Monday, February 11, 2019

Terrible Shows I Like: Pink Lady and Jeff

Fifteen years ago I was in the midst of writing a book called What Were They Thinking: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History. Research required the tracking down of several infamous TV moments on videocassette, from Joanie Loves Chachi and Dusty’s Trail to The Goddess of Love and The Star Wars Holiday Special.

One of the few series covered in the book that had already been released on DVD was Pink Lady and Jeff

Today, I’m not sure where all those VHS tapes with the other shows went, but I still have my Pink Lady DVDs. And I’ve watched them several times since that book was published. Yes, it’s a (mostly) terrible show. I said so in the book. But there’s something about the whole endeavor that I find irresistible.

I feel the same way about all of the variety shows from this era, so my defenses are down even for what is arguably the worst of them. They’re just so eager to please with their bright lighting and big smiles and upbeat songs. Disparaging all those happy faces feels like kicking a puppy.

I cannot help but be impressed by the audacity of the concept. A major network takes a Japanese singing duo, who are unknown in America and can’t speak English, pairs them with a third-rate comedian, and gives them a weekly one-hour series.

But when you learn it was launched by Sid and Marty Krofft, suddenly it makes sense. Crazy for them is just another day at the office. 

According to David Martindale’s book about Krofft TV, Pufnstuf & Other Stuff, Sid’s plan was to make the show even stranger than its premise, but his eccentricities were curbed by Fred Silverman, who just wanted to follow the format the Kroffts used for Donny & Marie. One can only wonder what might have happened had Sid been given free rein. It likely still would have failed, but it would have done so even more unforgettably. 

What emerged instead was as standard a variety show as one could expect from its assembled talent; Pink Lady, aka “Mie” and “Kei”, would open with a current hit like “Boogie Wonderland” or “Knock on Wood,” and then engage in comedic banter with Altman. They learned their lines and their songs phonetically, so most of the time they had no idea what they were saying.

There were recurring skits, many featuring Jim Varney before he found fame in the Ernest movies. Altman’s imitations of Richard Nixon, Howard Cosell and Johnny Carson will only make you appreciate Rich Little more, but he does make me laugh as Art Nuvo, a fast-talking salesman in a rundown strip mall selling knockoffs of classic works of art. “Here we’ve got Gainesburger’s ‘Blue Boy.’ Don’t like blue? We’ve got it in green, in beige…” 

And of course there were guest stars. That’s always part of the fun. Within these six episodes (that’s all there were) you’ll spot Jerry Lewis and Lorne Greene, Sid Caesar and Florence Henderson, Larry Hagman at the height of Dallas-mania, Teddy Pendergrass (whose cover of “On Broadway” is the series musical highlight) and Hugh Hefner singing “My Kind of Town (Chicago)” with Pink Lady dressed as Playboy bunnies. 

Pink Lady and Jeff debuted on March 1, 1980 and was gone by April. Even if it hadn’t aired opposite The Dukes of Hazzard, it’s hard to imagine any scenario under which it would have lasted longer.

And yet, I think some of the criticism of the show is unfair. It’s easy to mock Pink Lady’s pronunciations when they sing, but the problem was asking them to try in the first place. How many American singers could go to Japan and convincingly sing their top 40 in their native language? Late in the run they perform a couple of songs in Japanese, and you realize why they became so popular.

Most of the sketches don’t hold up. But you could say that about every variety series from Sonny & Cher to Tony Orlando & Dawn. The Carol Burnett Show is the only exception, and that’s the gold standard of the genre. 

Jeff Altman is no Tim Conway, but it’s hard to be funny when you have to respond to Mie saying, “You’re so handsome” with “You just get turned on by my sexy round eyes.” Every time I return to this series I appreciate a little more the effort he puts into trying to make this material work. I also like the self-effacing introductions he recorded for the DVD release back in 2001: “If you enjoyed episode one, you’ll drool over episode two. It’s really horrible.” 

The DVDs go for nearly 200 bucks on Amazon, making Pink Lady and Jeff a hot commodity at last. Only took 40 years. Put it on your shelf next to documentaries about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, because seeing the footage for yourself is the only way to believe something this bizarre actually once existed. 


  1. Um, was the "Pink Lady" TV series (aka "Pink Lady and Jeff") popular in Japan?

    Also, what do you have to say about the controversial 1985-86 cop series "Lady Blue," Mr. Hofstede? Jamie Rose was the show's lead. Considering that "Lady Blue" was an action show (albeit one that was quite violent by network TV standards of the mid-1980s), I'd be interested in checking it out. It's too bad that the British cop show "Dempsey and Makepeace" has never had a Region 1 DVD release.

  2. Speaking of "What Were They Thinking: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History," how did Mary Louise Weller fare as an actress in that one "Supertrain" episode, Mr. Hofstede? (You know, the one that you thought ripped off Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" too much.)

  3. Good Lord, I miss the 80s. Pink Lady and Jeff was also a guilty favorite of mine, why I have no answer. It just was.

    Mr. Stuart if they ever make Dempsey and Makepiece (an awesome show) available here, I may just have to buy it. Even if it's just so I can yell out - "Hey, that's Leather Tuscadero!" one more time.

  4. Desperate attempt by NBC to climb from the bottom where it had been for awhile. It's companion, from around the same time was "The Big Show" (Which seemed like a nice idea, but also didn't last).

  5. I'd love to revisit this, if only to see the Larry Hagman/Sid Caesar episode after reading Mark Evanier's great story about it at his blog a few years back.

  6. You obviously know nothing about stand-up comedy, as Jeff Altman was not a 3rd rate comedian by any means. Read the article, and you might learn something.

  7. I don't understand why this show was terribly criticized. I think for the most part Altman is very funny, and I've seen some of his stand-up routines. Sure the show was strange with two Japanese women, but I liked their banter with Jeff. Their songs were nicely done and usually upbeat, and then there was the great talent on the show. My wife and I watched the five shows that aired (their sixth show didn't) and it was our favorite show at the time. With the comedy and songs it was very upbeat, unlike other shows, and I now own all 6 on DVD.