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Maya Rudolph pays homage to the golden age of variety shows

Maya Rudolph
Maya Rudolph

The hour-long NBC special “The Maya Rudolph Show” (which premieres on May 19, 2014, at 10 p.m. EDT/PDT) reconnects with television’s classic variety shows, utilizing Maya Rudolph’s sketch-comedy skills honed from her years on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” the variety show that had Rudolph as a cast member from 2000 to 2007. Jam-packed with hilarious skits and musical performances, Rudolph knows how to find the funny with her guests stars: Andy Samberg, Kristen Bell, Fred Armisen, Chris Parnell, Craig Robinson and Sean Hayes. Janelle Monáe is a musical guest. R&B singer/producer Raphael Saadiq is the bandleader. During a telephone conference call with journalists, Rudolph talked about starring in her first TV special.

Maya Rudolph
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How did “The Maya Rudolph Show” come about? Was it a case of you pitching the idea of doing the variety show or did executive producer Lorne Michaels come to you and say, "Have you ever thought about doing something like this?"

I had always wanted to do something like this but wasn't really sure exactly what it was. Once I left “SNL”, I sort of had the bug and couldn't really cure it. It's hard when you perform live on a regular basis and then you stop performing live because it feels like there's a part of you missing.

And so I started talking about it to people. And it wasn't until I started working on “Up All Night”, working again regularly with Lorne. I mean one of the reasons I wanted to do “Up All Night” was to continue to be a part of my “SNL” family and keep that alive. And we got to talking and I said, "You know, I really want to do a variety show. I think after all this time of being away from the show and getting out there and doing movies and figuring out what it is that makes me happiest, I think I realized, "This is really something that feels like me and something that not only do I want to do, but I want to do with as many of my friends and people that I admire as possible."

Did you have any like hesitation in trying to revive the variety show format?

No. I think I'm an analog person by nature. I've always thought it would be a good idea. And I think years ago when I was talking about it with people with real business sense would say, "Well, I think people have tried it and I'm not sure, I don't know if it's the right time." And I never really think in those terms. I'm more interested in what's going to feel good. And I feel like creatively you're at your best when you're doing something that you love. So I'm just glad that people were actually receptive to it right now.

It was sort of good timing because I was going to try to do it no matter what. Nine times out 10, some of my ideas tend to be deep-rooted in the ‘70s or somewhere that has nothing to do with what's going on now. So I think this was just a lucky timing thing that people really thought, "You know what, I really feel like this is what people want right now." I think people want to watch TV and feel good and laugh. And that they were just simply receptive to me doing the show was a really nice welcome, a nice feeling.

When you were saying before about how a lot of your ideas are rooted in the ‘70s and how this felt right to you it would seem to me that at the heart of this, if you strip it all away, there would be a feeling for those loyal to the variety format that it brings something that TV maybe is lacking today. Is that what it is for you? And if that's the case, what is that thing that you think is lacking in TV that a variety show can do?

You know it's funny, I feel like I've been asked that question a lot and you would think I was smarter than I am to pinpoint what's lacking and find a way to fill that void. But the truth is I think that I'm just a person who feels, I don't know, very attached to this format. Variety is what I was raised on. So it's something that's very precious to me and something and it's a language that I understand very well.

And I think because I have such a strong love for it and it's what I grew up on in terms just teaching myself based on the shows that I loved and watching the performers that I loved, I think that that's something that everyone from my generation appreciates and says, "Yes, we need that." But it's sort of one of those things where I certainly wasn't saying, "Hey, we need this. Let's do it now."

It was sort of like once I got it moving, I had a lot of people chime in and say, "You know what? I do feel like this is a really good time for this." And I started feeling like, "OK good, I've got some interest in this and support."

I think the other thing is my friend Jimmy [Fallon] has been doing an unbelievable job on “Late Night” and now on “The Tonight Show.” And what he brings is an incredible variety show. And people are so receptive to that. And it brings people such a large amount of joy, not only watching it, but I think all the people that you see that come, all the guests that come on the show, I think you see them doing things that are out of their norm, out of their comfort zone, which is kind of the classic thing that we all got a chance to see. We got a chance to see people come on and play concert piano that you'd never seen do anything like that before.

And they sort of - they had these special skills, these great people stopping by and doing these cool things that were out of the ordinary for them. I think the reception that Jimmy's had with what he's been doing has really started this sort of awareness of, "Hey, this feels good to audiences." And I think people are starting to pick up on that.

So you know, it's sort of like the chicken and the egg. I certainly just feel like I got lucky in that I've been wanting to do this for so long that it's just good timing. But I do feel like people want this and need this. And I wouldn't say that they're lacking it, but in the sense that there's a whole generation that doesn't even really know TV in this way. And so I feel like it's a great thing to introduce. I watch “The Carol Burnett Show” with my kids, and they love it.

What specific parts or format of the show are you the most excited to share with the audience, particularly those who might not be familiar with the variety format?

