Thursday, October 15, 2015

“Oh Carol…you got me eatin' my heart away…”

From 1959 to 1962, comedienne Carol Burnett was a supporting cast member of CBS-TV’s popular The Garry Moore Show—a gig that netted her the first of what would eventually result in a buttload of Emmy awards (I believe the total is six).  She left that variety hour to pursue other projects, but the Tiffany network was most anxious to continue their association with their second favorite redhead, particularly after she scored a second Emmy trophy for the 1962 special Julie (Andrews) and Carol at Carnegie Hall.  The network inked a ten-year-deal with Carol, obligating her to do two guest appearances and one television special a year.

There was also a clause in the contract that Burnett describes in retrospect as a “push the button” option.  After five years, if Carol wanted to do a variety show of her own, CBS would be obligated to put the program on the air for a guaranteed season of thirty episodes—even if it only consisted of the performer simply scratching herself for sixty minutes.  The Powers That Be (represented by Mike Dann, head of CBS) tried to wave Burnett off this, chauvinistically explaining that the variety hour was “a man’s genre.”  Despite the support for this theory (most of TV’s top variety shows were headlined by males such as Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton…and Carol’s old boss, Garry Moore) Carol and husband Joe Hamilton were determined to take advantage of the clause (particularly since the alternative was for Burnett to star in a expectedly lame sitcom titled Here’s Agnes).  Nothing brightens the mood more of a die-hard couch potato when The Suits turn out to be wrong…because the result of Carol and Joe’s efforts would run for eleven seasons and become one of CBS’ most successful variety series: The Carol Burnett Show.

It would be a major understatement to say that Carol Burnett’s long-running variety hour set a high bar for programs of its type.  It’s due in large part to the lady herself; I know it’s a bit of a cliché to use words like “comedic legend” and “genius” when discussing Burnett’s boob tube legacy…but there’s a reason why The Carol Burnett Show turns up on so many “Greatest Shows of All Time” lists—it was damn good television, and Burnett was just aces.  When I think of Burnett, I think of the word “fearless”; I know of very few performers who would throw caution to the winds and not care about how they looked if the rewards for being goofy resulted in loud, appreciative laughter.  There is a magic quality about Carol Burnett: she comes across as gangly and gawky one minute and movie-star glamorous the next.  But there’s also a genuine, down-to-earth warmth about the woman, which clearly came across in every portion of her show from her opening give-and-take with the audience to the unpretentious and often endearing sketches on the program.

I find that a lot of people enjoy the program despite its occasional lapses into corniness because much of it was steeped in a “classic Hollywood” tradition, from its high-wattage guest stars (Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Mickey Rooney) to the frequent parodies of old films (Gone with the Wind, Sunset Boulevard).  During my halcyon high school years, the Burnett show was a Saturday night tradition (it’s funny how I associate the show with Saturday nights, when during most of its run it was seen on Mondays and then Wednesdays) as well as a weekday attraction thanks to the syndicated Carol Burnett and Friends, a half-hour compilation of comedy sketches that aired on the primetime hour from 1972 to 1977.  (MeTV recently added Burnett and Friends to their lineup…which we are not able to watch here at Rancho Yesteryear because Dish refuses to carry the substations of our local channels, boo hiss.)

It's not an acid flashback. Only on The Carol Burnett Show can you find (L-R) Carol, Phyllis Diller, Bobbie Gentry and Gwen Verdon as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But here’s the revelatory part of this essay: for a good many years, I had a tendency to wince whenever The Carol Burnett Show was mentioned in conversation.  Granted, I watched the show—but I had kind of developed an animosity towards it.  The reasons for this are kind of hard to pin down; one explanation is that I had cultivated a dislike for the show’s players’ tendency to “break” by giggling and laughing at themselves during sketches.  Because I was dabbling in high school dramatics at the time Carol’s show was on the air, it was pressed upon me that breaking character was verboten…and yet, here were paid professionals doing it all the time.  I could understand these kinds of shenanigans if it were a live program…but The Carol Burnett Show was taped—could they not have edited that nonsense out and gone with a fresh take?  (Burnett defends the practice by stating that although it was a taped show, it was performed before a live audience…and they genuinely enjoyed those times when the cast was unable to keep it together.)

