Pink Lady and Jeff: Japan’s Biggest Pop Musicians Star in One of America’s Worst-Reviewed TV Shows (1980)

In 1963, Kyu Sakamo­to’s “Sukiya­ki” proved that a song sung in Japan­ese could top the charts in the Unit­ed States. Not that the Amer­i­can record­ing indus­try was quick to inter­nal­ize it: anoth­er Japan­ese sin­gle would­n’t break the Bill­board Top 40 for six­teen years, and even then it did so in Eng­lish. The song was “Kiss in the Dark” by Pink Lady, a pop duo con­sist­ing of Mit­suyo Nemo­to and Keiko Masu­da, bet­ter known as Mie and Kei. In 1978 they’d been the biggest pop-cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non in their native coun­try, but the fol­low­ing year their star had begun unmis­tak­ably to fall. And so, like many passé West­ern acts who become “big in Japan,” Pink Lady attempt­ed to cross the Pacif­ic.

Mie and Kei made their Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion debut per­form­ing “Kiss in the Dark” on Leif Gar­ret­t’s CBS spe­cial in May 1979. Accounts dif­fer about what hap­pened next, but less than a year lat­er they had their own prime­time vari­ety show on NBC. Offi­cial­ly titled Pink Lady, it tends to be referred to these four decades lat­er as Pink Lady and Jeff. This owes to the role of its host, ris­ing (and NBC-con­tract­ed) young come­di­an Jeff Alt­man, who brought to the table not just his com­ic tim­ing and skill with impres­sions, but also his com­mand of the Eng­lish lan­guage. That last hap­pened not to be pos­sessed to any sig­nif­i­cant degree by Mie or Kei, who had to deliv­er both their songs and their jokes pho­net­i­cal­ly.

In the video at the top of the post, you can see a com­pi­la­tion of the high­lights of Pink Lady and Jeff’s entire run. Then again, “high­lights” may not be quite the word for a TV show now remem­bered as one of the worst ever aired. “Pink Lady and Jeff rep­re­sents an unpalat­able com­bi­na­tion of insti­tu­tions that were on their way out, like vari­ety shows, dis­co, and the tele­vi­sion empire of cre­ators and pup­peteers Sid and Mar­ty Krofft,” writes the AV Club’s Nathan Rabin. The Krofft broth­ers, cre­ators of H.R. Pufn­stuf and Land of the Lost, tell of hav­ing been tapped to devel­op a pro­gram around Mie and Kei by NBC pres­i­dent Fred Sil­ver­man, who’d hap­pened to see footage of one of their sta­di­um-fill­ing Tokyo con­certs on the news.

Sid Krofft remem­bers declar­ing his ambi­tion to make Pink Lady “the strangest thing that’s ever been on tele­vi­sion.” The star­tled Sil­ver­man’s response: “Let’s do Don­ny and Marie.” Don­ny Osmond him­self end­ed up being one of the show’s high-pro­file guest stars, a line­up that also includ­ed Blondie, Alice Coop­er, Sid Cae­sar, Ted­dy Pen­der­grass, Roy Orbi­son, Jer­ry Lewis, and even Lar­ry Hag­man just a week before the epochal shoot­ing of his char­ac­ter on Dal­las. None of them helped Pink Lady find enough of an audi­ence to sur­vive beyond its ini­tial six episodes (all avail­able to watch on Youtube), a dis­com­fit­ing mélange of gener­ic com­e­dy sketch­es, unsuit­able musi­cal per­for­mances (with pre­cious few excep­tions, Mie and Kei weren’t per­mit­ted to sing their own Japan­ese songs), and broad ref­er­ences to sushi, samu­rai, and sumo.

The main prob­lem, Alt­man said in a more recent inter­view, was that “the vari­ety show had run the gaunt­let already, and real­ly was not a for­mat that was going to live in the hearts and homes of peo­ple across Amer­i­ca any­more.” Not only had that long and earnest tele­vi­sion tra­di­tion come to its igno­min­ious end, it would soon be replaced by the iron­ic, ultra-satir­i­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty of Alt­man’s col­league in com­e­dy David Let­ter­man. But here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, Alt­man guess­es, the time may be ripe “for a vari­ety-type show to come back.” We live in an era, after all, when a piece of for­got­ten eight­ies Japan­ese pop can become a glob­al phe­nom­e­non. And how­ev­er dim the prospects of the vari­ety show as a form, Mie and Kie them­selves have since man­aged more come­backs than all but their most die-hard fans can count.

Relat­ed con­tent:

David Bowie and Cher Sing Duet of “Young Amer­i­cans” and Oth­er Songs on 1975 Vari­ety Show

Famed Art Crit­ic Robert Hugh­es Hosts the Pre­miere of 20/20, Where Tabloid TV News Began (1978)

Andy Warhol’s 15 Min­utes: Dis­cov­er the Post­mod­ern MTV Vari­ety Show That Made Warhol a Star in the Tele­vi­sion Age (1985–87)

How Youtube’s Algo­rithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japan­ese Song Into an Enor­mous­ly Pop­u­lar Hit: Dis­cov­er Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plas­tic Love”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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