“The Carol Burnett Show” is a tough one for me to review, because it’s a variety show, and that brand of television is nearly extinct. Only “Saturday Night Live” carries forth, and with more comedy than variety. It’s like trying to assess a pterodactyl, even though this particular old bird won 25 Emmys, eight Golden Globes, and three People’s Choice Awards.
TV now is dominated by reality shows, snarky talk and news shows that poke fun of . . . well, everything and everyone.
But during TV’s golden age the variety show was touched by Midas. “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which ran from 1948 to 1971, preserved the vaudeville format almost exactly, televising animal acts, circus acts, magicians, mind readers, musical acts, dancers, and comedians. But it was Sid Caesar in “Your Show of Shows” (1950-54) and “Caesar’s Hour” (1954-57) who pioneered sketch comedy as the meat-and-potatoes of variety shows, and that’s the direction that Carol Burnett took.
When variety shows were king, host royalty included Jackie Gleason, Lawrence Welk, Arthur Godfrey, Red Skelton, Dinah Shore, Milton Berle and Martha Raye, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, George Gobel, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Patti Page, Judy Garland, Danny Kaye, Dean Martin, Jimmy Dean, Steve Lawrence, Andy Williams, Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Durante and the Lennon Sisters, Jim Nabors, Leslie Uggams, Glen Campbell, Tim Conway, Flip Wilson, Garry Moore and, of course, Burnett.
“The Carol Burnett Show” ran for 11 seasons, tying her with Milton Berle for eighth all-time among variety shows, behind Sullivan, Skelton, Welk, Benny, Gleason, Como, and Shore. But to watch her show now just isn’t the same as watching it then. So many of the sketches were parodies of TV shows, movies, and commercials, and topical humor can lose its edge. But some of the sketches still work—the most famous of which is Burnett’s parody of “Gone with the Wind,” which aired shortly after the blockbuster film debuted on network TV. In “Went with the Wind” Burnett’s sideman, Harvey Korman, does a darned good impression of Clark Gable, and the series got one of its biggest laughs when Burnett as Starlet walks down the staircase wearing the draperies (“I saw it in the window, and I just couldn’t resist it”), rod and all. That sketch became so legendary over time that the “gown” Burnett wore now resides at the Smithsonian Institution.
“Interactive” is a big buzz word now, but Burnett interacted with her audience from the time her show debuted in fall 1967. Instead of doing a monologue, Burnett strode out onto the stage in a glamorous gown and took questions from the audience for a full three to four minutes. Sometimes she was quick to crack jokes, while other times the questions prompted more serious responses. But can you see a studio allowing a live audience to interact with stars today? Stars would be a nervous wreck, and network honchos would be that times 10. So it’s a fascinating part of every show, and half of Burnett’s weekly traditions.
Bob Hope had his “Thanks for the Memories” theme, and Burnett closed every show by singing the words to her own theme song:
I’m so glad we had this time together
Just to have a laugh or sing a song
Seems we just get started and before you know it
Comes the time we have to say, So long.
In between there was song and dance and guest stars performing. But mostly there were comedy sketches, starring, at first, Burnett, Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Wagoner, and later Tim Conway, after Wagoner left the show to do “Wonder Woman.” Guest stars got in the act too, as Dinah Shore did with “Went with the Wind.”
As anyone who’s watched “SNL” knows, sketch comedy is hit or miss, and even these shows hand-picked by Burnett (and introduced by Burnett and fellow cast members) include some sketches that just aren’t that funny. And some of the musical numbers, while mildly entertaining, are a stretch to call “musical.” Case in point: a routine that Rock Hudson did with Nancy Walker (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda”), who was half his size. They played the height difference for laughs and the number was cute enough, but Walker couldn’t sing a note that wasn’t flat, and I was reminded of all the celebs that the Cubs invite to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” that sound like a train pulling into a curve. Just because someone’s a terrific comic actor doesn’t mean they should sing. But, that’s what variety shows are all about. Variety. Something different—a way for the public to see stars out of their familiar context. And I can guarantee you, it’s the only way Walker could get to sing and dance in a public performance.
