After all these years, comedienne Carol Burnett has written a book chronicling the success of her 1970s Emmy-winning TV variety show. Titled “This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection” (Harmony, $25), Burnett, 76, talks about how the 11-year run of “The Carol Burnett Show” was a staple for millions of TV viewers.
For those who are too young to remember (or even care), the Carol Burnett Show was a weekly variety program that combined song, dance and comedy sketches. These sketches ranged from film parodies to character pieces that featured the talents of Burnett and her cast.
I recall my parents, siblings and I breaking out the popcorn bowls, and gathering around the old black and white Zenith for an hour of prime time laughter. The chemistry between the award-winning team of Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicky Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner was, for lack of a better word, magical.
At the start of each program, Burnett walked out onstage and answered questions asked by the audience. Burnett had a way of making you feel as if you were the only person in the world, and some of the questions were as hysterical as the comedy sketches.
The program featured at least two prominent guests each week, and the cast performed an assortment of comedy sketches. This included the “Kitchen Commercials” segment in which they parodied TV commercials that drove a housewife (Burnett) insane. The cast also parodied daytime serials, such as “As the Stomach Turns” (As the World Turns).
Also, the cast parodied the Margaret Mitchell classic, “Gone with the Wind.” In `“Went with the Wind,” Scarlett O’Hara (Burnett) sports a makeshift dress created from a curtain rod (which she sports across her shoulders) and dark green curtain. When Rhett Butler (Korman), compliments the dress, O’Hara replies, “I saw it hanging in the window and couldn’t resist.”
The laughter from the audience seemed to last forever.
Lawrence too, played many memorable characters, notably Thelma Harper (“Mama”) in the “Family” sketches. Lawrence donned a grey-blue wig and body padding that transformed her into the foul-mouthed “Mama.”
In one episode, Mama’s daughter, Eunice (Burnett), goes on a childish rampage. Mama responds with several memorable one-liners: “You’re not playing with a full deck,” and “I think you sprung a leak in your dinghy.”
Burnett stands with her back to the audience in an attempt to conceal her struggling to stifle her laughter. After regaining her composure, she replied, “If you got any more of those, mama, you better say them now.”
However, it was the chemistry between comic geniuses Conway and Korman that drove audiences to hysterics.
The “Dentist” sketch featured Conway as a bumbling dentist who, despite accidentally shooting novacane into his right hand and hip, attempts to operate on his patient. Korman, who plays the pained patient, fails to keep from laughing hysterically which inspires laughter from the audience. Viewers couldn’t get enough of this comic pair and their award-winning sketches.
The Carol Burnett Show, which won 25 Prime Time Emmy Awards during its 11-year run, went off the air on March 29, 1978. Since then, each cast member has pursued a myriad of projects.
Waggoner played the role of no-nonsense U.S. Army Major Steve Trevor on the popular comic strip-based TV series, “Wonder Woman.” Today, he works as a sculptor near Jackson, Wyo., and much of his work, humorous renditions of women, can be seen at Galleries West Fine Art in Jackson Hole.
Lawrence (who was hired because of her resemblance to the show’s red-haired star) had a number one chart topper with, “The Night the Lights Went out in Georgia.” The Recording Industry Association of America presented Lawrence with a gold disc of her recording which sold over two million copies.
Last February Conway was awarded the PTC Integrity in Entertainment Award which “Recognizes those individuals and corporations who have demonstrated a longstanding commitment to creating, distributing and sponsoring quality entertainment that is free from graphic and gratuitous sex, violence and profanity.”
Korman, who went on to star in several films, is perhaps best remembered for his role as the exasperated con man Hedley Lamarr (whom townsfolk confused with actress Hedy Lamarr) in the Mel Brooks western parody, “Blazing Saddles.” Korman died on May 29, 2008 at age 81.
Like Korman, Burnett too, went on to star in films. In 2008, she had her second role as an animated character, in “Horton Hears a Who,” and in 2009 made a guest appearance on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Her performance earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.
In 2007 the Carol Burnett Show was listed as one of Time magazine’s “100 Best TV Shows of All Time.” That’s because unlike today’s performers, the cast of the Carol Burnett Show relied on talent vice sex, violence and profanity to make you laugh.
Burnett’s signature closing theme, which she sings at the end of the final show, smacks prophetic, as if the cast and viewers knew comedy would never be the same again:
I’m so glad we had this time together,
just to have a laugh or sing a song.
Seems we just get started and before you know it,
comes the time we have to say, ‘So long.’
Alas, Hollywood doesn’t produce variety shows like this anymore, and I doubt viewers will again enjoy the same caliber of talent and spirit we did from these exceptional performers.
William J. Dagendesh is editor in chief of CSU-Pueblo TODAY. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.