress fits me like a scared monkey” and Geraldine says “I think I know what scared it.” Laverne says her body is working as good as new and Geraldine says it wasn’t working that well when it was new.
They then re-create one of their cheers (minus the word ass) and Laverne says all the guys are lusting after her. “They’d like to get their hands on these cookies," Laverne says. Geraldine quips that maybe “some of ‘em dig brownies.” Geraldine notices a man named Harry who was “the fat kid” and she calls him a chump with an IQ of a pencil box without an eraser, a real “wipe out.” Geraldine surmises Harry probably married “some stupid chick” and they probably moved out of town. If you’ve been watching The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour you know Laverne’s husband’s name is Harry. So Laverne answers, “No, we settled down here.” (That made Mr. CS laugh). Geraldine points out her fellow. Laverne says, “Is he the one standing next to the black wall?” Geraldine answers, “He is the black wall.” They both agree he is a “stunner.”
It’s nice that Cher gives Flip Wilson all the good jokes.
Solo: “All Is Fair In Love” (Video)
Cover of Stevie Wonder (1973)
Cher sang this song two torch numbers ago on the second to last episode of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. This time she's surrounded by macrame holders and lovely ferns, a staple of the 1970s horticulture (we had plenty in our house). Cher wears a halter dress Mr. Cher Scholar describes as "assembled doilies." Two huge macrame-like earrings move too much. Cher really belts it out this time. She wears a rainbow belt and her belly button is front and center. Her hair is long and pulled back from the front. Some hanging hand.
Donna Jean Brodine: The brick-o-matic, alternatively called the break-o-matic by Cher, is pre-Gallagher and his 1980s smashing shit up. In these commercial spoofs, Cher hits stuff with a brick and a Southern accent. this is a spoof on fad appliances, that, as Cher laments in the Timelife interview, never worked when you received them in the mail.
Although Mr. CS admits the Comedy Hour was "real cornball, this is another level," very unfunny despite a promising premise. But he says, “Cher is so appealing and charming to watch, it’s the only thing holding it together. She so cute, it works" and that it would be painful to watch Linda Ronstadt or Carly Simon try this.
Cher even smashes the fake camera and brings to mind Sonny’s later edict to “Smash It” in 1979. The brick-o-matic costs $15.95 and can be purchased by mailing to P.O. Box 10, Sucker Falls, South Dakota.
Trashy Ladies Medley: (Video)
This medley reinforces the sexually self-determined theme of the old Vamp sketches. The show's original “Trashy Ladies” song indicates “how far women have come” and references troubles, fears and brave pioneers among brassy broads who are rough, tough and “harder than nails.”
Bette and Cher look great in lingerie and boa outfits, pink for Bette and blue for Cher. Cher seems very skinny next to Bette. In the VH1 airing there is a commercial break between “Sister Kate” and “Tangerine.” This is all very camp. Mr. CS says Bette tries too hard which is what he doesn’t like about her. It doesn’t ever seem natural. Speaking for myself, it just makes me tired, her high NRG. Mr. CS says he can always see her thinking and everything has to be a show-stopper.
The whole thing has an odd laugh track attached to it. Overall it seems like a long, hard performance to get through all these songs and this 7+ minute medley (even with all the cuts and although the dances aren’t very difficult-looking). So kudos for that and they both look great.
- "Trashy Ladies"
- "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" (Louis Armstrong?, 1922) starts with some ass tassels. At the end they throw off their boas. There’s a camera cut at the end of each song.
- "Tangerine" (The Fleet's In, 1942), Cher abuses Bette in this song and Bette goes into her schtick.
- "Lulu’s Back in Town" (Broadway Gondolier, 1935) – They each sing solo parts of this song.
- "Put the Blame on Mame" (Gilda, 1946)
- "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (poem by Sarah Josepha Hale, 1830) – “loved him, hated her!
- "Minnie the Moocher" (Cab Calloway, 1931) – they roll around on the floor.
- "Rose of Washington Square" (Rose of Washington Square, 1939) – Bette feigns being tired at this point (“Oh Rose, which one was she?”), the boas come back, lots of fun bickering here until the boas go back from whence they came.
- "Sweet Georgia Brown" (jazz standard, 1925) – what’s great to watch is how comfortable Cher is in her own skin.
Saturday Night: This recurring sketch chronicles the travails of the single girl dating in the 1970s. The skit tries to present Cher with a casual homelife, although this modest, small apartment tracks to nothing in Cher’s real living situation (including the neon Cher sign she supposedly had above her fireplace as described to Dick Cavett). This apartment consists of a bedroom, living room and tiny kitchen.
The clocks says 1 am as Cher returns from a date with her hear up in a bun and you can see her old side wings growing out. She’s busy at the door trying to lose the guy who apparently is insisting he likes her for her mind. She says he was all over her like a tent in a typhoon. He had “more arms than Israel,” she says as she undresses into a very unsexy blue onesie pajama set behind a dressing screen.
She talks about sex and the swinging 70s. The long monologue is full of ‘uhs’ and feels very stiff. She brushes her hair and complains that her date was a penny pincher who offered her no food. As she puts together a sandwich she says she hates housework. She makes a defrosting joke and a vacuum bag joke and says things like “can you dig it?”
