(Pictured: L to R, Margot Chapman, Jon Carroll, Taffy Danoff, and Bill Danoff of the Starland Vocal Band.)
The limited-run summer variety series was a staple of 70s TV. Networks signed various performers to appear in four- or six-episode shows to burn off airtime in the season when viewership was the lowest. A sure-fire way to draw eyeballs was to surround a popular singer with a company of actors. Since many of the summer series were a half-hour long, all it took to make an episode was two or three songs linked with a handful of comedy bits.
In the summer of 1976, the Starland Vocal Band took “Afternoon Delight” to #1. The next winter, they won two Grammys, including Best New Artist. So in the summer of 1977, CBS gave them a six-week variety show. The Starland Vocal Band Show premiered on Sunday, July 31, tucked between Rhoda and the CBS Sunday Night Movie. Each episode features several performances by the group, shot in various places: a club in Washington, DC (the group’s hometown), a concert at Pepperdine University, an outdoor stage in Great Falls, Montana, and a recording studio in Los Angeles. Other recurring bits have the group attending a Renaissance fair, and exploring an abandoned amusement park in surreal video bits.
Linking all of these are comedy segments, often performed by a young man who functioned as the program’s host: David Letterman. (Some of Letterman’s stuff, collected here, will remind you of bits he would do in years to come.) Also in the cast is Jeff Altman, who plays several recurring characters including Billy Carter and a nature-show host; he and Letterman do a recurring bit in which Letterman interviews a character played by Altman and ends up punching him in the stomach. The show also includes brief segments by political humorist Mark Russell taped at a Washington hotel with the members of the group in the audience, and scattered appearances by Firesign Theater veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman.
So The Starland Vocal Band Show was not the traditional Hollywood soundstage variety show. That doesn’t mean it worked, though. A regular viewer would quickly learn the difference between “recurring” and “repetitive.” The opening and closing credits are exactly the same pieces of tape each week. The musical numbers come from the same four venues. Some of the recurring comedy bits, and many of the jokes, land with a thud. Proctor and Bergman’s stuff seems particularly toothless given their background, and while Russell could be razor-sharp (as on his long-running series of PBS comedy specials), he’s fairly tame on this show. Letterman is always watchable, but he had a lot of clunkers to dismiss, in the same way he would for the rest of his network TV career: with an expression, an inflection, or a throwaway line that makes clear how dumb something is, just as the viewer is having the same thought. In 2015, group member Jon Carroll told USA Today, “It wasn’t all bad. It was mostly bad.”
I watched all six episodes, which are available at YouTube and linked in the Jon Carroll interview above. The producers missed a bet by not featuring Margot Chapman and Taffy Danoff more than they did, because Margot has some acting chops and Taffy is gorgeous. But there is one moment that blew me away: in the final episode, aired September 5, 1977, the group performed a stunning acapella version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”
Given its oddball comedic tone, the surreal amusement park videos, and some weird linking bits featuring a squawking goose and the group watching a video monitor in the middle of a hayfield, it’s clear that the show was aimed at a sophisticated viewing audience—young, urban, hip. The problem with that is the Starland Vocal Band itself. Some of their songs are almost comically bland, and at one venue, Taffy and Margot wear long dresses like something from Little House on the Prairie. Their rock songs sound OK, but rockin’ or not, they tend to come off pretty square. If CBS hoped to capture the young, urban, hip crowd that stayed up late for Saturday Night Live, The Starland Vocal Band Show wasn’t going to get much of it.