This is a tough question, indeed I haven’t found a satisfactory definition by just ‘Googling’ it.
The short answer (in my opinion): A variety artist/entertainer is a live entertainer with an act that is something less common. I don’t think of most musicians or dancers as variety artist. When I think of a variety artist I think of magicians, comedians, jugglers, clowns, caricaturist, acrobats, etc. There are also a ton of obscure entertainment skills that you’ve never heard of, such as the one minute novelist, lariat artist, comedy memorizers, or party robots.
The long answer… again in my opinion…
This is a thought experiment. Say you’re in a medium size city. Smaller than New York or LA, but larger than Idaho Falls. Someplace like Denver or Atlanta, but not Las Vegas or Branson, they don’t count. And you’re wondering if a certain type of live entertainment can be considered ‘variety’…
-Here is the test: can you find that kind of show in your town right now? If the answer is yes, then that is not variety.
Although I have no proof of this, I’m willing to bet that there is a band playing somewhere in Denver at any time of day or night and with a reasonable amount of trouble you can find it. It would probably be easy to find a band in Denver on a Friday night. And I’m guessing that if you tried hard enough you could also find one somewhere in that city 24 hours a day any day… If you really had to.
-If you cannot find the type of act that you are looking for in your town at any time, then it is a variety act.
In Denver, you probably can find a comedian or magician on a weekend or on special occasions, but not at anytime 24 hours a day.
This test is intended to give you a general idea of what variety entertainment is, there are exceptions of course. I’m sure in Las Vegas you can find a sword swallower in a Transformers costume at 4am if you wanted, but Vegas doesn’t count!
I first heard the term Variety Artist from a video with Charlie Frye. He’s a juggler, magician, clown, and probably more that I don’t know about. I’m a big fan of his work, he inspired me a great deal in my own work. I highly suggest you check him out.