It must have been weird being an ex-Beatle in 1978, adrift in a world of disco music. Eight years after Let It Be, Paul McCartney and George Harrison were still scoring hits, while John Lennon was in a self-imposed showbiz exile. Meanwhile, Ringo Starr had hit a wall. Ringo’s Rotogravure had underperformed in 1976, and the dance-oriented Ringo The 4th had tanked in 1977. A lot was riding on his back-to-basics LP Bad Boy in 1978.
Starr went all out to promote the record, appearing in a celebrity-laden primetime special on NBC called Ringo on April 26, 1978, just five days after the American release of Bad Boy. Borrowing its “lookalikes swap lives” plot from Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper, with Starr playing himself and fictional half-brother “Ognir Rrats,” the hour-long special included appearances from Art Carney, Carrie Fisher, George Harrison, Vincent Price, Angie Dickinson, and John Ritter. To say the least, Ringo did not do what its makers intended it to do. It finished near the bottom of the ratings that week, while Bad Boy failed to crack Billboard’s Hot 100. To see the special itself is understand what went wrong.
Written by Neal Israel and Pat Proft, the team behind Real Genius, Bachelor Party, and Police Academy, Ringo is a campy, corny, indifferently acted embarrassment, the kind of variety special that largely disappeared from TV screens for a good reason. It’s appropriate that this misfire appeared during the same year as The Star Wars Holiday Special, whose cast also includes Fisher and Carney, and the ill-fated movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It feels like the exact midway point between those two projects, especially during the horrific “Yellow Submarine” production number at the 15:23 mark. At least Harrison, sporting a misguided perm and a skeevy mustache, manages to sneak in a sly Rutles reference during the opening scene. Starr himself might have been miserable during the making of this special. He certainly seems that way in the profanity-heavy outtakes, during which he has to admit to Fisher that he didn’t actually write his big hit, “You’re Sixteen.” And the 1980s, Starr’s roughest years career-wise, were still ahead.