As the success of The Sonny and Cher Show and The Donny And Marie Show proved, the 1970’s were truly the last great era for variety shows. However, even these hits don’t represent the greatest variety show success of the time: that title goes to The Carol Burnett Show. This weekly sketch-comedy program presented a mix of witty improvisation and gently funny satire that made it one of the biggest and most beloved hits of the 1970’s.
Carol Burnett had racked up several years’ experience on stage and in television by the time she starred in her own series. Her many credits included a lengthy stint on the classic variety program The Garry Moore Show, plus a string of successful variety specials for CBS. In 1967, she took a stab at a weekly version of her variety-based success with The Carol Burnett Show. It was a smart decision, soon becoming one of CBS’s most reliable hits.
Each show began with an introduction from Burnett, complete with an informal (and often very funny) Q&A session between Burnett and the studio audience. Inevitably, Burnett would be asked to do trademark bits like her “Tarzan” yell and her signature gesture: a gentle tug on one of her earlobes.
After this intro, the show’s format was simple and straightforward. The show would feature a guest host that would perform in a few skits and maybe a song or two, but the major focus was a series of deliriously funny skits worked up by Burnett, her writers, and her extremely talented cast of comic cohorts.
Assisting Carol Burnett in her comic endeavors was a trio of highly talented cut-ups. Harvey Korman was a skilled veteran of The Danny Kaye Show, Lyle Waggoner had worked with Burnett on The Jimmie Rodgers Show, and Vicki Lawrence was Burnett’s own discovery. This repertory cast was frequently joined by Tim Conway, a former star of McHale’s Navy. Dick Van Dyke also briefly joined the cast in the late 1970’s.
These performers looked and sounded different, but all had two important things in common: an ability to improvise extremely witty material on their feet, and a chameleon-like gift to inhabit a variety of wildly different characters. Conway in particular had a special gift for improvising bits and one-liners so funny they would reduce the other cast members (particularly Harvey Korman) to helpless giggle-fits.
These two qualities helped the cast create a refreshingly diverse collection of skits that kept the viewers coming back for more each week. Parodies of popular entertainment were popular, like the transformation of Gone With The Wind into “Went With The Wind” and a witty send-up of soap operas called “As The Stomach Turns.” A big fan favorite in this area was a recurring spoof of Sunset Boulevard, wherein Burnett played Norma Desmond and Korman played Otto the Butler. There were even send-ups of commercials, the most memorable one being a skit where a housewife is assaulted in her home by the manic pitchmen for a variety of products until she is reduced to a paranoid wreck.
Even more popular than these parodies were the skits based on a variety of original characters created by the cast and writers. A great example was Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins, a skit built around the comic miscommunication between a toupee-wearing foreign executive and his dense, inattentive secretary. Mr. Tudball would try to get Mrs. Wiggins to perform a simple clerical duty, but this always led to a series of calamities that ended with poor Mr. Tudball in a predicament while Mrs. Wiggins took the rest of the day off.
Other popular skit characters included Burnett’s Stella Todler, an innocent old woman who unwittingly stumbled into situations that sparked an endless string of slapstick incidents, and Conway’s The Old Man, a doddering senior citizen who triumphed over his terminal slowness to destroy any situation he wandered into. However, the most popular skit characters were the Family, a collection of Southern relatives who could turn any simple event into a stage for bickering and the revival of old family feuds. In this skit, Burnett played long-suffering (and neurotic) daughter Eunice, Korman played her dim and terminally impatient husband Ed, and Lawrence played Mama, the cantankerous matriarch who always seemed to be spoiling for a fight.
Simply put, the Family skits represented The Carol Burnett Show’s staff at the height of its creativity. The dialogue was broad enough to be gut-bustingly funny but recognizable enough to feel real to anyone who suffered through a family squabble, and the cast’s performances drove this combination home with a combination of sincere emotion and comedic skill. The result was a recurring skit that proved so popular that it later spawned its own long-running sitcom, Mama’s Family.
Between the immense talent of the cast and the great material they performed, it didn’t take a genius to see that The Carol Burnett Show was a surefire hit. Soon enough, the show became a dominant force in the ratings and one of the few 1970’s-era variety shows to run for more than a handful of years. In fact, the show managed to rack up an impressive 11 seasons before ending its run in the summer of 1978.
Since then, Carol Burnett returned to the format twice with 1990’s Carol & Company and 1991’s The Carol Burnett Show. Highlights of the original classic show have also been repackaged into retrospective specials like Carol Burnett: The Special Years.
Today, The Carol Burnett show is a staple of syndicated programming. Viewers and critics alike fondly remember the show as one of the last great hurrahs for the variety show format. Despite the age of the show, its skits still play beautifully and hold up as a high water mark for television comedy. If the variety show makes a comeback in the near future, it’s good to know that The Carol Burnett Show will be there to provide an example of how it should be done.
USA / CBS / 244×50 minute episodes / Broadcast 11 September 1967 – 9 August 1978
Producer: Ed Simmons / Executive Producer: Joe Hamilton
Dick Van Dyke (1977)
Kenneth Mars (1978)
Craig Richard Nelson (1978)