And so it begins.
Another reason why I held the show at arm’s length as if it were something that had been left in the fridge too long was that at the same time I was watching Carol I had also started watching Saturday Night Live—you know, back when it was good—and I found that SNL appealed more to my admittedly warped sensibilities than the old-fashioned Burnett hour.  (In two of the SNL histories I’ve read, it was an unwritten rule that “breaking” was something that was severely frowned upon because it was so reminiscent of the “unprofessional” Carol Burnett Show.  Some of SNL’s later cast members—*cough*Jimmy Fallon, Horatio Sanz*—apparently didn’t get the memo.)  The Carol Burnett Show was never what you would call “edgy,” though they occasionally came close with the “Family” sketches…which I often found more melancholy than funny.

But here’s where I get redemption, friends and neighbors.  Thanks to Michael Krause at Foundry Communications, I have rediscovered what an absolute delight The Carol Burnett Show can be.  Michael made available to me a “screener” of The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes—a slimmed-down version of Time Life’s previous 2012 release The Carol Burnett Show: The Ultimate Collection (Carol—have you lost weight?).  Lost Episodes, released this past September 15, is a six-disc collection featuring sixteen uncut episodes originally broadcast between 1967 and 1972 and is designed more for the casual Burnett fan (if you’re really crazy about Carol, you should spring for the whole enchilada).  I’m not kidding about the “uncut” part of that, either; they don’t include commercials but they left in the “bumpers,” allowing you to reminisce about the good old days of Jubilee wax polish (I think they still make this, btw) and Cold Power detergent.

Included on this set is the September 11, 1967 premiere, which established Carol’s good friend Jim “Shazam!” Nabors as her “good luck charm” (Nabors would be the guest on each subsequent season opener) and the highlights include a melody of Broadway show tunes sung by the pair as well as an amusing sketch where Carol and Jim play klutzes vacationing at a ski lodge.  Carol also introduces her Shirley Temple parody (Shirley Dimple), and I wound up on the floor laughing when she tells interviewer Harvey Korman: “Jane Withers said something to me once in a movie that wasn’t very nice and you know what happened to her?  My fairy godmother changed her into a plumber!”  (I know—I laugh at the strangest things.)

Which twin has the Toni? (Both of them have Emmys, I know that.)
Not all of the content on the show holds up through a modern-day prism, I should point out.  The premiere also spotlights what would be a recurring feature on the show in the form of “Carol and Sis.”  Inspired by a real-life situation where Burnett’s younger sister Christine lived with Carol and Joe for many years, “Carol and Sis” was a showcase for young Vicki Lawrence, who was hired to do the series after a number of people remarked on her resemblance to Burnett (Lawrence wrote a fan letter to Carol, who later attended a beauty contest that Vicki entered…and handed her the prize when Lawrence won).  Harvey Korman played Carol’s husband Roger, and if the real-life Hamilton-Burnett relationship was anything like the TV one it’s a miracle the two of them stayed together as long as they did.  (Roger is a particularly unpleasant individual, though I suspect he was written that way for comedic effect.)

Hey, everybody! It's William Schallert (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Patty Duke Show)!
That having been said, several of the shows on Lost Episodes demonstrate why The Carol Burnett Show represents the gold standard of variety TV series.  Among the highlights:

November 4, 1968:  Guests Lucille Ball, Eddie Albert and Nancy Wilson appear in an edition of “As the Stomach Turns” where Nancy plays Canoga Falls’ first black resident.  The “As the Stomach Turns” parodies number among my favorite Burnett Show sketches mainly because soap operas in themselves are so insanely insipid they naturally lend themselves to great comedy.  But the addition of Wilson as the “town Negro” is both dated and yet slightly subversive (Nancy introduces herself as “Julia”—a dig at the Diahann Carroll sitcom—and at one point straight-facedly remarks to Albert’s character “You’re a credit to your race”).

From November 17, 1969: the King Family are profiled on "V.I.P."  (The family member to the right in the back row is Isabel Sanford, later of The Jeffersons.)
November 11, 1968:  The following week, Carol plays host to Don Rickles, Nanette Fabray and Mel Tormé.  A little bit of Mel goes a long way with me but since he participates in a funny 1940s film parody entitled “The Tin Pan Alley Story” I didn’t mind him too much (Korman plays a character that makes frequent appearances on the show: impresario Ziggy Flofeld).  This is the show that features that sketch I alluded to in the previous Don Rickles essay (Don plays a harried shoe salesman who gets a bit of grief from unreasonable customer Nanette—which jeopardizes his future career); “Alive and Kicking” spotlighted a similar skit with Rickles having to kowtow to boss Korman.

