Monday, January 16, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show: Part 34: Carol's 1991 Comeback

Carol with Martin Short on her
short-lived 1991 variety series
After the end of the original Carol Burnett Show, Carol made her third and final attempt at another regular series in the fall of 1991 and it did not go well. Her 1979 four-episode series Carol Burnett and Company did reasonably during its summer run on ABC. She returned to a series with Carol and Company, an anthology series featuring a different playlet each week and the repertory company of players. This was a midseason replacement on NBC which ran from March 1990 until July 1991 with a total of 33 episodes (many of which are available on Youtube. Perhaps I will do a blog on some of those some day soon.) There were occasional guest stars like Betty White, Christopher Reeve, Swoosie Kurtz (who won a Guest Actress Emmy), Robert Urich, and Carol's daughter Carrie Hamilton. When Carol and Company was cancelled, Carol went back to CBS for a revival of her variety-show, but the magic just wasn't there. She had a cast of recurring, young performers including two holdovers from the Carol and Company group--Richard Kind (now on CBS's East New York crime drama and a veteran of the NY stage, I met him at the Drama Desk Awards many times) and Megan Fay. They are joined by Chris Barnes, Roger Kabler, and Jessica Lundy. The reviews were not great. "Making Carol Burnett and Martin Short dull and monotonous is a steep, uphill climb," squawked the Los Angeles Times. "But Friday night’s premiere of “The Carol Burnett Show” on CBS somehow got there, affirming that even the funniest performers rarely overcome unfunny material. Burnett’s is the last of the 1991-92 fall series to debut. And, amazingly, one of the worst."

An article from Entertainment Weekly dated Dec. 6, 1991 chronicles the revival's disastrous, abortive run. The show was cancelled after only four broadcasts. According to the article, the production's staff divided into two warring factions: those who favored Carol's traditional 1967 style and their opponents who wanted edgier, Saturday Night Live-esque satire. The older guard, led by Carol and the CBS execs won. Younger writer-producers like Marilyn Suzanne Miller who wrote for the original SNL were fired. The show was thrown in chaos as a result. One staffer is quoted as saying they were taking old sketches and crossing off Harvey Korman's name. Carol, who had an executive producer credit, evidently wanted everyone to like her and didn't make enough hard decisions. Broadway star Tony Roberts was added as a regular, but it was too late and the series was canned.

A few of these 1991 episodes have surfaced on YouTube and other video sites. 

Nov. 1, 1991: Martin Short, B.B. King
(Found on a site called The premiere episode has some funny stuff including a musical sketch featuring Martin Short and Carol as nerdy misfits meeting cute at a cocktail bar. Unfortunately, the LA Times' assessment is too brutally accurate. Not many of the sketches score. The program opens with a filmed sequence of Carol, so desperate to get back to work that she allows her agent (Richard Kind) to book her as her own look-alike at the opening of a bowling alley. The joke is that there's a Carol look-alike who gets better applause than Carol herself from the crowd. 

There is one sketch that works pretty well, Miss Abigail's Enchanted High-Security Gingerbread Cottage where Carol plays a TV kiddie-show hostess obsessed by the dangers of modern-day life and bent on protecting her young viewers from pollution and perverts. There are also some laughs to be had when Carol as a Barbara Walters-type TV journalist interviews sleazy film producer Marty whose movies are rip-offs of hits directed by African-Americans like Spike Lee and Chris Singleton, retooled for white audiences. Boyz N the Hood becomes Boychicks in the Hood about Hassidic street gang members victimized by drive-by guilt trips ("How can you have a good time when your grandmother is sick in bed.") But this sketch is heavily reminiscent of a recurring bit on the original Saturday Night Live with Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd in similar roles. The sketch also smacks of racial inappropriateness. It would have worked much better if the interviewer role was played by a black woman. 

But most of the scenes were underdeveloped including a prehistoric skit with Carol as the first cavewoman to milk a cow; Martin and Carol as parents at a middle-school recital reacting as their kids murder the theme from 2001; two men stuck in a remote weather-station near the South Pole and one reveals he's gay (a rare sketch without Carol and strangely insensitive as seen from a 2023 perspective). The episode ends with BB King delivering a great blues number.