One of the things that I thought would be really exciting about the show is not just I love doing sketch comedy and I'm a sucker for anything musical just because music is such a huge part of my life and such a big love, but I'm really excited by those fun things you get to see in variety shows like when a special guest turns up in a piece and just starts singing a song and it just kind of blows you away. Those things that are out of the ordinary that you don't always get to see or really unique pairings of guests; that I was really excited about.

One of the things that I thought about and what I had watched in variety was that excitement of you never know who's coming next. And when people turn up like that and it just feels like a party and it feels fun and joyful. I think the nicest thing about it is that you can tell that people are having fun while you're watching it, which I think in turn gives the audience a feeling of being a part of the party too.

And we've got some amazing guests that just came to have fun. And they did a beautiful job. And it was really cool to actually unveil them in front of the audience and have the audience go, "Whoa, this person is unbelievable." It was really exciting.

Will any cast members from “Saturday Night Live” or “Up All Night” be on “The Maya Rudolph Show”?

Yes, I was lucky enough to have Fred Armisen and Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell all on my special. And those guys are like my brothers I know them so well and they're such wonderful people.

And then I met Sean Hayes doing “Up All Night,” who I fell madly in love with, and we just have a special bond. I find him to be like a thoroughbred when it comes to comedy. He's just unbelievable, not only as a comedian and a performer, and happens to be incredible [person]. He's also done Broadway.

He can do anything. He's like a quadruple threat or whatever number threat he is, he is. But he also just is one of those people with one of the best attitudes possible, which is you know, "Life is good. We get to do this." He just comes to play and have fun. And we laughed our asses off.

And all those guys did. Afterwards, we all said, "That was really fun." And I thought, "That's exactly what I wanted." So having your friends around when you're doing stuff is one of the major elements of the joy that is possible, that just creates I think a better energy and a better comedy. It's just more fun to do. I'm really lucky that I have great friends that came through for me. It was really, really, really fun.

Maya, you mentioned that you and your kids watch Carol Burnett together. Are there any other past variety shows that you consider at least semi-templates for yours?

Yes, “The Muppet Show” actually is the first, I think, variety show. Let's be honest. I think they've caught snippets of “Saturday Night Live” here and there, although it is much later at night than they were aware of. But I think when I hosted, my oldest daughter saw a little bit of it. Because you know, I used to bring her to the studio when she was 1, so she's biologically, I think part “SNL.”

But I feel like “The Muppet Show” was actually something I watched all the time, but also an enormous, large template for what we're doing in that it's a whole universe that's created. And I feel like it's a very joyful atmosphere. And I feel like what was always nice about “The Muppet Show” was when guests came on they entered the world of the Muppets and you just felt like anything could happen, but you could tell that they were having fun. There's just something that lights people's eyes up when they're around the Muppets and they're doing things that they don't normally do, and you know, some strange creature is singing a duet with them.

And I sort of have this mandate, this edict with the writers that I said, “I just kept saying ‘Muppet Show, Muppet Show,’ and that feeling of joy and that feeling of having fun, of when you get to sing a song with someone or go into a sketch with someone that it should be that playful quality." It always makes me happy.

And you know, “The Muppet Show” is probably the first variety show that I was so happy I could buy a box set and put it on for my kids and sit and watch it with them and relive everything and enjoy it. But it's like when you have when you have like a girlfriend and you get to make her a mix tape. I was like, "I finally get to share this with my kids." And it's so exciting to turn somebody on to something that you know is so fantastic and cool and it's going to blow their minds. And that was really it for me.

We know that you have children and you are exposing them to this variety lifestyle. Do they know that they come from such a talented lineage? Like do they listen to their grandmother Minnie Riperton’s music and do they have a favorite song?

They just love their Grandma Minnie and they know who she is and how special she is. And they love hearing her voice. I think they always feel like that's an exciting thing for them. Yes.

Maya, you were talking about sort of your kids and their reactions to shows from the 1970s and their reaction. What do you think a reaction is from somebody in their late teens or early 20s to this type of entertainment? Do you have to appeal to them in some way in a different way?

I think first and foremost. it's important to establish the show that you want to do that makes you laugh and not fall prey to the idea that you need to make it for a specific type of audience. My feeling has always been, "Funny is funny."

And I feel like especially now, with the way that people are sharing something can be on a talk show at night and the next day everyone's saying, "Did you see that clip from last night?,” you know what people are receptive to.

I think that we have so many channels now that there is a place for edgy, and I feel like there is a place for entertainment, and there is a place for just about everything. And I feel like not everything has to fall into the same category. I think that what makes this show feel special to me is that it is purely from a joyful place.

The intention is for the show to be fun and for it to be fun to make, which I feel like we succeeded. Because, for me, the high point was actually getting to create the show and then put it on its feet and then see everyone's faces while we were making it.

You know, one of the things that I missed after I left “SNL” was just getting to play with my friends. It's as simple as that. And I think that's a recipe that you can't manufacture, it just is. And when people have chemistry, it's just so palpable.

And I feel like that's a really fun element. You can't always get that authenticity of like just of people having a great time. So I feel like within that, my sense of humor can survive.

For more info: "The Maya Rudolph Show" website

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