Growing up, I never saw The Carol Burnett Show on CBS because it aired at 10pm, which was past my bedtime. Then, suddenly, when I was about 7, Carol Burnett and Friends, a truncated, half-hour version of the show began to air daily in syndication. It was love at first sight for me. Carol and each of her co-stars were so brilliantly funny, and the writing so perfect. The show inspired many a performer to get into show business. Including recent interviewee Geri Jewell.
As a 7 year old, I hadn’t seen any classic movies. But I adored The Carol Burnett Show’s movie parodies. To this day, I will start watching an old movie and about twenty minutes in suddenly realize, “Wait a minute! I know this movie from Carol Burnett!” They did as many obscure, Late-Late Show type movies as they did classics. Examples of movies I saw parodied on Carol Burnett before I ever actually watched them were “Mildred Pierce” (“Mildred Fierce”), “All About Eve,” and “Rebecca” (“Rebecky”). Carol Burnett made me love old movies before I ever even saw one!
The all-time classic Carol Burnett Show movie parody was their version of “Gone with the Wind” (“Went with the Wind!”), yes another case where I saw the parody before I ever saw the movie. It wasn’t until I saw the actual movie that I fully appreciated how wonderful Harvey Korman’s imitation of Clark Gable or Vicki Lawrence’s take on Butterfly McQueen were. And I also couldn’t fully get the central joke of the sketch, “Starlet’s” curtain rod dress, created by interviewee Bob Mackie. The dress is funny, and Burnett’s line, “I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist it,” is sublimely hilarious.
Beyond the movie parodies, my favorite part of the show was the myriad of characters. Examples include Mrs. Wiggins, Nora Desmond, and Marion, the lead character on the recurring soap opera parody “As the Stomach Turns.” The best of them all was Eunice Higgins in “The Family” sketches. Eunice and her family became to The Carol Burnett Show what Ralph and Alice Kramden were to The Jackie Gleason Show: breakout characters that became as popular in their own right as the show they originated from. There was so much pathos, so much yelling, and it was so very funny. Like “The Honeymooners” sketches, Eunice’s family would eventually get their own series, Mama’s Family.
When you talk about The Carol Burnett Show, you have to talk about the guest stars. There were many who shined brightest with Carol on Stage 33 at Television City in Hollywood. Among them were Steve Lawrence, Bernadette Peters, Jim Nabors and Alan Alda. The greatest of these was so good that they eventually had to make him a member of the cast, Tim Conway. Another man who could do it all (sing, dance, comedy), and used the show to display these talents was the amazing Mr. Ken Berry.
The Carol Burnett Show’s popularity persists. A November, 2001 reunion show, aired nearly thirty-five years after the show debuted, was number 1 for the week with a whopping thirty million viewers. Recent DVD sets are selling well, and various sketches and performances from the show have had millions of hits on YouTube. When we talked to Carol, she was hopeful about a return of the variety show format. I think if the genre ever does make a comeback, it won’t be like The Carol Burnett Show. To me, Carol, Lyle Waggoner, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway captured lightning in a bottle for eleven years.
I’ve only begun to scratch the surface! For more information about the lives and careers of The Carol Burnett Show cast, search the collection. We’ve got it very well covered!
- by John Dalton