Saturday, February 4, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show, Part 36: Carol and Company

Carol and Company: Carol surrounded by
regular cast members (l. to r.)
 Jeremy Piven, Anita Barone, 
Terry Kiser, Meagan Fay, and Richard Kind. 
Peter Krause later replaced Jeremy Piven.
After the original Carol Burnett Show (CBS) and the four-episode Carol Burnett and Company (ABC), Carol next returned to series TV with Carol and Company (it was the only combination of names that hadn't already been taken since Carol Burnett and Friends was the chopped-up rerun package running in syndication.) With this NBC series, Carol would be one of the few TV stars to headline a series on all three major networks. (She added Netflix to the roster with her kids' talk show A Little Help with Carol Burnett in 2018.) The concept for Carol and Company was different than her previous variety shows with a different 22-minute playlet each week and a recurring, rotating rep company playing different roles each time with occasional big-name guest stars. Many of these episodes are available on YouTube and to be complete about Carol's efforts, we'll include them in this series. The show began life as a midseason replacement, premiering on March 31, 1990 and running nine episodes. 

I never watched Carol and Company during its original run. The concept of an anthology series as opposed to sketch-variety is intriguing and offers the potential for Carol to go deeper with the characterizations. It must have appealed to Carol because of the diversity of material: serious drama one week, wacko fantasy the next. Before giving the show its regular time slot of 10PM on Saturday nights, the network aired two previews on March 31 and April 7 at 9:30PM, after Golden Girls. The Los Angeles Times was not kind, calling the first two shows "dreadful." The segments on YouTube are not that bad, but they seldom rise to the level of brilliance achieved in the Family sketches. Ratings were excellent during the first season, probably because of the Golden Girls lead-in, It was picked up for a second season with 24 segments, but audiences dwindled. Carol and Company played its final segment on May 4, 1991 when the Peacock Network cancelled the show.  

Season One:
March 31, 1990: Bump in the Night
The premiere episode offers up dark humor with Carol as a doormat of a housewife who rebels against her domineering, philandering spouse (Richard Kind, obnoxiously funny) by hiring a hit man from the Yellow Pages. Meagan Fay is at her dead-pan best as the neighbor who matter-of-factly informs naive Carol that husband-killing is all the rage among their circle. Terry Kiser, a veteran of numerous TV guest shots including a memorable turn on Hill Street Blues as Vic Hitler, the narcoleptic comic, garners some laughs as the friendly hit man. The situation turns from satirical to farcical when Carol discovers hubby's mistress is the beneficiary of a million-dollar life insurance policy and not her. So she has rush and prevent the assassination from completion. There are some cute plot twists and the half-hour is mildly amusing with Carol getting in a few physical comedy bits. Jeremy Piven is unrecognizable as an overweight plumber. 

April 7, 1990: Reunion
Guest Star: Swoosie Kurtz
I could only find a brief clip on YouTube from this segment where Carol plays a transgender woman attending her high-school reunion and confronting her former sweetheart (Kurtz) who knew her as a football hero. Swoosie won a Comedy Guest Actress Emmy and this short scene shows why she deserved it. Swoosie underplays the disappointed middle-aged woman believing her life was ruined because of her boyfriend's gender confusion. The two finally share a laugh as they compare legs and hairstyles. It makes me pine for the entire episode which seems unavailable. 

May 5, 1990: Soap Gets in Your Eyes
Guest Star: Robert Guillaume
Carol and Robert Guillaume in 
Soap Gets in Your Eyes
It takes a good actress to play a bad one. Carol demonstrates this adage as she plays Barbara, the fading star of a long-running soap opera whose diva-ish antics are catching up with her. Barbara's bitchiness has alienated everyone on the set except for security guard Sam (guest star Robert Guillaume repeats his role from Soap as a loyal confidante-companion to eccentric white ladies.) Barbara hasn't displayed an honest emotion for her character in years. She compensates for her insecurity by complaining about the furniture and the upstaging ways of a younger, more talented co-star. Carol is very funny as she shows Barbara's vain attempts to force herself to cry during an emotional scene. The starlet weeps copiously during their scene and Barbara stomps off the set, risking her job. The director fires Barbara and in a final act of friendship, Sam urges to read the scene on the deserted stage. Carol as Barbara gives the reading authenticity and naturalness with Sam reading the ingenue role. The lines take on new meaning as they apply to her relationship to Sam. Guillaume and Burnett endow the reading with genuine feeling and a silly soap opera becomes a moment of human connection. Barbara renews her spirit and walks out with Sam on her arm. For some reason, none of the recurring regulars appeared in this episode.

