Question: How long was Sonny and Cher's show on the air and why was it canceled? Thanks. Sue P., Ocean City, Md.
Televisionary: Well, that answer's not quite so simple since we have to talk about the pre- and post-divorce incarnations. What most people think of when they mention the hit show is The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, which launched on CBS in August 1971 as a summer tryout and met with enough enthusiasm to land a regular slot on the schedule.
When Salvatore and Cherilyn (née La Piere) Bono first hit the air, they'd already enjoyed success in the music field, recording such hits as "I Got You, Babe" and "The Beat Goes On." But that was the mid-'60s, and in between Sonny had managed to squander about $2 million of their recording money on an ill-fated movie, which also kept them out of the musical limelight. "[W]hen we got back into recording, the heat was off," Sonny told TV Guide in 1972. "I made a record of a song called 'Superstar' in 1970, and we couldn't get anybody to play it. Then Karen Carpenter recorded it and it was a hit. So we knew we had cooled off," Cher added.
Faced with the prospect of losing a 22-room mansion in Bel Air and a collection of exotic cars and motorcycles, the two hit the nightclub circuit, working up a new act that added comedy to the singing. After two years, they'd climbed their way from small venues in small towns to major gigs in Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles, and then managed to parlay some successful talk-show appearances into a one-shot guest-hosting gig on The Merv Griffin Show. In the summer of '71, CBS rolled the dice with them, and it paid off well enough that the suits rearranged their fall line-up to make room for the Bonos.
TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory called their effort "far and away the best new comedy hour on the air." The set-up of the hapless Sonny being mercilessly needled by his beautiful wife was a hit with mainstream America and the two were back in the bigtime bigger than they'd been in the music industry. To a degree, no one was more tickled at that development than Sonny, who'd gotten used to being treated like the rock-'n'-roll freak back when he was selling millions of records. "Six, seven years ago, when Cher and I came through this part of the country, those people were locking in their kids and calling out the cops," he said in 1973, after signing autographs for a family of admirers in Monroe, La., while taking their show on the road. "Now we're the establishment."
Indeed they were and middle America loved them. But the problem with being part of the establishment is that you have to remain established. When you build that large an audience and people in nearly all demographics are comfortable with you, it doesn't take much to upset the balance. So with that in mind, when the Bonos decided to call it quits on their nine-year marriage in 1974, both they and the network decided that would be it for the show, too, despite its continuing strong performance in the ratings department.
"Remember, when Sonny first took me over, and married me, I was only 17, and he had to take care of every detail of my life," Cher said of her husband, who was 12 years her senior and nurtured her talents during their early show-biz years, at the show's final taping in 1974. "But now I have to break out. And Sonny's not willing to make the transition with me. He's always been used to Cher's being one way, and no other way. It's doing this show that's changed me. It was my first chance at really being a 50-50 partner with Sonny."
Each tried to go their separate ways, but The Sonny Comedy Revue lasted only three months on ABC that same year. CBS's musical variety hour, Cher, struggled in the ratings for a year before Cher decided to give her ex a call and CBS announced The Sonny and Cher Show, which returned the couple to the stage and screen in 1975. "Doing a show alone was more than I could handle," Cher explained. "I picked up the phone and tracked down Sonny, who was out doing one-nighters, in Denver, and I said, 'Son, I've got this crazy idea....'"
The problem was, the bloom was off the rose as far as the audience was concerned. Good-natured jabs in a happy marriage came off as cheap shots and nagging after the couple had gone their separate ways. (You know how Howard Stern was able to get laughs cavorting with strippers and porn stars when he was married, but seems a tad too mean-spirited and creepy when he does it now? Kind of the same thing.) The new version left the air in August 1977.
All in all, of course, that may well have been the best thing for both of them since it forced each to change course professionally. Sonny launched a successful political career, serving as mayor of Palm Springs, Cal., and then as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Sadly, he died in a skiing accident in 1998.) Cher went on to display some serious acting chops, garnering a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Silkwood in 1983 and a Best Actress win for Moonstruck in 1987. On top of that, she recorded a string of hit records.
Certainly, many people have done a lot worse after being dumped from a network's schedule.