The question that lends itself to virtually all variety shows, particularly from the 70s, is “why?” “Why was this made?” “Why did anyone participate in it?” Those questions can be easily answered with “cocaine” and “$$$$,” but that still doesn’t make their existences any more reasonable. They’re all strange beasts, trying unsuccessfully to inject a hip, modern flair into a very old-fashioned genre, featuring performers who are either trying way too hard or not at all.
1978’s Ringo aired at a time when the Beatles had been over long enough to qualify as “oldies music,” and Ringo Starr was struggling with both a considerable drinking problem and approaching irrelevance. Faced with dwindling record sales, a decision was made by adults who really should have known better to promote the release of Starr’s seventh solo album with a prime time variety show, featuring that classic “picked at random from someone’s Rolodex” celebrity casting, including Carrie Fisher, Art Carney (both of whom would relinquish a bit more of their dignity in The Star Wars Holiday Special later that same year), John Ritter, Angie Dickinson, and Vincent Price. It was a clunker from the very beginning, and nobody seems to be aware of this more than Ringo Starr himself, who spends the entire show glumly dragging himself through every scene, leaving his co-stars to do all the heavy lifting.
Ringo (how they resisted going one step further and adding an exclamation point to the end, I have no idea) presents itself as a paper-thin adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper. Introduced by George Harrison, who sports a magnificent head of Ted Nugent-like hair, we first get a look at the life of Ringo Starr, ex-Beatle turned solo artist. Starr has grown weary with being a world famous musician, surrounded by piles of gold records and hot babes who walk into traffic just for the opportunity to light his cigarette. Driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown by his pushy manager (John Ritter), he longs for the opportunity to take a break from his hectic life for a little while.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, there exists a man who is a double for Ringo. A shy, lonely nerd, Ognir Rrats (siiiiiiiiigh) earns a pittance selling maps to the stars’ homes. Put upon and picked on by everyone he meets, including his abusive father (Art Carney, so over the top he comes off like a character in a Dickens novel), Ognir has elaborate fantasies of fame and fortune (which includes a restaurant selling a “Rrats Burger,” which, when you think about it, probably wouldn’t be all that big a seller).
When Ringo eventually encounters Ognir, his immediate reaction isn’t “Hey, isn’t it weird that this guy looks exactly like me?” but rather to strongarm Ognir into agreeing to temporarily switch lives with him. Ognir agrees after being forced to participate in an interpretive dance set to an instrumental version of “Yellow Submarine,” because, hey, if you’re forced to participate in an interpretive dance set to an instrumental version of “Yellow Submarine,” you’ll agree to goddamn anything.
Ringo eases into Ognir’s life without a hitch, paying off a thug to let him drive his hot rod around town, and romancing Ognir’s girlfriend Marquine (Carrie Fisher), with whom he duets on “You’re Sixteen” (Fisher was actually 21 to Starr’s 37, which makes this scene only mostly repulsive). Things seem to be going swell, until Ringo is dragged off and locked in a room by Ognir’s father, who, for whatever reason, treats Ognir as though he’s a teenager as opposed to nearly forty.
Ognir, unable to believe his sudden good fortune, mostly walks around in a daze, nearly has an emotional meltdown in the presence of Mike Douglas, and, not surprisingly, proves unable to play the drums. An attempt to hypnotize him into believing he’s Ringo Starr briefly seems to be successful, until he wanders off stage at the beginning of a concert to try to sell maps to the audience. Thankfully, the real Ringo, having escaped Ognir’s brutish father and the police, shows up just in time, offers Ognir a job as his road manager, and well…that’s it. Nearly the last ten minutes of the show is given over to Starr and his band performing songs from the new album, which was the sole reason this show was made in the first place.
There’s a certain sadistic pleasure in watching a variety show featuring stars who make no attempt at hiding how beneath them they think it is. Ringo Starr looks so miserable in this that it seems almost cruel to make fun of it. That being said, declining album sales aside, Starr was still a member of the biggest pop group of all time, and it was unlikely that he was forced to go along with some PR department wonk’s demand that he do the show. What’s more likely is that he agreed to it as a lark, only to realize what a huge mistake he had made once he finally got a look at the final script. Instead of making the best of it, he mopes his way through it, relaxing only long enough to do a mildly amusing bit of physical comedy with Vincent Price as a hypnotist.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that Starr wasted not a drop of energy on Ringo, as it ended up one of the lowest rated programs of the week it aired, and the album it existed to promote, Bad Boy, flopped hard. There would be bigger failures in Ringo Starr’s solo career to come, but eventually America was able to do for him what we refused to do for the Bay City Rollers, an early 90s comeback was warmly received, and a now 75 year-old Starr is probably out there somewhere still singing “You’re Sixteen” as you read this.