Friday, August 2, 2019

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show, Part 1

Harvey Korman, Vickie Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner
surround their star Carol Burnett
In 2013, I wrote a blog post about my love of The Carol Burnett Show and how much I enjoyed viewing clips from the show's 11-year run on YouTube. At that time, the first five seasons were not generally available because a different company had the rights to those shows while the the ones from seasons 6 to 11 played endlessly in syndication in half-hours called Carol Burnett and Friends. These shows I remember because they are from the days I was old enough to stay up late and watch Carol on Saturday nights at 10PM. Only recently have the earlier episodes became available in a DVD collection called The Lost Episodes (it only includes 16 episodes out of over 100.) That was about two years ago. I knew if I waited long enough I would not have to shell out a couple hundred bucks to buy this massive collection. Amazon Prime has been streaming 13 of these segments and this summer MeTV has been rerunning them at 11PM in half-hours just like Carol Burnett and Friends, expect they have occasionally included the musical numbers which the former packages excised. They even sometimes stretch a single one-hour original show over two 30-min. blocks, but still leave some things out so they can sell more elder-targeted products like medication, insurance, walkers, wheelchairs, med-alert bracelets, and canes.

Lately, I have been DVRing the MeTV shows so I can fast forward through these ads. (I only started this recently and MeTV has just finished with the fourth season, so I must wait till they start over to get to the first three seasons.) I also just finished reading Burnett's In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox which includes a complete list of all the episodes and the guest stars and writers. Some fragments of these early shows are vaguely familiar, but most of them I'm sure I have never seen before. It's like discovering long-buried comedy treasure. So through YouTube, MeTV, Amazon, Carol's book and my own memory, here is a breakdown of all the episodes I've been able to recreate so far and my reviews of them.

Oct. 2, 1967. With Lucille Ball, Tim Conway and Gloria Loring
Carol and Lucy
Available on Amazon Prime. This was Tim Conway's first appearance on the show. Carol introduced him as that "cute guy from McHale's Navy," a service sitcom which did not allow Conway to display a tenth of his talent. He didn't get that chance here either with a sort of funny bit about a newscaster with no news to report, dying on live TV. Another sketch which worked better had Carol and Lucy as office workers dining at an Argentine restaurant on their lunch hour. The gag is the place is stuffed with Nazis and Harvey is a riot as a Gestapo commander-type headwaiter. This played on the fact that numerous Third Reichers were supposed to have escaped to South America. Adolf Eichmann was the most famous having been captured by Israeli secret agents and made to stand trial. The sketch was kinda weird and made me think of Hogan's Heroes (which ironically precedes Carol's show on MeTV). Gloria Loring was a pretty if undistinguished singer whose biggest claim to fame was a five-year run on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. The hour ends with Carol and Lucy got up by Bob Mackie like Miss Kitty saloon hostesses and singing and dancing Marlene Dietrich's standard "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have."

Nov. 6 1967: Nanette Fabray, Sonny and Cher
Found on YouTube. Some of the material in this one was so dated, I couldn't watch all of it. Carol as a super-efficient, plain secretary and Nanette as a sexy, lazy one played on sexist tropes while a series of vignettes satirizing different national airlines was borderline racist in its depiction of Japanese stewardesses and a pilot. But the Slavic airline gags were pretty funny. This contained the famous bit with Carol as a nudist answering the question "How do nudists dance?" with the classic "Cheek to Cheek." The finale has the whole cast in color-coordinated early 1900s outfits harmonizing on "Take Me Along" from the obscure Broadway show of the same name, based on Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness.

Nov. 11, 1968: Don Rickles, Nanette Fabray, Mel Torme
Mel Torme and Carol in the Tin Pan Alley parody
Available on Amazon Prime. Rickles' aggressive, insult-laced humor doesn't always hit me right. He can be hysterically funny and clever, but usually just plain nasty. In a silly, unfunny sketch, he plays an explosive shoe salesman dealing with an equally ill-tempered customer (Nanette) and a queeny supervisor (Harvey). During the early years of the show, the writers often resorted to stereotypical portrayals of flouncing sissies to get cheap laughs. Torme performs a jazzy arrangement of "Take a Letter, Miss Jones." The highlight of this show is "The Tin Pan Alley Story," one of the earliest of their take-offs on old Hollywood movies. These were always my favorite part of the series and remain the  Carol is brilliant belting out a torch song parody of "My Man."

Jan. 18, 1971: Michelle Lee, Mel Torme
I caught the cut-up MeTV version of this one while visiting my parents in Pennsylvania. At this point, I had not yet started DVRing the shows so the missing material from this may be on another segment. The highlight comes during the question and answer session with the audience when a lady asks if she can teach Carol some hula moves. Carol gets Harvey, Lyle, a cameraman, and other members of the audience to join in and it's pretty amusing. The only other segments included were Michelle singing "The Green, Green Grass" with the dancers, all dressed in winter clothes, and a bizarre sketch with all the regulars as lowlifes and Michelle as a welfare worker checking up on them. Lyle is the hunky son dressed as a Hell's Angel (he says he's 15) who sweeps Michelle off her feet literally and presumably away from the Welfare Bureau so she can't report on the family. Again, this punchline was dated and played on women dropping their professionalism in favor of a hot guy they've never met before.

