When The Carol Burnett Show aired in September of 1967 on CBS, no one expected it to run eleven years. The show gave Carol Burnett, along with regulars Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner (who left in 1974), and Tim Conway (whose occasional guest appearances became permanent in 1975) an opportunity to fuse the best of live, vaudeville-style performance with the creative benefits of time and tape. Burnett's ensemble quickly bonded into a tight unit of professionals who looked, and acted, as if performing on The Carol Burnett Show was the best fun an entertainer could have. In reality, the meticulously-structured, musical-comedy program became one of the last, and one of the finest prime time variety shows to link the modern television age with Tin Pan Alley and the Golden Ages of motion pictures and television.
The show brought Carol Burnett's working class persona into a unique relationship with her audience. There was a glamorous, celebrity-brushed side to her work: Burnett could wear exclusive Bob Mackie gowns, banter with popular celebrities, and illustrate her brilliant talent for physical and intellectual comedy in cleverly written and produced skits. Her musical abilities ranged from Shubert's Alley to more refined venues, and her voice could amuse and inspire. She vamped with Hollywood royalty--Lucille Ball, Liza Minelli, Sammy Davis, Jr., even then-California governor Ronald Reagan joked and performed. On the other hand, Burnett's Charwoman character, her dysfunctional and beleaguered "Family" member, Eunice, her zestful Tarzan call, and her weekly question-and-answer sessions with the studio audience gave her an accessibility and down-to-earth warmth that firmly reinstated her back within the world of her viewers. The dichotomy between the two Carols--one homespun, the other neon-minted--gave The Carol Burnett Show a flavor and personality that showcased the idiosyncrasies of its eponymous star. Only later did Burnett reveal the source of that working-class quality--the talented comedienne had lifted herself from appalling poverty, a dysfunctional family, and emotional abuse to become a beloved star. One of Burnett's insightful actions, as she constructed her characters and her persona, was to draw on the contradictions that informed her artistic evolution.
Throughout the show's run, Burnett maintained, and increased, her creative input and control. She worked closely with a team of writers, among them Ken Welch and his wife, Mitzi, who had a strong sense of Burnett's attributes and strengths. (Ken Welch had written the famous "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles" routine which had catapulted comic chanteuse Burnett to fame in 1956.) The show combined musical comedy with humorous sketches, using the ensemble of players as well as weekly guest stars, such as Jim Naybors, Cher, and Julie Andrews.
Burnett's three-tiered abilities--singer, actress, comedienne--allowed the writers to create and sustain characters throughout the eleven-year-run. The Charwoman, whose pantomimed mishaps often brought her into the shadow of greatness, became the show's trademark; a caricature of the dusty maid adorned credits and teasers for the program. Eunice, who was always under the abusive power of her Mama, blended the kind of sharply-sketched comedy and tragedy that informs the finest comedic characters. Eunice, Mama, and the rest of the working-class family members insulted, demeaned, and belittled one another, in acrimonious skits that revealed the dark heart of a family in turmoil. Critics complained that Eunice became more disturbing, rather than amusing, as the show progressed. Eventually, the "Family" skits were spun off into a situation comedy, without Burnett, entitled Mama's Family, in which Vicki Lawrence reprised her role as the bilious Mama.
The show centered on Burnett, but its enduring qualities also arose from its talented ensemble of players, whose interactions contributed to the overwhelming sense of "live" performance exuded by the show. Vicki Lawrence was fresh out of high school when her resemblance to Burnett won her a role; her transformation from sprightly youth to dour Mama astonished and delighted audience and cast. The infamous comic rivalry between perennial bemused Harvey Korman and the irrepressible Tim Conway remains one of the show's most distinctive features, as Conway's scripted and ad-libbed highjinks forced Korman to battle uncontrollable laughter during skits. Bits would halt as Korman struggled to stay in character; Conway would continue to pile on more egregious additions, trying to break up his costar. While the other cast members joined in unexpected break-ups, the anarchic camaraderie of Korman and Conway became legendary.
These refreshing ad-libs often appeared during movie parodies, another of the show's trademarks. Burnett had been deeply influenced by classical Hollywood films during her childhood, and she and her writers drew from a copious knowledge of motion pictures to design film-related skits. Nothing was sacred: genres, films, actors, and characters from familiar and obscure pictures provided fodder for the ensemble. A take-off of Gone With the Wind ("Went With the Wind") found Burnett dressed in Bob Mackie window drapes, complete with curtain rods doubling as shoulder pads, rolling down the stairs as she deconstructed one of the film's most famous moments--Scarlett's miscarriage during a fight with Rhett. "From Here to Maternity," "Sunnyset Boulevard," "Lovely Story:" Burnett and her ensemble paid tribute to the bygone Golden Age with arch and loving comic elegies.
The show ended in 1978, still attaining decent ratings at a time when variety shows no longer attracted large audiences. Burnett wished to go on to other projects, and wanted to close The Carol Burnett Show while it could still entertain its viewers. The show periodically appears in syndication as Carol Burnett & Friends; in 1992, Carol Burnett: A Reunion, brought highlights of the run back to CBS prime time, where the special did well in the ratings. Ultimately, The Carol Burnett Show represents a sophisticated fusion of music, comedy, drama, celebrity, parody, and slapstick which both resurrected and archived the traditions of America's vaudeville-variety past.
-Kathryn C. D'Alessandro
Harvey Korman (1967-77)
Lyle Waggoner (1967-74)
Tim Conway (1975-79)
Dick Van Dyke (1977)
Kenneth Mars (1979)
Craig Richard Nelson (1979)
The Harry Zimmerman Orchestra (1967-71)
The Peter Matz Orchestra (1971-78)
The Ernest Flatt Dancers
September 1967-May 1971 Monday 10:00-11:00
September 1971-November 1972 Wednesday 8:00-9:00
December 1972-December 1977 Saturday 10:00-11:00
December 1977-March 1978 Sunday 10:00-11:00
June 1978-August 1978 Wednesday 8:00-9:00
August 1979-September 1979 Saturday 8:00-9:00
Marc, David. "Carol Burnett: The Last of the Big-time Comedy-Variety Stars." Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Chur, Netherlands), July 1992.
O'Connor, John J. "Funny Women of Television: A Museum of Television and Radio Tribute." The New York Times, 24 October, 1991.