Next to Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett is probably the most popular comedienne in American television history largely due to her 11-year run on 'The Carol Burnett Show,' one of the best loved US variety shows ever.
For an hour each week, Burnett and her talented cast--Vicki Lawrence; Lyle Waggoner; Harvey Korman and (later) Tim Conway--spoofed everything from movies to commercials; performed in slice-of-life skits (one of which would later be a TV series of its own); and generally cracked each other up before the live studio audience that came for the taping. (Imagine the great scenes that we television viewers were denied!) But it was the multitalented Burnett who held the show together. She could play everything from a cleaning woman to a femme fatale, thanks to her lithe body, incredible facial expressions and that wonderful booming voice. (She could also sing and dance with ease.) Though she would also have success in movies and the stage, Carol Burnett’s variety series remains her legacy, and deservedly so. (It won 22 Emmy awards by the time the show came to a close in 1978.)
Carol Burnett was born April 26th, 1933 in San Antonio, Texas. But her childhood was troubled. Her parents, Joseph and Ina Louise were alcoholics and often unemployed. Because of that, the little girl was raised by her maternal grandmother, Mabel Eudora White. When Burnett’s parents divorced several years later, White took the young girl to Hollywood, California where she tried her best to eke out a modest living. (Burnett’s parents died in the 1950’s.) Meanwhile, young Carol began showing talent in journalism. But after graduating from Hollywood High School in 1951, Burnett won a scholarship to the University of California and changed her major to theater arts and English. She soon became a staple of university productions, with a flair for singing and comedy. By 1954, Burnett and her then-boyfriend Don Saroyan, decided to leave college and pursue show business careers in New York City. (The pair later married and divorced.) After more than a year of searching, she became a regular on a children’s show hosted by ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his dummy Jerry Mahoney. It led to a prime time role in 1956, where Burnett played girlfriend to a young Buddy Hackett in the short-lived NBC sitcom Stanley.
After the show was cancelled, Burnett became a popular guest on television and nightclubs, thanks to a parody song about President Dwight Eisenhower’s cold war secretary of state. (It was called I Made A Fool Of Myself Over John Foster Dulles.) Her big break came in 1959 when she starred in the off-Broadway production of the
musical comedy Once Upon A Mattress, which led to a regular role on the comedy-variety series The Garry Moore Show. It was a good training ground for the young Burnett, and the easygoing Moore proved to be a fine mentor, allowing her to steal the spotlight in various sketches. In 1962, Burnett won her first Emmy for her work on the Moore show, and left the series soon after when CBS gave her a 10-year deal for her talents. But while she successfully paired with up-and-coming singer Julie Andrews in a special taped at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Burnett starred in a short-lived 1964 series called The Entertainers. (The show was also hosted by Bob Newhart; it was a major ratings and critical flop.) She also had to quit a musical called Fade Out, Fade In when she was injured in a cab accident. But things were looking up.
In 1963, she married second husband Joe Hamilton, whom she met on the Moore show. CBS wanted to put her into a sitcom (and she was a guest on such comedies as Get Smart; Gomer Pyle USMC and The Lucy Show), but Burnett refused. She was talked into doing a variety show, and on September 11th, 1967, The Carol Burnett Show made its debut with Hamilton as producer. At first, the show looked as it would not succeed. Variety series with female hosts were seldom successful in the US; and unlike the hit Smothers Brothers Comedy Hourand soon-to-debut Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In, Burnett’s new show was far from politically topical. Besides, with those exceptions (and that of The Dean Martin Show), hosted variety shows seemed to be on the way out.
But 'The Carol Burnett Show' not only survived, it thrived. Burnett’s
versatility helped sidestep the problem of a predictable format. And Burnett was wise enough to surround herself with a talented supporting team. Harvey Korman proved to be an excellent comic counterpoint for Burnett. Newcomer Vicki Lawrence had won a Carol Burnett look-alike contest, and wrote a letter to the entertainer--a move that caught Burnett’s attention and landed Lawrence on the show. Lawrence soon proved her ability to keep up with the veteran performer. (She also became a singing star for a brief time; a song that Cher reportedly
turned down--The Night The Lights Went Down In Georgia--became a
number-one hit for Lawrence in 1973.) Handsome Lyle Waggoner was the perfect straight man in dozens of skits and sketches. Burnett’s friend, actor and singer Jim Nabors (who was starring in the hit sitcom Gomer Pyle, USMC at the time) was the show’s first guest host; Burnett considered him a 'lucky charm' and Nabors appeared on each season opener for the next decade. (By contrast, the final episode of every season featured just Carol and her supporting cast, known as 'The Family.') During its second season, The Carol Burnett Show was ranked among the top-25 series; in 1970, the variety show was among the 15 most-popular shows for the year. (The show was also part of the now-legendary CBS Saturday night schedule of the 1973-94 season, which included All In The Family; M*A*S*H; The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show.)
