ABC revives variety hour humor

by John Teti | 8/14/01 5:00am

ABC is in the business of raising the dead. The network revivified the prime-time game show with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and now it's trying to do the same for the variety hour with "The Wayne Brady Show." But the primary concern for ABC, still crashing from the initial "Millionaire" high, is breathing new life into itself.

Once again, ABC is staking its fortunes on the talent of one man. And much like last year's savior, the frenetic Reege, Wayne Brady has energy to spare. This is immediately evident when he opens his premiere with a fast-paced song-and-dance number ("I Love Music") and then delivers a literally breathless introduction of himself and his new show.

Comedy portions of the program include both scripted sketches and improv. So far, the former is more consistently funny, but when the unscripted bits get into a rhythm, they're hilarious. One highlight was an "action movie" that showcased Brady's mental and physical flexibility as he played the scene forward, backward and in slow motion.

The ensemble on "Brady" suffers from an unavoidable comparison to the gold-standard improv players on Brady's other show, "Whose Line is it Anyway?" The "Brady" cast mostly holds its own, but de facto sidekick Jonathan Mangum is grating. His awkward on-stage manner during improvised segments is reminiscent of a camp counselor who worries more about keeping order than having a laugh.

The most humorous moments occur when Brady delves into his repertoire of celebrity impressions. He renders personalities ranging from Eric Cartman to Louie Armstrong with astonishing accuracy.

Brady combines this penchant for mimicry with his killer singing voice when he whisks us through a medley of his favorite musicians. Gliding from Stevie Wonder to Louie Armstrong to Sammy Davis Jr., Brady convincingly assumes the aura of each.

There is an irresistible down-to-earth quality about Brady, too. He likes to chat with the audience, tell them how much fun he's having, how he hopes they're enjoying the show. It would be cliched if Brady didn't do it with such warmth.

He's self-assured, but also self-effacing. During an audience Q&A session at the end of the first episode, a woman remarks how he's just like Julia Roberts when his smile lights up his face. Brady knows it's true, but he quickly fires back, "Now when would a six-foot-tall black man ever hear that he's like Julia Roberts?"

"Brady" has the star power to match the variety hours of the 60s and 70s, so all it needs is the groovy production values that will look ridiculous in 20 years. This setup doesn't disappoint, borrowing equally from "The Flip Wilson Show," "The Carol Burnett Show" and other classics -- even "Laugh-In" is represented on an improv set that sprouts windows.

Splashes of color and movement are added with quick dance routines at the break, creating a more focused aesthetic than the hodgepodge mess of ABC's other summer premiere, the disappointing "You Don't Know Jack."

So "The Wayne Brady Show" is a solid production with a brilliant star, but can an earnest variety show hold an audience on post-modern, post-Gen-X, post-millennial television?

I believe it can. "Brady" is aware of its decades-old variety roots, and it uses them to its advantage. The dance numbers are outlandish, and the sketches are goofy, but it's all done with a knowing wink.

Even Brady himself is reminiscent of many of the old stars, especially the late Flip Wilson. Wilson's show was similar to Brady's in that it was driven largely by the talents of one man. And when Brady goes in drag to impersonate his grandmother, it's hard not to think of Wilson's signature character, Geraldine.

The producers of "Brady" want this show to feel a little like its ancestors. By combining a fresh face with kitsch sensibility, the show positions itself well for both Baby Boomers and Gen-Y hipsters.

Whether Brady can single-handedly bring ABC back to the #1 spot remains to be seen, but he will at least resurrect a long-dead interest in the prime-time variety show.

"The Wayne Brady Show" airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.