May 26, 1990: The Fabulous Bicker Girls
Guest Stars: Carrie Hamilton, Robert Urich
Carol and her real-life daughter Carrie Hamilton play a mother-and-daughter piano-lounge act whose
Carol with her daughter Carrie Hamilton (at left)
Carol in private-eye mode
for another episode (right)

personal and professional relationship is endangered by fellow musician Bobby (Urich). YouTube only has a six-min. excerpt from this episode but it captures the essence of the conflict with the trio reuniting after a break-up and warbling a cheesey but fun arrangement of "Make Your Own Kind of Music." Carol and her eldest daughter Carrie appeared together many times including the 1988 TV movie Hostage and episodes of Fame (where Carrie had a recurring role), Family Feud, and Touched by an Angel. They collaborated on the Broadway play Hollywood Arms, based on Carol's memoir of her early years, One More Time, which played the Goodman Theater in Chicago, but Carrie passed away before it reached New York and a Tony-winning Broadway run. Ironically, both Carrie Hamilton and Robert Urich would die within three months of each other in 2002. It must have been poignant for Carol to play scenes of disruption opposite Carrie who had a serious drug problem and smoked heavily in her teen years. She overcame it and remained clean. Her death at 38 was from pneumonia as a complication from lung cancer that spread to her brain. 

Season Two
Sept. 29, 1990: Diary of a Really, Really Mad Housewife
Carol introduces Dorothy Tibbett, a housewife having "one of those days" where everything goes wrong. The funniest scene occurs in a grocery store where Richard Kind and Terry Kiser are daffy clerks. When Terry tells Carol she has too many items for the express line, she smashes her two tomatoes together and says "Now it's one bag of ketchup! Ring me up!" Richard's slow-witted clerk character shows up as a doctor in another episode, Suture Self. After one rude encounter too many, Dorothy finally has a breakdown and is sent off to a looney bin.

Dec. 8, 1990: Spudnick
Guest Star: Nell Carter

Nell Carter and Carol in Spudnick
One of those two-hander one-acts where a pair of mismatched outsiders meets in unlikely circumstances, clashes and finally become fast friends. I used to see scenes like this in acting class at HB Studios all the time. Carol is Vita Mae Klybocker, a charming nutcase from Arkansas waiting to be taken up in a space ship by aliens who communicate with her through her smoke detectors. Nell Carter (then headlining her own sitcom Gimme a Break after winning a Tony for Ain't Misbehavin') is Dakota, another loner whose quiet fishing spot is invaded by crazy Vita Mae. There are some funny moments, such as Vita Mae revealing her special suit with smoke detectors sewn in ("Not only can I talk to my alien friends, but I'll be the first to know if I catch fire."). It's predictable as the two quarrel and finally bond. A minor effort but the two actresses give it some spark.

Jan. 15, 1991: No News Is Bad News
Carol is newscaster Christine Hayward in this rip-off of Network (1976). A game-show producer whose credits include Divorce Court Gladiators (where the warring couples fight in the mud for over gets to keep the house) takes over Christine's serious news show and turns it into a circus with the audience voting for which stories will air. Christine goes
Peter Krause and Carol in
No News Is Bad News
along with the lowbrow new format on the promise that eventually they will switch to hard journalism once the program is number one in the ratings. But the smug producer (Anita Barone) admits she lied to Christine to get her to sign a five-year contract. It ends rather abruptly on a shockingly dark somber note when Christine has an attack of conscience and gets electrocuted live on the air while interrupting a news feed. A very weird and strange entry.

Feb. 2, 1991: A Fall from Grace
Another rip-off or homage. This time we get a variation on It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Sourball, ill-named Grace falls into a washing machine and winds up in the Land of Lost Stuff. Caretaker Walter (Richard Kind) leads her to various doors where she revisits significant moments from her past in search of her lost sock, which I guess symbolizes innocence and joy in life or something. 

Feb. 9, 1991: Suture Self
Guest Star: Neil Patrick Harris
Carol is right when she introduces this segment as "very silly." She returns as accident prone Dorothy Tibbett, encountering a bunch of zanies on a visit to the ER after just getting out of the rest home/asylum for her nerves. The regular cast has been directed to play it totally Marx Brothers as nutball patients, doctors, administrators and hospital staff. Neil Patrick Harris makes a cameo in his role as teenaged Doogie Howser, MD. As they are about to operate on Dorothy, he enters to Wagnerian music, proclaiming his status as the greatest doctor of our times. The scene culminates with Doogie and cast breaking into "Heart" from Damn Yankees--cause they're about to transplant Dorothy's heart and put in a pig's heart--Get it? This one is off-the-wall. 

There are several missing segments from Carol and Company, unavailable on YouTube or at the Paley Center. The ones with Glenda Jackson, Carol's co-star from Robert Altman's HEALTH, as a radio advice host and Hal Linden in a trio of musical vignettes on intimate behavior, sound really interesting. Overall, the series is kind of hit or miss. There are individual moments which really work, but too many rely on cliches and borrowing from other shows. 

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