Feb. 15, 1971: Ken Berry, Totie Fields
Seen on Me TV. Totie Fields was a short, zoftig Phyllis Diller-style stand-up comic who specialized in jokes about her appearance. She used to be on The Mike Douglas Show all the time. An ordinary "Carol and Sis" sketch with Ken Berry as an old pal of Roger's (Harvey) constantly in tears because of a broken engagement. This half-hearted effort ends with Ken criticizing Carol's meatloaf--the ultimate insult for a housewife in 1971--and then banging her in the face with the kitchen door. As The Stomach Turns, the soap opera spoof, was better with Totie as a Jewish werewolf, Harvey as her rabbi, Ken as a Catholic priest, and Vickie (as always) as Marion (Carol)'s long-lost daughter showing up with a baby, which Carol promptly dumps into an umbrella stand. The musical finale was not included but the closing credits showed the cast in L'il Abner outfits which looked promising.

Feb. 22, 1971: Bob Newhart, Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera, Bob Newhart, Harvey and Carol
in a parody of Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddie movie musicals
Available on Amazon Prime. Newhart is wasted in this episode, appearing only in the Q&A segment, a "Carol and Sis" sketch as a mild-mannered accountant with a gorgeous wife Roger drools over, a short bit as part of a salute to MGM movies, and as an effeminate nobleman engaged to Carol's Jeanette MacDonald in a spoof of MacDonald-Nelson Eddy movie musicals. Similarly, Rivera is underused. She has a spectacular dance number with the boys of the chorus as a spider-like vamp (presaging her Tony winning turn as another evil arachnid in Kiss of the Spider Woman), does a trio number with Carol and Vickie, and plays an Indian princess in the MacDonald-Eddy spoof. Carol plays Alice Portnoy, the annoying Girl Scout, blackmailing a hung-over Harvey.

March 1, 1971: Tim Conway, Pat Carroll, Karen Wyman
Tim Conway and Pat Carroll
n the hacked-up MeTV version we only see two sketches. In "Carol and Sis," Pat Carroll plays Roger's pushy sister visiting to take care of her brother who has a broken ankle. The humor derives form Carol and Pat arguing and when the writers ran out of ideas, Harvey as Roger gets hit with the kitchen door. The second sketch affords Tim Conway opportunities to let loose. He plays an architect injected with a serum meant for his sick dog and starts acting like a canine just as his boss (Harvey) and the boss' wife (Pat) arrive for an important dinner. Carol is stuck playing the hapless wife. Karen Wyman was a teen pop singer. She didn't make the MeTV cut.

March 8, 1971: Bernadette Peters, Mike Douglas
Again just two sketches appear in this MeTV offering. Mike Douglas had a popular afternoon talk show at the time, but we don't see him here except in the closing credits. Carol, Harvey, Lyle and Bernadette play kids experimenting with kissing. Then a hysterical lampoon of They Knew What They Wanted with Harvey as the older man married to a young Carol who is literally magnetically attracted to Lyle, who we get to see in a tank-top.

March 22, 1971: David Frost, Marilyn Horne, Eileen Farrell
This was cut up into two episodes on MeTV. The first segment didn't look too exciting. David Frost, another talk-show host of the day who would later become most famous for his interviews with Richard Nixon, plays a snooty British car salesman dealing with vulgar American tourists Carol and Harvey. Then Carol and Harvey are put to the test with a Zelda-and-George sketch. This annoying recurring segment had Carol as a nasal-voiced, whiny shrew and Harvey as her henpecked, miserable spouse. He can't even escape from her in his dreams and fantasies. In this one, George is watching his favorite gladiator movie and then imagines he's about to go into the arena when Zelda shows up ready to bet against him. Neither of these scenes was particularly funny. The saving grace of this 30 minutes was Marilyn Horne singing an aria from The Barber of Saville. This was a time when opera stars could be celebrities in the larger culture. Horne would appear on The Tonight Show and The Odd Couple. The second MeTV segment, broadcast the following evening, was taken up almost entirely with one sequence--an Italian-themed operatic parody of Cinderella featuring Frost as the high-culture narrator, opera stars Horne and Eileen Farrell as the wicked stepsisters, Carol as Chinderella, Harvey as the fairy godfather, and Lyle as Prince Charming. Hysterically funny with broad Italian accents and pizzas. Carol would later return to Cinderella with a rock theme. This episode was filmed in New York at the same theater where Carol did The Garry Moore Show.

More reviews of The Carol Burnett Show to come in later blogs.


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