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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Dropping the ball: 8 pretenders to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve throne

Illustration for article titled Dropping the ball: 8 pretenders to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve throne

1. Jamie Kennedy (2012)
For decades, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve on ABC was the default broadcast playing in the background while America drank itself into a stupor. Clark, who died last year, knew how to hit the sweet spot of a New Year’s Eve broadcast: His show had to be tame enough that it wouldn’t distract from viewers’ own festivities, but it also had to capture enough New Year’s Eve excitement to make couch potatoes feel like they were in on the fun. When other performers emcee their own December 31 TV extravaganzas, they often end up showing that Clark’s job was harder than it looked. Few hosts, though, have matched Jamie Kennedy’s spectacular failure on the Orange County station KDOC last year. The entire cast and crew appeared to have gotten their drink on before the show started (and it’s probably charitable to assume that alcohol was the only drug involved). Kennedy had only intermittent awareness that he was appearing on live television, probably because his stage manager, by his own accounting, was missing in action. Macy Gray performed in a groggy haze and struggled to figure out what time it was. Stretches of dead air abounded. And as the show came to a close, a fight broke out on stage. As “Auld Lang Syne” played over on ABC, Kennedy reminded the world that some auld acquaintances really should be forgot.

2. Andy Williams (1984)
Before there was Dick Clark, there was Guy Lombardo. The original king of December 31 ushered in each TV new year from 1956 to 1976 for CBS (and on the radio before that), but the network found itself in need of a new broadcast perennial following Lombardo’s 1977 death. In 1979, it introduced Happy New Year, America, a more timely challenger to New Year’s Rockin’ Eve anchored by hosts such as Donny Osmond, Natalie Cole, and Nelson Muntz’s favorite crooner, Andy Williams. Though Williams was born only two years before Clark, their public perception and stage presence appear to come from different eras. More than a decade removed from his turn as the boyish host of The Andy Williams Show, the “Moon River” singer looked sorely out of place in the 1984 show, playing wooden straight man to Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine character and “auditioning” to back Gladys Knight as one of the Pips (themselves future Happy New Year, America hosts). Most egregiously, he committed the one hosting sin that never affected Clark, even in his later years: The party was completely out of Williams’ control.

3. Paul Shaffer (1994)
CBS was very happy to land David Letterman after he lost the acrimonious fight to take over The Tonight Show in 1993—so much so that Dave, who took first place in the late-night ratings fight from the day he went on the air (and stayed in first for years) was all but the public face of the network. So either to keep their new star happy, or simply wanting a tie-in to what was still a newsworthy show, CBS tapped Late Show With David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer to host Happy New Year, America in 1994. Over the course of the night, Shaffer introduced musical acts, cracked stale jokes, and showed America that a few minutes’ banter with Dave is really all the Paul Shaffer it needs. The following year, CBS’ ball drop was hosted by Montel Williams, and the year after that it was discontinued in favor of simply cutting away from a rerun of Late Show. So at least Shaffer’s still in the mix somewhere.

4. Howard Stern (1993)
Back on New Year’s Eve 1993, Howard Stern—in all his “king of all media” glory—took his act to pay-per-view for the two-hour Howard Stern’s New Year’s Rotten Eve, an event that was predictably crass (Stern made his entrance on a toilet), offensive (no off-color joke was out of bounds), and low-budget (the show was filmed in a theater in Newark, New Jersey). There were plenty of awkward sketches and appearances from classic Stern flunkies like Stuttering John and Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling, but the centerpiece of the evening was an excruciatingly long “beauty pageant” featuring more than 40 contestants vying for the title of Miss Howard Stern. A star-studded panel of judges that included Tiny Tim, Joe Frazier, Mark Hamill, Sherman Hemsley, and John Wayne Bobbitt assessed the talents of hopefuls like “The Girl With A Lisp,” “The Bondage Bimbos,” and “Miss Good Head.” Playboy model Elaine Marks was eventually crowned the winner, much to the delight of the alternately rowdy and drowsy live audience, as well as the Dick Clark-averse folks who ponied up $40 to watch at home.


5. Jim Varney (1985)
In 1985, in the window where the character of Ernest P. Worrell had starred in commercials but hadn’t yet been the focus of a major motion picture, HBO still had enough faith in comedian Jim Varney that it trusted him with the plum job of hosting its live New Year’s Eve event. Granted, it wasn’t entirely live—in order to perform his shtick of having one of his characters talk to each other, Varney recorded several bits in advance—but most of it was, with Varney spending a considerable amount of time interacting with country legends Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. Although Varney proved to be quick on the draw with his banter, his profile wasn’t high enough to earn significant ratings for HBO, turning a potential annual event into a one-time affair.

6-7. Kim Fields & John Henton (1995)
Although Fox was a well-established network by the mid-’90s, it still carried itself with the plucky spirit of an upstart, and on-air manifestations of the network’s inferiority complex were common. So it figures that on New Year’s Eve in 1995, Fox sought to take Dick Clark down a peg. Two stars of Fox’s sitcom Living Single, Kim Fields (then Kim Fields Freeman) and John Henton, kicked off the broadcast by extending a verbal middle finger to Clark and his crew: “There is nothing going on in Times Square that you haven’t seen exactly before,” Fields said. Never mind that the ritual nature of the Times Square ball drop is at the root of its appeal. Fields and Henton insisted that viewers would prefer Fox’s mold-breaking move to Las Vegas, which Henton described as “the world’s center for cheap food and [uncomfortable pause] naked women.” After a shaggy sequence of musical acts and pre-taped comedy bits (Sinbad! Carrot Top! D.B. Sweeney!), Henton and Fields turned viewers’ attention to Fox’s sad ball-drop alternative: a modest neon “1996” sign mounted on the side of the Flamingo Hilton. The less-than-magical midnight moment was capped with a performance by members of the Broadway show Forever Plaid, who sang “Auld Lang Syne” while some drunk idiot in the crowd screamed “Hey, you fucking nerds!”

8. Merv Griffin (1991)
Since he’s the creator of syndication juggernauts Jeopardy! and Wheel Of Fortune, it’s not surprising that Merv Griffin was able to convince almost 200 stations to air his 1991 New Year’s Eve special. A throwback to the days when Guy Lombardo still walked the earth, Griffin took the stage at the Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City—which, conveniently enough, he owned. With the help of his longtime bandleader Jack Sheldon, Griffin belted out standards between bits of witty banter. Although the ratings for the special aren’t readily available, it proved successful enough that Griffin continued to deliver further installments through New Year’s Eve 1997.

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