All the salad fixings are stored in a tray, which struck me as odd until I saw Spencer Tracy make a sandwich the same way last weekend in the movie Adam’s Rib. Apparently that was a thing. Cher counts calories with a calculator (1,275) and then determines all she can afford to eat is the lettuce so the sandwich goes into some cellophane and back into the fridge. Sad to think she almost broke a nail for nothing. Cher doesn’t look like she’s all that comfortable with wrestling cellophane. She puts the calorie calculator back in the fridge, too.
She says she had to tell her date 'no' 37 times (which seems alarming) and then goes to bed next to a curtained nightstand. She’s thankful for her electric blanket which “never gets any hotter than you want it to.” The laugh track feels awkward. Mr. CS’s comment was that the skit seems to be attempting to show how normal Cher was, just like us, after the big scandal of her divorce from Sonny and the sensational tabloid stories about her dating life. The skit seems to be saying Cher is not this hugely glamourous TV star or the alleged gold digger trying to abuse Sonny.
Duet with Guest: Cher and Elton John sing “Bennie and the Jets” (Video)
There’s a blue backdrop of stars. They look like they’re in matching outfits. Elton John has toned it down with a violet vest and shirt. Cher wears purple and black. There are sparkles in her eye shadow. They sound good together. She kicks up a leg at one point. At the end Elton John says he really enjoyed being on the show (in the interview Cher says this was the first time he was given comedy to do and he was very funny) and that he didn’t just do it for the hundred dollars. He says he wouldn’t have cut his Christmas vacation short for anyone else. He also introduced the next skit by saying that Cher is the kind of person who will still be going strong in 50 year. Don't we know.
Skit: Cher, Elton, Bette and Flip live it up in an old-folks home for aged performers called The Final Curtain. Cher is in a purple sweatsuit with Mackie-designed wide hips and dropped boobs. She has long gray hair and is still flipping it. She also still wears big hoop earrings and shows her belly button.
They all talk about how it took them 2 hours to get down to the “fun” room from their rooms, but that Cher cheated on the way down, Flip says, by “falling down the last flight.” Bette and Flip Wilson and Cher play ping pong badly. Bette asks if anyone wants to hear her records and she lists off her police record. Cher thinks she’s getting an idea but it turns out to be a hot flash. They walk over to a table and sit down.
A bald Elton John wheels in with a chair decked out with bling and makes Cher and Bette crack up. Elton suggests they should fool around nobody remembers how. They all start watching this very show from 50-years in the future, which will be coming up in 2025, by the way.
Sadly Flip Wilson didn’t make it but hopefully Bette, Elton and Cher will so they can have a reunion and recreate this sketch. Since they’re now living the ages they were mocking, it's interesting to consider how hard they’ve all worked to prevent old people hair and fat butts.
In the Timelife interview, Cher credits the longevity of herself, Bette and Elton to basic likeability.
Big Finale (Video)
Great outfits, balloons everywhere indicating a fabulous diva bubble bath. Elton is seated at a silver-encrusted piano. Cher has a great side-hair sweep under a cap that matches her silver cut-out dress. It’s all very sparkly. Bette wears what I call a white Tiddlywinks dress and those things really shake.
- Mockingbird (Inez & Charlie Foxx, 1963) – Bette and Cher sing with Elton at the piano.
- Proud Mary (Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969) – Cher and Bette move behind Elton and they shimmy through this song with higher NRG than Ike and Tina, if you can believe it.
- "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" (Ashford & Simpson, 1966) – Flip Wilson stands on the piano and does the spoken intro. Cher says Flip wilson's part was captured from the dress rehearsal after which Wilson walked off the set never to return (maybe three white performers performing so many r&b songs in a row while marginalizing the one black guest was a bit much).
From here on out all three sing standing together in front of the piano.
- "Never Can Say Goodbye" (The Jackson 5, 1971) – they sing the song with great melodrama and kitsch. More balloons fall at the end.
The end finds us in a swell group hug.
This was probably the campiest moment of 1975’s television programming. Producer George Schlatter calls this episode one of his best variety shows he’s ever done for sound, makeup, costumes, chroma key...“the best I ever did.”
SCTV’s spoof of Elton John, in his duel with Liberace, was based on these Cher show Elton performances. It appeared on their Christmas show of 1981. They recreated the same finale outfit.
Closing: Later closings just continued the Big Finale. This is a comparably subdued end. We return to Cher on the opening stage in her opening outfit where she says goodnight. “That’s our show for tonight” indicating the not-quite special nature of the show. She thanks her guests and says “I couldn’t have done it without ‘em. That’s the truth.” She also says “if you liked it, tell your friends and come back.” She ends with “I really love you. God bless you and good night and take it easy.” She does a tiny little dance while the credits roll.
The Cher Timelife version cuts out all the songs in Trashy Ladies songs except the Trashy Ladies song itself. The GetTV and VH1 versions are missing the Donna Jean Brodine skit. GetTV is also missing Elton John’s guest spot. They are all missing the mysteriously tv.com-listed commercial blackout of Cher singing “What Kind of Fool Am I?”
Highlights: This is the first time Laverne and Geraldine meet in the TV universe. George Schlatter talks about all the new sound and visual technologies used in this first episode and you can see some of the effects in Elton’s guest spot. More sexual self-empowerment with Laverne and the Vamp-like Trashy Ladies medley.