It was a 1971 guest spot on the 'The Merv Griffin Show' that convinced CBS programming head Fred Silverman that Sonny and Cher, one of the top touring acts of the sixties (but who's hits dried up in 1967), could be the network's next big thing.
When The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted on CBS the first day of August in 1971 as a five-week summer replacement series, it was an immediate ratings hit.
The bright musical arrangements interspersed with humorous on-stage bickering from the husband and wife team scored big in the lounges they were performing in, and this translated well into television. This was an act that many say was largely inspired by Louis Prima and Keely Smith's long-running Las Vegas routine.
CBS was looking to regain the young audience they lost when they canceled the popular but controversial Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour two years earlier - Sonny and Cher proved to be the show the network was looking for.
And with good reason, the producers, (Allan Blye and Chris Bearde) and the writers were all Smothers Brothers' alumni. Tommy Smothers once remarked, "I turned on the TV one night and there was our show. Only it starred Sonny and Cher!"
Based on the success of the summer show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was back on the air in December of 1971, replacing The Chicago Teddy Bears Friday nights at 8:00.
"This is an explosion," Fred Silverman said about the couple's summer success. "You could count on one hand the number of times this has happened in the history of television. And it didn't cost us $10 million and two floors of the CBS building to get them."
By the fall of 1972, in its Wednesday night at 8:00 time slot, the show became a consistent top-ten winner. Before long millions were buying movie magazines with the couple on the cover, relishing in their lavish lifestyle of expensive cars, mad shopping sprees and an opulent home in the Hollywood Hills.
The program featured regulars Teri Garr, Freeman King, Peter Cullen, Billy Van, Murray Langston (later the 'Unknown Comic'), Ted Zeigler, and Chastity Bono, the couple's toddler. The series was famous for the outlandish outfits designed by Bob Mackie, (who did the costumes for Cher only, as he was under contract to Carol Burnett for her entire show) and catchy musical numbers scored by Billy Barnes.
A highlight of each episode was the good-natured verbal sparring between the husband and wife that opened each show:
SONNY: "Cher, c'mon, stop it. My friends are out there watching the show."
CHER: "Hi Dopey. Hi Doc."
SONNY: "What's with you tonight? Just take it easy, will you please? What if you were sitting out there and watching us, you know, right now. Be honest, what would you say?"
CHER: "I'd say the same thing everybody else says. What does she see in that man?"
SONNY: "Before we go on I just want to remind you of what day this is. It's a very unlucky day."
CHER: "You mean Tuesday the fourth?"
SONNY: "No, it's Friday the thirteenth. What's Tuesday the fourth?"
CHER: "The day we got married."
SONNY: "C'mon Cher, don't make jokes on Friday the thirteenth. Haven't you ever heard of black cats crossing your path and breaking a mirror and then seven years of bad luck?"
CHER: "It'll be eight Tuesday the fourth."
In truth, all was not happy in Sonny and Cher land. By 1973, the tabloids were ripe with stories of their offstage shouting matches, canceled gigs (including a last minute cancellation in Vegas, filled by Johnny Carson), and even reports of Cher sporting a black eye.
Just as Sonny and Cher's recording career was coming to an end, Cher began charting top-ten solo records. Truth was, they had been living separate lives for some time in their Bel Air mansion; CBS threatened to cancel the show if one of them were to move out.
Cher explained why the act broke up: "If you watched The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour you assumed I was this wisecracking girl who ran our lives off stage because Sonny seemed so meek and easy going.
"Hah! In real life he was this Sicilian dictator husband - I could say nothing! We were in the top 10, we had all this money, everybody told me how lucky and happy I was - when actually I weighed 93 pounds, was constantly sick, could not eat, could not sleep. I got suicidal. And I thought, 'Either I'm going to leave Sonny, or I am going to jump out of a window'."
LEAVING A HIT SHOW BEHIND
With the TV show finishing 8th for the 1973-74 season, Sonny Bono filed for divorce; 58 hours later on February 22, 1974, the final episode of 'The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour' was taped.
CBS had no choice but cancel one of their biggest hits when it became apparent that the duo couldn't work together any longer. Cher wanted a solo career and no longer required a prefix.
'The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour' left the air May 29, 1974 - then one television show split into two.
The progression of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, to the Sonny Comedy Review, to Cher, to the Sonny and Cher Show in just six short years.
Sonny & Cher were a big draw in fabulous Las Vegas and the gambling capital of Lake Tahoe!
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