(Above: Mie and Kei with Jeff Altman in the hot tub.)
A lot of the television that I remember from the 1970s included something you just don’t see anymore: the variety show. The show format had a long, successful history. Mentioning the names of some of the hosts bring back pleasant memories of the family gathered around the console on a weekend evening watching a cavalcade of stars: Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams, Mac Davis, and – my favorite of the bunch – Carol Burnett. Each show featured comedy sketches, musical guests singing their biggest hits (and others trying to appear hip), and good, wholesome family entertainment.
That all went off the rails in 1979. NBC, desperate for a hit show, became aware of two 21-year-old girls in Japan who were a) cute and b) selling a ton of records. Fred Silverman, then the boss at NBC, enlisted Sid and Marty Krofft, creators of some of the weirdest kids shows ever (see “Lidsville” if you doubt me), to produce a family-friendly program to be hosted by an up-and-coming comic. If the popularity pays off in the States, Silverman thought, the network would be just fine.
Everything that could have gone wrong did. First of all, despite assurances that Mie and Kei – the members of Pink Lady – could speak English, they could not. All of the singing that they did was learned phonetically. Their punch lines on the show would have to be delivered that way as well. Jeff Altman didn’t exactly have the charisma to carry the show. (Rumor has it that the Kroffts were given a list of comedians available on the cheap, and Altman was on the top of the list because it was alphabetical. Had a few people passed, they would have gotten down to “Letterman, Dave.”) And the humor? Holy racism, Batman. Or perhaps xenophobia is a better word. Any opportunity to call attention to the girls’ status as “fish out of water” was done, usually with stereotypical references to Japanese culture and/or punctuated with a gong. The “highlight” of the show, if there was one, came at the end, and not just because it was over. Mie and Kei would change into bikinis and lure Altman into a hot tub. This may be the part of the show I remember best merely because I was a ten-year-old boy in the summer of ’79.
The show ran exactly five weeks. Oddly, it featured a fantastic roster of musical guests: Blondie, Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper – even Roy Orbison. It also had Donny Osmond sing with the girls to balance that out. The guys who maintain the VideoPiratesPhilly Youtube channel have put together a nice montage of just how terrible the show was. If you’ve blocked it out of your memory, allow me to bring it back. (An episode I remember like it was yesterday, for some reason, was when Hugh Hefner brought a bunch of Playmates on the show, and the girls joked about having small breasts compared to the bunnies. Family-friendly! It’s in the montage. The end-of-the-show hot tub sketch from that week – complete with BJ and the Bear – is one of the creepiest things you’ll watch today.)
All of this awfulness did not keep Pink Lady off of the Billboard charts. They did manage to crack into the Top 40 that summer with “Kiss In The Dark.” Clearly, someone was watching this show, and buying the records.
In case you were wondering – Mie and Kei still perform in Japan, occasionally together on the nostalgia circuit. If they head this way this summer, I’ll make sure you’re among the first to know.
You weren’t misremembering things – this was all real. You can hear “Kiss In the Dark” by clicking here.