By the time The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted on Aug. 1, 1971, the show’s stars were already has-beens. Well-meaning wannabe flower kids, Salvatore Bono and Cherilyn Sarkasian topped the charts in 1965, the year after their marriage, with ”I Got You Babe,” then faded as headier rock dominated the late ’60s. Relegated to the nightclub circuit, they were rediscovered by CBS’ genius-in-residence, head programmer Fred Silverman (All in the Family, M*A*S*H), who decided that the playful, old-married-folks banter the duo delivered between songs would fly high on TV.
Right again, Fred. Scheduled as a summer replacement, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour became one of the most popular, and possibly the most innovative, shows of the early ’70s. With a gifted staff of newcomers (including writer Steve Martin, actress Teri Garr, and costumer Bob Mackie), an eclectic list of guests (Truman Capote, Bob Guccione, California governor Ronald Reagan), and skits like the Fat People, Sonny’s Pizza, and the Vamp, the show was the hip-TV successor to The Smothers Brothers and a precursor of Saturday Night Live. The highlight, as Silverman suspected, was the couple’s timing-perfect opening dialogue, which took wicked jabs at Cher’s mother and Sonny’s, uh, shortcomings. Each show ended on the opposite note, with a homey visit from their preschool-age daughter, Chastity. ”We had a wonderful time,” says Bono, 56, now mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and author of a new autobiography, And the Beat Goes On. ”Until the ax fell.”
Things started getting choppy in 1972, according to the book, when Cher informed Sonny she was in love with their guitarist, Bill Hamm. (Cher, 45, refuses to talk about the book, in which Bono details her inadequacies as a parent and blames record and movie mogul David Geffen for her decision to go solo. Beat is a hot conversation piece on the Hollywood party circuit these days.) The marriage fell apart; the facade did not. For two years, while living in separate quarters in their 54-room L.A. mansion, the couple dutifully maintained the TV fantasy of a marriage strong enough to survive their on-screen taunts and jibes.
In 1974, when they announced plans to divorce and drop the show, it was TV’s top-rated variety program. They re-united in ’76 for The Sonny and Cher Show, but that expired after two seasons. Sonny and Cher were no more. Bono has no illusions about why the act failed — they’d sold themselves as a happy couple and couldn’t live up to it — but he does have regrets. ”The public bought the whole package, and it was very disillusioning to have us not pull it off,” he says. ”We kind of let everybody down on the American dream.”