Chris Bearde, who won an Emmy as part of the Laugh-In writing team, created The Gong Show and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and co-wrote what became known as the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special, died Sunday. He was 80.
Bearde grew up in Sydney, launching his career hosting a 1950s kids TV show in Australia. In the early 1960s, he landed a writing gig on the CTV comedy series Network for CTV. He went on to create CBC’s Front and Centre and Nightcap, the latter being Canada’s first late-night political satire program.
He moved to Hollywood in the mid-’60s and worked on variety specials including Where the Girls Are and Romp!! before landing the co-writing gig with Allen Blye on NBC’s 1968 Elvis Presley special. Originally titled simply Elvis, the program combined an intimate live performance by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll – who at the time hadn’t had a top 10 hit in three years – with Presley’s easygoing magnetism, a skintight black leather outfit and an early example of the “unplugged” that MTV would popularize more than a decade later. Airing on December 3, 1968, the resulting program was the top-rated TV special of the year and kick-started Presley career. It became known as the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special.
Around the same time, Bearde became a senior writer on NBC’s shamelessly slapstick political satire Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. It was an out-of-the-box smash, ranking as TV’s most popular primetime program in each of its first two season and launching the careers of such stars as Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, Eileen Brennan, Arte Johnson Henry Gisbon, Jo Anne Worley and many others. Bearde and the Laugh-In team shared the writing Emmy in 1968 and were nominated again in 1969. It remains a high-water mark of TV satirical comedy and just plain fun.
Bearde left the show after its second season and became a go-to writer-producer for the then-ubiquitous variety genre. After working on specials for Dinah Shore and Andy Williams, he created NBC’s 1970 summer series Andy Williams Presents Ray Stevens. That experience led to writing and producing The Andy Williams Show. He also worked on Williams’ 1971 Christmas special and other projects.
His next big series came in 1971, when Bearde created, wrote for and produced The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. Filled with singing and comedy, including its married stars faux bickering and her put-downs, the summer replacement series eventually became a top 10 primetime show. Bearde shared seven Emmy noms for the show, but its stars were having marital strife, and by 1974 they were separated and the series ended. Bearde went on to write follow-up The Sonny Comedy Revue, but it fizzled without his female foil.
Bearde and Blye reunited to exec produce the 1974 sitcom That’s My Mama, starring Clifton Davis, Theresa Merritt and Ted Lange. Airing for a season-plus on ABC, it was among the first Big 3 TV series with a mostly African-American cast.
Bearde went on to work on The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show and Cos – Bill Cosby’s 1976 variety program aimed at preteens – before creating The Gong Show. Wild, raunchy and hosted by the inimitable Chuck Barris, the “talent show” premiered in 1976 with panelists including Jamie Farr and Jaye P. Morgan judging amateur acts that ranged from offbeat to ridiculous to huh? The daytime edition ran into summer 1978, after a syndicated nighttime edition rolled out in 1976.
The show was revived in 1988 with Don Bleu as the host and again in 2008 with Dave Attell.
In 1995, Bearde created and produced Sherman Oaks, a comedy about a wealthy plastic surgeon and his family that aired for two seasons on Showtime. In the mid-2000s, Bearde moved to Las Vegas and opened Chris Bearde’s International Comedy Hall of Fame. He also launched the Chris Bearde School of Comedy in Sin City before relocating it to Los Angeles.