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What is the Ed Sullivan Show?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Ed Sullivan Show is known as one of the longest running variety television shows in the history of broadcasting in the United States. The CBS network aired the program for 23 years, from 1948 to 1971. The studio from which it was broadcast, Studio 50, was renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater in 1967. The Late Show with David Letterman currently broadcasts from that location.

Among a plethora of variety shows that were popular during the 1950s and 1960s, the Ed Sullivan show was unique. It not only offered weekly entertainment that appealed to all ages, it was renowned as the place up-and-coming comedy and musical acts could gain the exposure—often considered paramount to becoming a star. Much like an appearance on the Johnny Carson show supposedly guaranteed the success of aspiring entertainers in the 1970s, the Ed Sullivan show was generally considered the best break a newcomer could get during these years.

Much of the show’s success was attributed to Ed Sullivan. A former newspaper sportswriter, his demeanor reflected that of an average guy, which had mass appeal to a huge demographic. Sullivan was often chided for his lackluster personality but his knack for picking raw talent to appear on his show was generally unsurpassed. He was also famous for paying top dollar to virtually unknown performers.

The typical lineup for an Ed Sullivan show included an internationally-based group of entertainers. This regularly included stand-up comedians, a freshly popular musical performer, a famous actor and either a juggler, acrobat or magician. Sullivan introduced each act with warmth and an air of support that inspired the audience to embrace them as well.

Some of the most famous musicians in history owe much of their early success to appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. Musical performers and groups that became icons after appearing on the show include Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and the Jackson 5. B.J. Thomas, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Doors also appeared on the show early in their careers. The Supremes and The Byrds also soared to fame after appearing on the show.

One aspect of the live broadcast show that added to its popularity was Sullivan’s conservative attitude. He was notorious for putting restrictions on his show’s performers. This was generally considered acceptable at the time since it was his show, and his wishes were rarely challenged.

A number of Sullivan’s performer instructions became nearly as famous as the performers themselves. For instance, he refused to let Elvis Presley be shown from the waist down when he sang because he found his hip gyrations offensive. He made The Rolling Stones change the lyrics of one of their songs, Let’s Spend the Night Together, to Let’s Spend Some Time Together, as he found the original title too sexually charged to be publicly broadcast. The Doors were told they had to change the Light My Fire line, “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” to “Girl we couldn't get much better.” Although they agreed to the change, they sang the original lyrics on the live show, much to Sullivan’s dismay.

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