Nov. 22, 1991: Christopher Reeve, K.T. Oslin

Carol with Christopher Reeve
(YouTube) There's a YouTube clip of country-western singer K.T. Oslin singing a solo and then joining Carol in a scene as mothers of the bride and groom at small-town wedding. Both ladies are surviving failed marriages and naturally sing about it. Christopher Reeve appears in a separate YouTube clip in a pretty lame set-up for a duet with Carol. The two co-starred in the film version of Noises Off and Carol explains that during the considerable down-time between set-ups, the two would sing childhood round songs like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." (And if you believe that one, I'll tell you another.) This awkwardly leads into a medley of these kiddie tunes, not unlike the one Carol did with Cass Elliott on her original show. Well, it's no staler than a lot of the lead-ins to musical duets that were on the original show. It must have wracked the writers' brains to come up with a new line of patter to launch the obligatory duet with the musical guest, and even more difficult when the guest (like Reeve) was not a singer. Those were the only fragments I could find of this episode.

Dec. 6, 1991: Andrea Martin, Steven Wright
Carol with Steven Wright
(YouTube) The only sketch I could find from this episode is the gender-swap Star Trek parody where the crew of the Starship Enterprise jets through a weird space cloud and changes sexes with Andrea Martin as a female Spock. This bit was discussed in Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show, Part 15. I did find a picture from the episode with guest Steven Wright, a deadpan comedian, encased in bubble wrap, being interviewed by Carol's newswoman. According to a website called, the other sketches included Psychology Today, another edition of Miss Abigail's Enchanted High Security Gingerbread Cottage, Clown Shoe Store and Carol's Cleaning Woman Birthday sketch.

Dec. 13, 1991: Tony Roberts, Bernadette Peters
Carol, Anthony Roberts and Bernadette Peters
in the big Sondheim salute.

(YouTube) This entire episode, the last of the series, is available on YouTube and it has its moments They may have been thinking of hiring Anthony Roberts as a permanent cast member and he plays well opposite Carol in three sketches and the big musical finale. In the first Tony and Carol are annoying parents bedevilling their 30-ish son with demands on showing them how to program their VCR, allowing Carol to plug just about every other current CBS sitcom including Murphy Brown, Designing Women and Major Dad. The son is soon reduced to a babbling, baby state and Mommy gladly feeds him a TV dinner as he drools. This concept was used to better effect by Mike Nichols and Elaine May in their Mother and Son sketch where the son was a rocket scientist. In the second segment, the two play a upper-class couple quarreling incongruously to a rap beat. The third scene is indeed a recycled one from Carol's original show, played opposite Harvey--or was it Steve Lawrence? Two people meet in a bar, intent on picking each other up, but it turns out they're related. Just as that staffer told Entertainment Weekly, they were using old material. The end credits even add "Boy Meets Girl written by Dick Clair and Jeanna MacMahon" right after the long list of the show's current writers. Carol also resurrects the Stella Toddler character for a running gag where the ancient lady is celebrating her 116th birthday and spends three separate sketches blowing out her candles.

Bernadette has an interesting solo, singing "I'm Flying" from Peter Pan as a slow ballad. It somehow works. The finale is a clever mini-musical salute to Sondheim with Bernadette as herself dropping into a truck stop diner where they just happen to perform show-tunes in  between servings of chicken-fried steak. She fills in for a waitress with the flu while short-order cook Tony and head waitress Carol accompany her for "Side by Side" from Company.

I know there were other episodes broadcast because I remember seeing a TV Guide ad of one with actor-director-writer Robert Townsend who was then promoting his film Hollywood Shuffle. On my next visit to the Paley Center, I'll see if I can find them. lists a total of 7 episodes including ones with Carol Channing and Delta Burke. I wonder why Carol's other post-1978 shows are more accessible but this one seems to be largely forgotten and in limbo.

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