Variety revival

By Allan I. Ross

Local newsman showcases local talent with new variety show

Variety shows were once as ubiquitous as reality television … and were eminently more culturally enriching, thank you very much. Forget real housewives and Jersey goombas — where else could you see flamenco dancing followed by vaudevillian slapstick wrapped up with a performance by the biggest rock band on the planet, all before bedtime?

Ed Sullivan perfected the format. Carol Burnett put her spin on it. So did Jackie Gleason, Dinah Shore, hell, even Johnny Cash. And now, as America revels in a second Golden Age of the boobitus tubitus, that old Ghost of Prime Time Past is making a resurgence, at least locally. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to “The Evan Michael Show.”

“For years I’ve wanted to start my own show, but my schedule makes that pretty tough,” said Evan Pinsonnault, morning news anchor at WLNS-TV. “I’d had some ideas, but I was taking the time to make sure I could do it right.”

“The Evan Michael Show” (more on that name later) has already taped three sample episodes; one as a charity event at Michigan State University’s University Club, the other as a pair of backto-back test runs in the Wharton Center’s Pasant Theatre, which will be its permanent home starting next month. But on New Year’s Eve, the official one-hour pilot — which will be the first to actually reach local sets — tapes at the University Club at 9 p.m. It airs the next morning at 8 a.m.

“We’re not leaving a whole lot of room for mistakes — that’s going to be a pretty quick turnaround,” said Pinsonnault, 30, who came to Lansing four years ago to join the local CBS affiliate. In addition to his desk work, he launched “Pick a Place for Pinsonnault,” a regular segment that focused on local events, and he reinvigorated the station’s human interest entertainment piece, “Tell Me Something Good.” He also wasted no time falling in with the local community theater scene and making himself a oneman brand as an emcee, stand-up comedian and fill-in singer for hire. But none of these, he felt, was the true outlet for his creativity.

“Originally I was thinking I wanted to be a game show host, but after I met Taylor, he convinced me that a variety show would be a better fit,” Pinsonnault said. “I think he was on to something.”

That would be Taylor Kelsaw, a transplant from Burbank, Calif., who landed in Lansing three years ago when his partner accepted a position at MSU. Kelsaw, 53, started in TV production 16 years ago with “Jeopardy,” where he was the director of promotional marketing. That led to work on other shows, including “Wheel of Fortune,” “The Price is Right,” “Access Hollywood” and “Oprah.” In 2003, he became vice president of a product placement company, working on the “Matrix” sequels, “24” and last year’s Clint Eastwood film, “Trouble with the Curve.”

“Ever since I worked with my mentor Merv Griffin, I’ve had an idea for a variety show but I didn’t think I could recreate that,” Kelsaw said. “Fortuitously I met Evan and I thought, here’s the guy who could host it.”

The two met at one of the Pinsonnault’s charity gigs last year and the idea was hatched. They took their time, building a bank of ideas and coming up with concepts. “This is the guy who could change the face of television locally and nationally,” Kelsaw said. “It’s a return to a beloved format that needs a charismatic figure to make it work. Evan has that appeal.”

But really, a variety show? Isn’t that a little innocuous for a culture steeped in sarcasm and PG-13 humor?

“It’s a conscious decision to play it safe,” Pinsonnault said. “A lot of people trust in me, and I don’t want to jeopardize (that by doing) anything offensive. Sarcasm can be misinterpreted. I want to stay positive — I just want to throw that elbow into the side.”

Still, a variety show could hardly be considered an elevator to the top. Postmillennial incarnations of the format were met with resounding “mehs,” including the 2009 debacle, “Osbournes Reloaded,” starring Ozzy Osbourne and family that only lasted one episode. But Pinsonnault insists “The Evan Michael Show” has something those shows lacked.

“They had the talent, but there was no audience,” Pinsonnault said. “There is a rich bed of talent in the Lansing area (but) there’s never been the right showcase for that talent. It’s a celebration of — and a party for — the performing arts, and I think local audiences are ready for it.”

The show will occasionally be cohosted by Lansing-based sax man Phil Denny, with the musical director being local conductor John Dale Smith. And even though the first official episode has yet to air, the show already has a recurring guest: Local theater vet Ken Beachler.

“Reality TV killed a lot of things, including the outlet for good writers to write,” Beachler said. “This show is beautifully planned, and the writing is outstanding. It’s a return to form for performing arts, and it’s going to be a wonderful way to introduce or reintroduce Lansing to that talent.”

Beachler has performed on stage with Pinsonnault several times, including last year’s “Follies” at Riverwalk Theatre. The two have developed a crackling rapport, both on stage and off. At the New Year’s Eve taping, Beachler will trade barbs with Pinsonnault and sing a few songs. Old school stuff.

“I’ve heard people say already that a variety show is not of this time, but it fits his personality perfectly,” Beachler said. “I think he could swing it.”

Kelsaw said the show will feature many MSU student producers, directors, technicians and camera operators, anchoring the show into the university.

“It’s one thing for a student going to look for a job after graduation with a degree in telecommunications,” Kelsaw said. “It’s another thing to say, I also worked for two years on a weekly TV show that was broadcast throughout mid-Michigan.”

Or throughout the state — and even possibly the country — if Pinsonnault’s plans pan out.

“Lansing is the center of the state, which I think it’s fair to say is in the center of the Midwest,” Pinsonnault says. “If this show takes off the way I think it will, there’s no reason to think it couldn’t go national.”

Just don’t expect it to become “The Evan Pinsonnault Show.”

“I’ve heard every way possible to butcher my last name,” Pinnsonault laments. “But my dad asked me not to change my name, so I’m just sticking with my middle name. Plus the “M-I” in Michael fits perfectly into the Michigan (silhouette) in the show’s logo.”

All shows will be taped before a live studio audience on Tuesdays at the Pasant.

Guests will feature mostly Lansing talent, including singer-songwriters, actors, musicians, comedians and puppeteers. Visiting artists and performers will also be welcome. Pinsonnault lists dream guests as Michigan natives Jeff Daniels, Tim Allen and Aretha Franklin. But he’s quick to point out that today’s nobody is tomorrow’s Madonna.

“Everyone got started somewhere,” Pinsonnault says. “I’d love to be able to give someone their first break. That’s what having a variety show is about.”

“The Evan Michael Show”

Premieres 8 a.m. Jan. 1 My18 WHTV Regular season begins late January, 10 p.m. Saturdays For information on performing or appearing in the studio audience, go to