Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The 50th Anniversary of The Carol Burnett Show

Yesterday it was 50 years ago that The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS. In many respects it can be considered the last great variety show on American television. There would be several variety shows that would debut after it, but none of them would last as long and none of them would have the impact that The Carol Burnett Show did. In total it ran for 11 seasons. For most of those 11 seasons it ranked in the top thirty shows for the year.

Carol Burnett was a well established performer by the time of The Carol Burnett Show. She was a regular on the short-lived sitcom Stanley. In 1957 she achieved a large degree of fame with the comedy song "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles". From there she became a regular on the game show Pantomime Quiz, and she performed on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress. In 1959 she received what may have been her highest profile gig up to that point; she became a regular on The Garry Moore Show on CBS. Carol Burnett proved very popular on The Garry Moore Show, so much so that after she left the variety show in 1962 CBS signed her to a ten year contract that required she make two guest appearances a year as well as a special every year. Included in the contract was an option for Miss Burnett at any time to decide to make a variety show.

It was in 1967 that Carol Burnett called Mike Dann, head of CBS programming, and informed him that she wished to exercise her option for her own variety show. Mike Dann tried to dissuade her, maintaining that variety shows are a "man's genre". Instead Mike Dann tried talking her into a sitcom titled Here's Agnes. Miss Burnett had no interest in doing a sitcom and insisted that CBS stick by the terms of their contract. Because of the contract, CBS was obligated to put The Carol Burnett Show on the air.

The Carol Burnett Show debuted on September 11 1967. It proved somewhat successful from the beginning, ranking no. 27 in the Nielsen ratings for the year. The first guest on the show was Jim Nabors, who would be the first guest on the first show of every season. Quite simply, Carol Burnett considered him her good luck charm. As to the regulars that first season, they included a young singer named Vicki Lawrence (who had written her noting their resemblance), Harvey Korman (who had been a regular on The Danny Kaye Show), and Lyle Waggoner (who had auditioned for the lead role in the hit TV show Batman).

Ultimately The Carol Burnett Show would see very little turnover in its regulars given how long the show ran. Vicki Lawrence remained with the show for its entire run. Harvey Korman remained for ten seasons. Lyle Waggoner left after seven seasons. Tim Conway had been a very frequent guest star on The Carol Burnett Show during its first eight seasons. He joined the show as a regular in its ninth season and remained with it until its end. Dick Van Dyke was briefly a regular on the show during the first part of the eleventh season. Dick Van Dyke left the show amicably.

The format of The Carol Burnett Show never really varied over the years. It generally featured two guest stars and a musical act. Among the musical acts to appear on the show were Cass Elliot, Eydie Gorme, Mel Tormé, and many others. It would be for its comedy sketches that The Carol Burnett Show was best known. Over the years the show did several parodies of movies, including Airport, Beach Blanket Bingo, Double Indemnity, Jaws, Mildred Pierce, Showboat, and Sunset Boulevard. Perhaps the most famous movie parody on the show (indeed, the most famous comedy sketch) was their parody of Gone with the Wind. Titled "Went with the Wind!", it featured Carol Burnett as Starlett, who at one point takes a curtain from a window to make a dress, not bothering to take the curtain rod out.

Over the years The Carol Burnett Show would feature several recurring sketches. Among these was "As the Stomach Turns" (a parody of As the World Turns and soap operas in general), "George and Zelda" (with Miss Burnett as nasal voiced Zelda and Harvey Korman as her husband), "The Old Folks" (with Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman as an elderly couple), and "Alice Portnoy" (which featured Carol Burnett as a  little girl who is a member of  the Fireside Girls of America). Perhaps the best known and most influential of the recurring sketches was simply called "The Family". "The Family" sketches began in the show's seventh season. They featured Carol Burnett as  Eunice Higgins, a temperamental woman given to dreams of success. Eunice's dreams of success are pretty much squashed by both a lack of any real talent and the fact that she has to take care of her mother. Mama, played by Vicki Lawrence, tends to be belligerent and easily annoyed, and is given to making sometimes unkind wisecracks. Harvey played Eunice's husband Ed, who was as ill-tempered as Eunice and not terribly bright. Both Mama and Eunice regularly attacked him for his lack of success.

"The Family" sketches proved extremely popular. Eventually they would lead to the 1982 television movie Eunice. Eunice would in turn to lead the TV series Mama's Family, starring Vicki Lawrence as Thelma "Mama" Harper. Due to various circumstances, Carol Burnett did not appear in Mama's Family beyond the show's first season.

From its very first season The Carol Burnett Show was nominated for several Emmy Awards each year. Over the years it won several off the awards, including ones for Special Classification Achievements - Individuals (Variety Performances) for Harvey Korman, Outstanding Achievement in Choreography for Ernie Flatt, Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety or Music, Outstanding Variety Series - Musical, Outstanding Achievement by a Supporting Performer in Music or Variety for Tim Conway, and Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music for Vicki Lawrence.

While The Carol Burnett Show never ranked in the top ten of the Nielsen ratings for the year, it did perform consistently well in the ratings. The show reached its peak in the ratings in the 1969-1970 season, when it ranked no. 13 for the year. For its first nine seasons it always ranked in the top thirty shows for the year. It was in its tenth season that it slipped to no. 44 for the year. The following season, its eleventh and last, it slipped to no. 66.

Despite receiving respectable ratings for most of its run, CBS did move The Carol Burnett Show around its schedule over the show's run. It spent its first four seasons on Monday night at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central. In its fifth season it moved to Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM Eastern/7:00 Central. It remained there for the following season before CBS moved it to Saturdays at 10:00 PM Eastern/9:00 PM Central. It remained on Saturday nights for the rest of its run.

While ratings for The Carol Burnett Show had fallen from what they once were, CBS still wanted to renew the show for a 12th season. That having been said, Carol Burnett had tired of making the show each week and wanted to explore acting. The Carol Burnett Show then ended its run after eleven years. It would be revived after a fashion as the summer replacement show Carol Burnett & Company, which aired on ABC from August 18 to September 8 1979. In 1982 "The Family" sketches led to the TV movie Eunice. This in turn led to the sitcom Mama's Family. CBS revived The Carol Burnett Show in 1991. Unfortunately it failed in the ratings and lasted only nine episodes.

The Carol Burnett Show proved to be the last great variety show. Other variety shows would debut in its wake. For example, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour would prove very popular. But none of the other variety shows to debut after The Carol Burnett Show lasted nearly as long, nor did they prove nearly as memorable.  To this day people can recall many of the sketches that aired on The Carol Burnett Show. What is more, it has proven somewhat successful in syndication, a rarity for variety shows, although the syndicated shows are edited to a half hour and include only the comedy sketches. In the end, The Carol Burnett Show remains one of the most popular variety shows of all time.


Caftan Woman said...

Carol was a mainstay in our family. She's an inspiration.

My dad couldn't help himself, he would crack up when Harvey was overcome by the force that is Tim Conway.

Silver Screenings said...

Thanks to your essay, I just spent the last 40 minutes watching sketches from the Carol Burnett Show. I mean it – thanks very much! A wonderful way to spend a rainy day.