Is there a more uneven “great” television show than The Carol Burnett Show? Sketch-comedy and variety shows are uneven by nature, but The Carol Burnett Show is so all over the map that a laugh-free sketch can lead into one of the series’ comic highlights just a few minutes later. The show’s reputation rests partly on its position as the capper to the Saturday-night sitcom lineup that defined CBS in the ’70s, but it was also the last bastion of certain television traditions that were already on the way out thanks to other contemporaneous sketch-comedy shows.
Consider the series’ most famous sketch, the Gone With The Wind parody “Went With The Wind.” The comedy stems mostly from the sketch’s references to the film being satirized, references that are turned up until they become ridiculous. Co-star Vicki Lawrence’s portrayal of “Cissy” is foremost in this regard, considering it consists entirely of Lawrence screaming the same thing over and over (made all the weirder because Lawrence is imitating a character who’s black). It’s the kind of gag that wears viewers out until it turns the corner and becomes riotous. The sketch also relies on a pile-up of cultural references, like mentions of “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree” and “Ode To Billie Joe.” It’s like a mid-’70s Family Guy, aimed at a generation with a different set of pop-culture touchstones.
But then it all comes together with the sight of Burnett wearing a dress made of a curtain—just like in the movie and book—only with the curtain rod still attached, a gag that makes the whole thing worth watching. There’s enough here to constitute a “whole thing,” too: “Went With The Wind” encompasses several scenes and many minutes of screen time. It’s the sort of vaudeville-inspired construction—with some sketches stretching to the length of one-act plays—that was already on the way out, thanks to the influence of Monty Python and Saturday Night Live.
Like many programs that rely heavily on cultural references, not all of the series has aged well. It’s still home to many classic sketches, and it’s a pleasure almost any time Tim Conway and Harvey Korman share the screen. But the individual episodes are often filled with padding, even more than most variety shows, and the musical numbers in particular have a tendency to stretch on and on. The cast is filled with talented musical comedians, so any number that invites the members to run around the stage and do pratfalls while occasionally bursting into song can be fun, but the solo numbers that frequently break up the episodes are usually stultifying, unimaginatively staged and blandly shot. (Fortunately, DVD makes it easy to skip past them.)
The episodes on the first volume included in the Ultimate Collection were hand-picked by Burnett herself. (Other volumes center on different themes and were not sent out for review). For the most part, these 16 episodes collect the series’ best sketches. (One famous sketch, “The Dentist,” in which Conway plays a dentist who keeps injecting himself with Novocaine, to patient Harvey Korman’s delight, gets relegated to special features for some reason. Since this is perhaps the best sketch the series ever aired, the episode surrounding it must have truly been not up to snuff.) As a delivery system for the series’ best episodes, the collection mostly suffices, particularly for those who are fans of Burnett and Conway’s often-interminable “Wiggins And Tudball” characters. The bimbo secretary and vaguely Minnewegian middle manager turn up several times, for seemingly no particular reason. Also appearing several times—and not wearing out their welcome as quickly—are Conway’s “Old Man” character and the members of “The Family” (later to spun off to Mama’s Family).
However, the selection process highlights how thoroughly the rosy memory of the show relies on those best sketches. In the first volume, only one episode hails from the Lyle Waggoner era, which made up well over half of the series’ run. (Conway replaced Waggoner as a regular, though Conway had appeared as a frequent guest player from the earliest days of the show.) Similarly, the episodes themselves are frequently filled with sketches or musical segments that go nowhere, and it’s rare to come across a previously little-known gem, as is possible on the old Saturday Night Live sets. (One possible candidate: A warm and funny marriage proposal made by Korman to Burnett, masquerading as a business meeting.) For the most part, this series’ reputation relies on the famous “core cast” of Burnett, Lawrence, Korman, and Conway. Those four were only together as regulars for three seasons, but those three seasons are the ones most heavily represented here.
Yet for all of the ways the series just misses the mark, Burnett is the kind of TV presence who comes along only once or twice in a generation. She’s genuinely warm and witty, and the audience Q&A segments—in which she goes out before the show to take unprompted questions from the studio audience—create the kind of bond between performer and audience that’s rare on TV. In those moments, The Carol Burnett Show lives up to the stage comedies and vaudeville performances that inspired it. If only the rest of the show matched Burnett’s easy way with banter, Conway’s improvised lunacy, or even Korman’s inability to keep it together. The Carol Burnett Show is good TV, especially in the context of when it was made, but it’s unfairly earned a reputation as great TV.
Key features: Almost too numerous to mention, especially in the full, 50-episode set. However, the best features are always those in which the show’s surviving cast members gather to reminisce.