You better believe I’m gonna watch a good old fashioned network tonight that celebrates the life and legacy of a good old fashioned variety show performer and host. Carol Burnett turns 90 today, and NBC will show the party she recently produced and taped that will remind those of those who made her Saturday night show a habit, and, hopefully, those of us who aren’t old enough to have that memory, exactly why, in an era before Saturday Night Live, her show was the most enjoyable way to see sketch comedy and close out an evening of TV.
The night of television that Carol’s show concluded for eleven glorious years was arguably a phenomenon we will never see again. At its peak, Saturday night feaured a lineup that led off with ALL IN THE FAMILY, soon followed with the one-two comedy punch of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and THE BOB NEWHART SHOW (and, briefly, even included M*A*S*H), and ended with Carol’s show. Her cast of co-stars created memorable and stylized sketch comedy that I will contend stands the test of time as well as anything ever produced. What Lucille Ball was to situation comedy, Carol was arguably to variety shows. Like Ball, she uses physical comedy to produce uproarious results. Unlike Ball, she was blessed with truly talented co-stars that were elevated to their own levels of greatness. Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway played their respective roles with ideal timing, when they could keep a straight face. And when they didn’t, Carol left it in. The reaction Korman had in real time when, in a send-up of GONE WITH THE WIND, she appears on stage in spectacular fashion wearing a dress crafted from curtains–complete with the rod–and tosses out the line “I saw this hanging in a window and couldn’t resist”, got one of the loudest and longest laughs from a studio audience as any scene in TV history.
As the review of tonight’s special from The Chicago Tribune’s Nina Metz reminds, Carol, much like Ball, was as much a force behind the scenes as she was in front of the camera:
NBC’s “Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love” is a throwback to the kind of old-school specials that rarely air on television anymore.
But it’s fitting. Carol Burnett is old-school herself.
She’s also one of the executive producers here and her influence on the show’s pacing is evident. In the 11 years that she made “The Carol Burnett Show” from 1967 to 1978, Burnett kept things moving: “I never wanted to reset and retape anything,” she recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “We taped our show in an hour and 15 minutes.”
Burnett isn’t on stage this time out, she’s in the audience, but the same philosophy has carried over. Even with careful editing, these kinds of things can sag. She didn’t want that to happen: “I want people to feel like they’re seeing a Broadway show, not sitting around waiting for scenery or costume changes.”
I never had the opportunity to see her show live, but a childhood friend did, picked from the audience at CBS Television City to serenade her with a tribute in song that fortunately his far more talented and attractive friend took lead on. I did have the chance to see her perform in a memorable special taped at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. SILLS AND BURNETT: TOGETHER AT THE MET won accolade and showcased Burnett’s considerable singing talents alongside longtime Met songstress Beverly Sills, who would often guest star and allow her star to be seen by a broader audience. Burnett’s inclusivity was noted in Hollywood, she often featured Black guest stars at a time when many other variety shows was not, and she championed women and gays both in front of and behind the camera as well.
And I also got to meet Carol as a businesswoman. She clawed back the rerun rights to her comedy sketches soon after her CBS show ended, edited out the more expensive musical numbers and aggressively sold them to local TV stations along with a business partner who shared Carol’s striking hair and energy. A David amidst syndication goliaths, she would join her partner for meetings at NATPE, making you feel as if you were a longtime friend. Few deals I got the chance to make were as pleasant as the ones I made with her. She also attempted to follow Burt Reynolds’ lead by starring and producing a syndicated game show pilot which I was ready to buy. Carol was (is?) an outstanding game player and was far and away the best thing about a sadly overcomplicated mash-up of two of her business partner Tom Kennedy’s shows: the charades of BODY LANGUAGE and the Password knock-off word game YOU DON’T SAY. It didn’t sell to enough stations to go into production. I truly wish it had. I would have been on set as often as possible.
I was on set when Carol reprised her Emmy-winning role as Helen Hunt’s mother in the brief and otherwise ill-fated reboot of MAD ABOUT YOU in 2019. In the show’s original version, she was cast alongside her former CBS Saturday night star Carroll O’Connor, in would could only be described as ideal casting for someone like Hunt’s Jamie Buchman. Even well into her 80s, Burnett’s professionalism and timing was flawless. She was, and still is, an inspiration.
NBC went the 90th birthday route a bit more than a decade ago when Betty White reached that age. Betty resurrected her career with a memorable guest host stint on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and endeared herself to an entirely new generation, but following the lead of Burnett, who she frequently worked with on both the variety show as well as MAMA’S FAMILY, the sitcom spin-off which Carol’s ex-husband Joe Hamilton was able to turn into one of syndication’s first successful resurrections of a prematurely canceled series. While it began as a series of sketches called EUNICE (which was also a CBS special), it was really a tour de force for Carol’s longtime co-star Vicki Lawence, who Metz reminds is much more than just that to Carol:
Time and again, what comes through is that Burnett has formed real friendships, not just showbiz friendships.
Among those longtime friends is Vicki Lawrence, hired by Burnett when she was just 17. “Thanks to Carol, I got to go to the Harvard school of comedy in front of America.” Looking back, Burnett is thoughtful: “Eunice spoke to me. I don’t know, the frustration, the angst, the wanting to be somebody but not quite making it. I just felt for her.”
Lawrence is the sole survivor of Carol’s original cast of co-stars, and has evolved more than ever into the “little sister” that she was portrayed as as she grew up in front of America. The presence of Julie Andrews, Carol’s longtime friend and also a frequent guest star on the variety show, is yet another reminder of Carol’s loyalty and endurance. Andrews is no longer able to perform, and her poignant presence as Burnett’s companion for the evening is a reminder that Carol very much still can. Even though her show was a CBS staple, it was NBC that aired a later attempt to resurrect her series and indeed was the home of MAMA’S FAMILY for its first two seasons. It would be fitting–indeed, arguably, a coup–if NBC were to give Burnett the same chance to perform on SNL as they gave White. She appears to still be up to it, and one only wonders what kind of laughs she could produce if she were given the chance to repurpose something else she might see hanging in a window.
The ear tug, by the way, was her signature, and, as she told Eudie Pak of Biography.com, her way of letting loved ones know she was thinking of them:
For more than 10 years, The Carol Burnett Show ended with a song…and an ear tug. What audiences didn’t know is that when the comedienne was pulling her left earlobe at the end of “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” she was also sending a message to the woman who raised her: her grandmother.
“My grandmother raised me out here in Hollywood. When I got my first job back in New York, I called her and I said ‘Nanny, I’m going to be on television Saturday morning.’ She said, ‘Well, you gotta say hello to me.’ We figured this out — to pull my ear — and that was my signal to her,” she revealed. “It always meant ‘Hi Nanny. I’m fine. I love you.’ Later it meant, ‘Hi Nanny. I’m fine. I love you. Your check’s on the way.'”
Tugging right back in your direction, Carol. I’m so glad we had this time together, too. May tonight not be last.
Until next time…