Thankfully there are other, more successful performances and skits to balance those out. Besides “Went with the Wind” there’s a funny send-up of soaps, “As the Stomach Turns,” some funny bits featuring Conway (including his Oldest Man), a fun pairing of Jean Stapleton (Edith, on “All in the Family”) with Phil Silvers (“Sergeant Bilko”), and Vincent Price in a skit about “The Ham Actor” and his understudies. Carl Reiner is always fun to watch, and he turns up twice. Of interest too is Maggie Smith’s American TV debut.
The set comes with a full-color eight-page booklet with printing on inside front and back covers as well, plus photos and full details for each show.
Included on six single-sided discs are:
- Show # 1007 (October 30, 1976 —Roddy McDowall)
- Show #1002 (November 13, 1976—Dinah Shore)
- Show #1121 (March 5, 1978—Steve Martin, Betty White)
- Show #722 (March 16, 1974—Roddy McDowall, The Jackson 5)
- Show #810 (November 23, 1974—Maggie Smith)
- Show #903 (October 4, 1975—Shirley MacLaine)
- Show #812 (December 14, 1974—Ken Berry, Carl Reiner)
- Show #921 (February 14, 1976—Joanne Woodward)
- Show #716 (January 19, 1974—Carl Reiner)
- Show #814 (January 4, 1975—Joan Rivers, Vincent Price)
- Show #611 (October 25, 1972—Pearl Bailey)
- Show #1022 (March 26, 1977—Ken Berry)
- Show #817 (February 15, 1975—Rock Hudson, Nancy Walker)
- Show #1012 (December 11, 1976—Betty White)
- Show #803 (September 14, 1974—Jim Nabors)
- Show #823 (March 29, 1975—Jean Stapleton, Phil Silvers)
A number of the episodes have been cleaned up, and they’re not nearly as grainy or washed out as I would have expected. Colors are actually bright, and for an old TV show from the ‘70s there’s more edge delineation than I would have thought. Time-Life did a nice job with these, as I’m guessing the source materials weren’t in the greatest shape.
The audio appears to be a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, and like the video it’s a very respectable presentation. Nothing positive or negative to say. Just a serviceable soundtrack.
There are a number of nice bonus features, including a nine-minute bonus sketch (“The Dentist”) with Conway playing a rookie dentist and Korman his first patient. Conway’s routine had Korman in stitches. Also on Disc 1 there’s a 20-minute “History of The Carol Burnett Show” that features Burnett, Reiner, some of the writers, and plenty of people who knew her along the way, from the time she appeared in “Once Upon a Mattress” and on “The Garry Moore Show” to her own show. There are a lot of nice anecdotes, including how she met Korman (she tackled him in a parking lot and said, “You’ve got to be on our show”) and how Lawrence came to be on the show (via a letter, a Miss Fireball competition, and a surprise maternity ward visit). Also on Disc 1 is a cast reunion with Carol, Vicki, Tim, and Lyle reminiscing and also introducing several episodes.
Another nice TV artifact turns up on Disc 3. Included here is the episode from “The Garry Moore Show” in which Burnett first did her Tarzan yell (March 6, 1962), plus a featurette on Mrs. Wiggins and Tudball and an interview with Burnett. And on Disc 6 there’a a featurette on Burnette as a TV pioneer for women, interviews with Betty White and Carl Reiner, and a taped interview with Korman and Conway (April 24, 2004) talking about their 10 years together on “The Carol Burnett Show.”
There’s a reason why variety shows aren’t airing today, and I suspect it has to do with point of connection. The sketches simply aren’t as funny as some of the best SNL sketches. The old-fashioned mix of song-and-dance routines and comic sketches even seems quaint by today’s standards, like your grandmother’s brooch. But there’s still value here. “The Carol Burnett Show” was one of the very best variety shows, and as you watch you’ll see how the groundwork was laid for many shows and routines to follow. And consummate performers are still consummate performers. The more shows you watch, the more you begin to feel close to them, and then it’s like going to see a friend perform. The bonus features help that attitude considerably. And fans should be pleased with this collection.