January 19, 1970:  With guests Vikki Carr and Flip Wilson (who would launch his own successful variety show in the fall until he got his ass kicked by The Waltons), the Burnett show sends up Mission: Impossible with the side-splitting “Mission: Improbable.”  Every time Carol finishes a speech as the Barbara Bain-like “Oregano Farber,“ someone hands her an Emmy (a reference to Bain’s multiple wins), and Flip gets to don drag as a Geraldine-like character.  The parody ends with a surprise appearance from Mission’s star foursome at that time: Peter Graves, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Lupus and Greg Morris!

October 2, 1967 marks the first Carol Burnett Show appearance of CBS' favorite redhead, Lucille Ball.  This "Argentine Cafe" sketch is hysterical, with Harvey Korman at his best as a Teutonic headwaiter named "Pedro."
February 22, 1971:  Admittedly, this telecast is no great shakes (though you will get to see Chita Rivera perform “Lucretia MacEvil” as a spider-woman years before Broadway’s Kiss of the Spider Woman) but it’s worth it just for the Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald parody “Naughty Rosemarie” and Bob Newhart’s swishy turn as “The Marquis de Fop.”  A year later in a February 23, 1972 show, Burt Reynolds camped it up as “The Lavender Pimpernel.”  Burt also performs a song-and-dance to “As Time Goes By,” which shows off his previous talent as a Hollywood stuntman.  Stuntman.  (See what I did there, Hal?)


November 3, 1971:  No Carol Burnett Show sketch in this collection made me laugh harder (not even the “Mission: Improbable” skit) than “The Drunkard’s Daughter,” a send-up of those old-time moralizing melodramas.  Guest Bing Crosby is “the drunkard,” whose daughter (Carol) ineffectively tries to keep him from succumbing to demon rum, Lyle Waggoner plays a Dudley Do-Right-like Mountie, and guest Paul Lynde and regular Harvey Korman play “twin” villains, complete with twirling moustaches and stovepipe hats.  (Lynde channels his “Hooded Claw” voice from The Perils of Penelope Pitstop and Harvey mimics him flawlessly every step of the way.)  Bonus points to costume designer Bob Mackie for that incredible “vamp” costume he provided for Vicki Lawrence.

I believe the word we're searching for is "Yowsah!"

Carol Burnett Show fans know that Lyle Waggoner functioned not only as the program’s announcer but as a featured player before exiting in 1974 (he didn’t really give up this gig for Wonder Woman, did he?).  Actor-comedian Tim Conway became an official member of the cast in 1975 after many, many years of appearing as one of the Burnett Show’s favorite guests.  Conway’s debut appearance on the program (October 2, 1967—also Lucille Ball’s first Burnett Show appearance) is included in this set, in addition to three other shows (the January 6, 1969 telecast features “The Night They Raided Rimsky’s,” which I chuckled at throughout because The Night They Raided Minsky’s is a favorite movie of mine).  Tim is an achingly funny guy…but he got absolute screams from me during one “Q&A” segment in which he introduces some of his family members in the audience.

Vicki and dancer Don Crichton pay dance tribute to a pair of memorable Laugh-In characters.  (The real Ruth Buzzi and Arte Johnson appear at the end.)

Vicki Lawrence would be the only Burnett Show cast member to stick with Carol for the entirety of the program’s eleven-year run; Harvey Korman (who had some impressive variety hour chops before he began his association with Carol, having been a semi-regular on The Danny Kaye Show) left the show before its last season for a development deal with ABC (which included Snavely, a pilot for an Americanized version of Fawlty Towers that was mercifully killed in its crib) and television legend Dick Van Dyke joined the Burnett Show cast briefly in Harvey’s place.  At the end of eleven seasons, Carol announced to CBS that the variety show as they knew it was starting to die on the vine and that she was ready for a rest.  There were a few attempts to apply paddles to the program (including a four-week ABC summer series entitled Carol Burnett & Company in 1979, and a return to CBS in 1991 for a revival version with new cast members) but for the most part, The Carol Burnett Show is now in rerun heaven as Carol Burnett & Friends.

There are any number of explanations as to why the “lost episodes” of The Carol Burnett Show have been AWOL for so long (I suspect it’s the usual legal entanglements involving copyrights) but I’m so glad they were able to jump through the hoops to put together this collection because it’s really a first-rate release.  (I’m also so glad we had this time together…just to have a laugh or sing a song.)  I cannot recommend this set highly enough, and suggest you hie yourself to your nearest brick-and-mortar or online store to pick up a copy.


Unknown said...

I believe that "buttload" is indeed the technical term for the number 6.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I believe that "buttload" is indeed the technical term for the number 6.

My sordid secret is revealed to the world: I really stank at math.