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The Worst Show in the History of Television?
A Look at "Pink Lady and Jeff"
Pink Lady and Jeff is the worst show in the history of television. Or so it's widely considered, among other such cathode-ray catastrophes as Supertrain and My Mother the Car.
Produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, Pink Lady was a prime-time variety show that briefly erred -- that is, aired -- on NBC in 1980. It was hosted by the female Japanese pop duo Pink Lady, Mitsuyo (Mie) Nemoto and Keko (Kei) Masuda. They were stars in Japan, but other than a moderately popular American single ("Kiss in the Dark" hit #37 in 1979), they were unknown in the US.
It was baffling that a major network gave such an obscure act its own show, especially one that spoke virtually no English. As a remedy, NBC brought aboard hack comedian Jeff Altman to serve as Pink Lady's translator. The trio was then joined each week by a slew of celebrity guests for a mind-numbing hour of comedy sketches and musical performances, and at the end of each show, everybody jumped into a hot tub.
Pink Lady premiered at 10 p.m. (9 Central) on Saturday March 1, 1980. A tuxedo-clad Altman walked onstage, delivered his lame schtick to the studio audience (whose ecstatic response was no doubt enhanced by canned laughter and applause), and then introduced Pink Lady. Out they came, wearing kimonos and singing some dirge in Japanese. However, following a few somber moments, the music kicked into high gear. Pink Lady tore off their robes to reveal sparkling pink dresses, and they tore into "Boogie Wonderland." Welcome to Pink Lady!
Afterwards they joined Altman for some scripted banter, but a communication gap was immediately apparent. The girls giggled on cue at Altman's unfunny jokes and recited their own punchlines in phonetic English, though they seemed to comprehend neither. Everybody looked confused. Regardless, Altman carried on like a slightly lecherous chaperone. He made fun of their thick accents, and they kept telling him how cute he was. He responded, "You're just turned on by my sexy round eyes!"
This pretty much set the tone for the remainder of the series, in which our heroes were joined by the likes of Sherman Hemsley, Larry Hagman, Florence Henderson, Lorne Greene, Robby the Robot, Boomer the dog (star of NBC's Here's Boomer), and Bear the monkey (costar of NBC's B.J. and the Bear). Old-school entertainers Jerry Lewis, Red Buttons, and Sid Caesar were trotted out for grandma; the kids were treated to videos by Cheap Trick, Blondie, and Alice Cooper. Jim Varney, later of "Ernest P. Worrell" fame, led a small supporting cast of regular players, which also included a fat guy dressed as a sumo wrestler who chased Altman around the stage.
The unimaginative sketches were built around Altman's limited comedy stylings, featuring his trite impersonations of Johnny Carson, Howard Cosell, and "Disco Dick Nixon" -- and that was just the first episode. He routinely drew upon his original characters as well -- a faith-healing preacher, a punch-drunk boxer and TV pitchman Art Nuvo, hustler of discount artwork. The subject matter didn't help, as much of the humor relied on already-stale topics: Jaws, the energy crisis, and a performance at the "Bland Ole Opry" by the Carter Family -- Jimmy, Rosalyn, and Amy.
Pink Lady fumbled through the sketches as well, but their relative forte was the musical numbers. Whether they sang live in broken English or ineptly lip-synched to prerecorded tapes, their performances were usually augmented by their synchronized dancing. They covered hits of the day, like "Le Freak," "Ease on Down the Road," "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and "Dancing Queen," and also worked in the Pink Lady originals "UFO" and "Monster." Donny Osmond joined in for "We are Family," and Greg Evigan helped out with "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart." Hugh Hefner, surrounded by a quintet of Playmates (as well as Pink Lady, all dressed in bunny costumes), mangled "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)."
Each show ended with a running gag: the girls stripped down to bikinis and got into a hot tub, and tried coaxing the fully tuxed Altman to join them. Despite his weekly protests, it always worked, and then the show came to an end. Sayonara and goodnight.
Critics hated it, the ratings stunk, and after a mere five weeks, it was cancelled. Moreover, Pink Lady was pretty much the last gasp in a dying genre. Variety shows were once a staple of network television, with hits like Sonny and Cher and Tony Orlando and Dawn, but few have appeared since Pink Lady, and none became hits.
Yet in all fairness, Pink Lady wasn't particularly worse than the other variety shows, though the format itself was fairly loathsome in general. Nor was Pink Lady the TV equivalent of the so-bad-it's-good Plan 9 from Outer Space. Nevertheless, its unprecedented weirdness certainly made it more intriguing than, say, The Jerry Reed When You're Hot You're Hot Hour.
Probably because it was such an oddity, coupled with its dubious "worst show" distinction, Rhino released the series on DVD in 2001. The three-disc set contains all five episodes, as well as an unaired sixth episode, a photo gallery, and an essay on Pink Lady's history (after the show's demise, Pink Lady returned to Japan and soon disbanded). Altman, who spent the next two decades knocking around TV's fringes, was sporting enough to participate in the DVD's release. He blithely introduces each episode ("put your finger down your throat when you see this one"), and in a separate interview feature, he speculates, "If we did the show today, the girls would probably be piñatas, and we'd just come out and whack the crap out of 'em."
The question remains why this mess was ever produced in the first place. Maybe it was just a misguided gimmick. Maybe it was a tax shelter. Most likely, it was a failed attempt at finding an American audience to ogle skinny Asian girls in spandex.
Originally appeared in 2003 on the defunct pop-culture site Jaguaro.org.
© 2004-2011 Steve Mandich