Dick Van Dyke’s forgotten variety show found the ''perfect way'' to introduce general audiences to Andy Kaufman
Steve Martin also wrote for the show that "just worked beautifully.” And lasted 11 episodes.
Dick Van Dyke made some bold moves in 1976. Not only did he shock audiences by turning up on the other side of Columbo’s pointed finger in the Columbo mystery "Negative Reaction," but he also danced back onto TV with a comeback in comedy by hosting a variety show.
Called Van Dyke & Company, the variety show debuted at a moment when, as Van Dyke pointed out to the Archive of American Television, such hourlong variety shows, aside from The Carol Burnett Show, were fading from popularity on TV. So, even though he was confident in the cast and everybody involved, he admitted to having doubts it could catch on, saying of the timing, “I questioned the wisdom of that.”
It turned out his gut was correct, and Van Dyke & Company never caught on with audiences, even though it beat out Saturday Night Live (the season that introduced Bill Murray, no less) to win the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy-Variety or Music Series in 1977. NBC pulled the plug after just one season.
Van Dyke joked in the interview, “I don’t think the public ever really discovered [Van Dyke & Company], but we won the Emmy. We actually beat Saturday Night Live for an Emmy that year. And people said, ‘What? I never saw it!’”
Perhaps the best-remembered episode of Van Dyke & Company featured John Denver. In one sketch, Denver and Van Dyke appeared as marionettes, dressed in elaborate costumes. It was the second episode of the variety show, and in the middle of this sketch, something memorably unusual happened.
Before the sketch could resolve, comedian Andy Kaufman wandered out and interrupted everything. It was a bafflingly madcap decision, and it played out to the delight of audiences, who'd only ever caught Kaufman doing guest spots on popular shows like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson or Saturday Night Live. That’s why the show made the unconventional decision to permanently introduce Kaufman this jarring way each episode.
Van Dyke said, “I think we introduced to the general television audience Andy Kaufman for the first time. And we used him in a wonderful way. We never presented him. He would come in and interrupt me, in the middle of a song or a dance or a sketch and take over the show. And I would always leave, and it just worked beautifully.”
Even though Kaufman came out onstage to regularly interrupt him, Van Dyke insisted he never felt upstaged by him, further praising the show’s creative choice, saying, “The audience loved him. By not presenting him, you know, showcasing him, just having him as this odd little fellow who wandered onto the stage, I think was the perfect way to present him.”
Other than breaking up scenes, Kaufman also performed hilariously offbeat impersonations on the show, including pop icons Elvis Presley and The Fonz. It was comedy fans' most dependable source for Andy Kaufman's distinct humor until Taxi debuted in 1978 (watch Taxi's premiere episode in full here).
Beyond bringing Kaufman into a TV cast for the first time, Van Dyke & Company also first introduced us to Super Dave Osborne and featured comedy writers in their prime, including Steve Martin. Van Dyke fondly recalled a particular sketch Martin brought to the show:
“Steve [Martin] was one of the writers on the show. I secretly think he was writing his own act, but we did some stuff that I think was wonderful. We had a weekly sketch called "The Bright Family," simply a family of morons, and we had more fun with that, because the dumber it was, the funnier. I used to have trouble getting through the sketch because I couldn’t keep a straight face.”
Just about everybody funny wound up on Van Dyke & Company or the special it sprang from, from veterans to up-and-comers, including Chevy Chase, Tom Smothers, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Flip Wilson, Harvey Korman, Ed McMahon, Carol Burnett and many more. It all began with a TV special that according to producer Allan Blye was “well-reviewed and they asked us to do the series.”
Unfortunately, it lasted a mere 11 episodes, but Van Dyke said there were no hard feelings, because, “I kind of knew.”
Looking back, Van Dyke seemed at peace with the fate of his short-lived variety show, “It was a pretty loose affair. We tried a lot of things that hadn’t been tried before.”