50 Years Ago: Sonny and Cher Take Their Shtick to Television
During the mid-'60s, Sonny & Cher skyrocketed to the top of the pop music charts. Cher’s statuesque figure beside the short, mustachioed Sonny made for a striking combination. Enhanced by onstage banter and colorful television appearances, it didn’t take long for the odd couple to land a variety show of its own. The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour premiered on Aug. 1, 1971.
Cherilyn Sarkisian was just 16 when she left home to start a career in Los Angeles. Not long after, she met Sonny Bono, an older, established songwriter. They became friends, then business partners and, soon, lovers. Originally called Caesar and Cleo, Bono billed the duo as Sonny & Cher around the release of their breakout single “I Got You Babe” in 1965.
Finding fast fame, Sonny & Cher churned out several hits throughout the '60s, but by 1971 they weren't producing much new music. Instead, the newlyweds traveled cross-country, performing songs and bits in clubs and perfecting their bickering comic style. The couple's look naturally lent itself to comedy. The head of CBS programming, Fred Silverman, saw one of these gigs and, according to legend, was so impressed that he immediately offered the duo a TV show.
Watch Sonny & Cher Perform 'I Got You Babe'
The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was designed as a summer replacement series for the network. Its premise was simple enough: Every episode opened with the theme song, which bled into the pair’s 1967 song “The Beat Goes On.” Then Cher, glamorous in glorious Bob Mackie designs, would rib Bono sarcastically in an opening monologue. Rather than glossing over the obvious differences between Sonny and Cher, the comedy leaned into this amusing setup. Critiquing one another’s looks and talent, the couple presented a new way to be married on TV, one that resonated with audiences.
The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour earned high ratings and was quickly added to CBS’ prime-time lineup. Besides the monologue, each half-hour featured musical performances and various comedy sketches, like “Mr. & Ms.,” “Sonny’s Pizza,” “At the Launderette” and “The Fortune Teller.”
Employing many writers and producers from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour — which was canceled two years earlier — The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour appealed to that earlier show’s somewhat edgy fan base. In that spirit, skits on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour featured many of the era’s hottest comedians. Regular cast members included Teri Garr, Murray Langston and Steve Martin, who wrote for the show as well.
Watch ‘The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour’ Opening
Celebrity guests also routinely appeared on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, among them Carol Burnett, Merv Griffin, Farrah Fawcett, Glen Campbell, the Jackson 5, Burt Reynolds and even Ronald Reagan. Sonny and Cher's child appeared often, too, singing alongside their famous parents. (At the time, Chaz Bono was called Chastity. They have since transitioned.)
Despite all the big-name guest stars, the success of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour thrived on the duo’s marriage. And in show business, that’s a tricky concept to pull off. The couple split in the fall of 1974 and, during a highly publicized divorce suit, Cher accused her domineering partner of "involuntary servitude." That acrimonious breakup forced their series off the air after four popular seasons.
Watch Chaz Bono on ‘The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour’
Both Bono and Cher went on to lead solo variety shows: The Sonny Comedy Revue and Cher, on ABC and CBS, respectively. And while Cher fared well (much better than The Sonny Comedy Revue, which ran for one ratings-starved season), the star canceled her program in its second season to reunite with her ex-husband for the newly imagined Sonny and Cher Show.
As professionals, Bono and Cher put the divorce behind them. But when performing as exes, rather than fiery lovers, their interactions lacked the spirit that had characterized The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. Remarried to Gregg Allman, Cher was pregnant at the time with her second child, Elijah. Clearly, she was moving on. And at the same time, the old variety-show model was losing mainstream appeal.
After a short second season, The Sonny and Cher Show was canceled in 1977 — for good. But it was not the last we heard from either star. In the late ‘80s, Bono embarked on a surprising career in politics. Meanwhile, Cher went on to embark on a career in, well, just about everything.