Besides the takeoffs of TV shows, movies and commercials, the best-known segments of the show included Carol’s short question and answer session with the studio audience (a segment she borrowed from Gary Moore’s show); and continuing skits featuring Burnett as secretary Mrs. Wiggins. But perhaps the most successful character for Burnett, along with her famous cleaning woman character was her portrayal of 'Eunice'--a woman whose dreams of doing better for herself were thwarted by her no-good husband Ed (Korman) and the bombastic Mama (played with relish by Lawrence, who aged herself with makeup, a gray wig and extra padding underneath her hand-me-down dresses). The segment became so popular, that in March 1982, CBS aired a 90-minute special featuring the characters. A year later, (not unlike Jackie Gleason’s
Honeymooners of the 1950’s) the skit became a half-hour sitcom called Mama’s Family. Starring Lawrence, Ken Berry, Dorothy Lyman and Rue McClanahan, the NBC show also featured guest appearances by Korman, Burnett and Betty White. But during the show’s second season, Burnett no longer appeared, even as a guest. (She and husband Joe Hamilton, who produced the show, had split up and later divorced.) NBC canceled Mama’s Family in 1984, but new episodes were later produced and sold in syndication to local TV stations. The syndicated Mama’s Family ran from 1986 to 1990.
Of all the parodies performed on The Carol Burnett Show, probably the best-remembered and funniest was an inspired takeoff of the classic film Gone With The Wind. Airing November 13th, 1976, Burnett played the spoiled Southerner Starlett O’Hara. She tries to tempt the handsome Rat Butler (Korman) by quickly pulling down some drapes from her mansion to make an elegant dress--curtain rod and all.
Rat: That gown is gorgeous!
Starlett: Thank you. I saw it in a window, and I just couldn’t resist it.
Twenty-three years after it aired, the skit was named the second-funniest television moment of all time by TV Guide magazine.
The chemistry between Burnett, Lawrence, Korman and Waggoner was one reason the show was so successful. But sooner or later, things change--as do cast members. In 1974, Waggoner left the Show to pursue new roles. (His most-famous post Burnett role was that as co-star to Lynda Carter in the fantasy super-hero show Wonder Woman.) Funnyman Tim Conway, a frequent guest, helped fill the void left by Waggoner; he became part of the regular cast in 1975. Conway’s ability to come up with on-the-spot jokes and his facial expressions usually made the rest of the cast crack up on the air.
In 1977, Harvey Korman was lured away from the show with an offer to do his own series on rival ABC. Needing a strong male comic anchor who could also do straight roles, Burnett turned to sitcom and variety veteran Dick Van Dyke. But Van Dyke found himself playing second fiddle to Burnett (whose name, after all, was in the show’s title). And the hoped-for chemistry between the two comic greats was lacking. Three months after he arrived, Van Dyke abruptly left. (Frequent Burnett guests Steve Lawrence and Ken Berry showed up more often after Van Dyke’s departure.) But time was running out. ABC’s sex and romance anthology The Love Boat was taking a big chunk out of The Carol Burnett Show’s ratings, and after eleven years, it was time for new challenges. Rather than waiting for CBS to cancel the show, its star decided to pull the plug. The two-hour finale on March 29th, 1978 featured past highlights and new skits, before Carol Burnett sang I’m so glad we had this time together and tugged her earlobe for the final time--or so it seemed.
In the summer of 1979, Burnett reteamed with Lawrence and Conway for a short-run series Carol Burnett And Company. CBS passed on the show, so ABC picked it up. Despite new regulars Craig Richard Nelson and Kenneth Mars, viewers were nowhere to be found. ABC did not renew the show. A year later, Conway got his own comedy-variety series on CBS, which lasted through August 1981. Burnett and Lawrence were frequent guests, and Korman later became a regular. Burnett herself would not have another series until March 1990, when Carol and Company premiered on NBC. Unlike her old series, Burnett performed in half-hour long skits with special weekly guests such as Christopher Reeve and Nell Carter. The show had a repertory group that included Richard Kind (who would go on to the sitcoms Mad About You and Spin City) and Jeremy Piven (later to be a regular on Ellen and a star of the short-lived romance drama Cupid.) But Carol and Company lasted only two seasons. Soon after, The Carol Burnett Show returned to CBS. Same name, same format as the old show too--Carol returned to sketch comedy, and Kind moved from Carol and Company to be a regular on the new show. But with reruns of the old Carol Burnett Show airing on local stations, the revival seemed dated and it lasted just two months.
In the 1980’s, Burnett starred in such TV movies as Friendly Fire; Life Of The Party: The Story of Beatrice and the mini-series Fresno. She also appeared in a number of theatrical films that included The Wedding, Annie and The Four Seasons. In 1997, she won an Emmy for best guest actress in a comedy series, playing Jamie Buckman’s (Helen Hunt) mother on the sitcom Mad About You. (She also guested on such US series as The Larry Sanders Show; Magnum, PI and Touched By An Angel.) Burnett also struck a blow for journalistic integrity when she sued The National Inquirer tabloid in 1981 for a story that alleged Burnett was drunk in public. A jury awarded the comic one-point-six million dollars. The award was later reduced, and a settlement was reached. Burnett gave the award to charity.
These days, Carol Burnett enjoys her private life and performs only when she wants to. For many of her fans, she doesn’t appear on television often enough. But her comic legacy is brighter than ever, thanks to reruns and collections on both videotape and DVD. In 1993, TV Guide named Burnett the best comic actress of the 1960’s, calling her "our sweet, vulnerable, national clown." And no one fit that description better than Carol Burnett.
Thank goodness we had the time together.
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