Saturday, April 16, 2022

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show, Part 24: The Elusive Ethel Merman Episode

Season 2:
March 3, 1969: Tim Conway, Ethel Merman
This one has been difficult to pin down but I finally watched the whole thing on Channel 21 reruns. The MeTV/ShoutFactory/Amazon chopped-up version only featured the infamous dentist sketch with Tim cracking up Harvey as a rookie tooth doctor shooting himself up with Novocain and the scene with Carol as Ethel Merman's understudy scheming to get her out of the way so she can go on for the closing performance of Fanny Get Your Gun. The latter was based on Merman's reputation of never missing a performance during her many Broadway shows. There is a YouTube video of Carol and Ethel singing a Broadway medley and I seem to recall the sketch about a murder mystery being part of the promotion package to market DVDs of the show. But this complete episode does not appear on any of the DVD collections so it was exciting to see it pop up on Channel 21's program schedule.

Tyrone Power and Ethel Merman in
Alexander's Ragtime Band
The hour begins with Carol taking questions from the audience. A particularly annoying older man asks
Carol what time the show broadcasts and whether they will be back next season. He then states he always falls asleep during the show and Carol shoots him a look. Carol then brings out both guests to say hi and answer questions. The annoying guy asks Tim when he lost his hair. When Ethel comes out, the same guy asks how she enjoyed her love scene with Tyrone Power in Alexander's Ragtime Band. She replies it was too short.

The infamous dentist sketch is next. This begins the tradition of Tim cracking up Harvey.

Ethel's solo follows: a medley of two late '60s country-flavored pop hits--Elusive Butterfly and Gentle on My Mind--which the Broadway star sings in front of a wagon and a barn. She probably said to Carol, "I want to try something different, hon." (It was kinda weird to hear that trumpet voice croon country-western.) At this point in her career, Merman was tired of doing Broadway and wanted to concentrate on film and TV. She turned down Hello, Dolly! which was
Ethel Merman as Lola Lasagna and
Burgess Meredith as the Penguin
on Batman
written for her by Jerry Herman, but did do the final months in 1970 as the show became the longest-running in Broadway history up to that point. A year earlier, she did a guest shot on Batman as Lola Lasagna, the ex-wife of a South American millionaire involved in a horse-racing scheme with the Penguin, her childhood partner in crime. She also did an episode of That Girl as herself around this time.

Then Carol schemes to get Ethel out of the way as her conniving understudy. She tries to poison her with a tainted breath atomizer, hit her over the head with an ironing board, and shove her out of the window--all of which backfire, causing Carol bodily harm. After all that, Ethel surprisingly allows Carol to go on for her with a talent scout in the audience. The final
Carol schemes to ruin Ethel's voice
in a sketch playing off the star's rep
for never missing a performance.

punchline comes when Vicki locks Carol in a trunk so she can take her place. There is a funny gag when Ethel autographs an album for Carol and asks her name. "Mary Martin," Carol sarcastically replies. "Oh, kid, if you're gonna stay in show business, you gotta change that name. It's got nothin'."

Vicki is featured in a bizarre number with the chorus kids dressed by Bob Mackie with huge black targets on their chests and sporting traffic cones on their heads, all while playing weird instruments like kazoos, jugs, noisemakers. Ernie Flatt, the choreographer, did many strange numbers like this, mostly featuring Vicki. This number was probably stuck in to give the chorus something to do since the finale was a medley with Carol and Ethel.

Vicki and the chorus 
in the traffic cone number

Speaking of strange, the title of the next sketch is one of the weirdest in the history of the show: The
The poster of The Killing of Sister George
which had nothing to do with
The Killing of Sister, George,
and Everybody Else

Killing of Sister, George, and Everybody Else. It has nothing to do with The Killing of Sister George, the play and film that inspired it. That property was a hit in London and on Broadway and focused on a lesbian radio actress whose character on a soap opera Sister George, a nurse in rural England, was being killed off. The film version was just coming out and was somewhat scandalous in its depiction of lesbian relationships. The sketch is a conventional murder mystery satire with Carol and Tim forced to stay in a spooky old house with distant relatives including handsome Lyle as George and Vicki as his beautiful sister (get it?) in order to inherit a fortune. But they get picked off one by one. The gags are mostly based on physical humor with Carol and Tim punching each other out of fear and confusion. Harvey supplies the biggest laughs in old-man make-up as the family lawyer.

The hour wraps up with Ethel and Carol belting out a medley of Broadway hits. It's terrific to hear them together. The opening is taken from a Jerry Herman revue called Parade (1960) singing the praises of show tunes. If it sounds familiar that's because it was later reworked as It's Today in Mame. The tunes included in the following medley include I Feel a Song Comin' on, From This Moment On, Luck Be a Lady, and several associated with Merman such as Doin' What Comes Naturally. Carol makes joking references to Mary Martin and Carol Channing before they launch into Everything's Coming Up Roses, Merman's signature show-stopper.
Ethel Merman in an unusual setting
singing "Gentle on My Mind."

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