Some thoughts on The Carol Burnett Show

Part 1? Maybe, I could talk about this for days

My wife is a multi-degree-holding genuine intellectual, and like many such people she enjoys really crap entertainment. And I don’t mean she goes in for “termite art,” like some of us do; not for her the search for deeper meaning in Sam Fuller. When she sits with her TV tray at dinner she isn’t tempted by prestige television but eagerly consumes old network shows on streaming services like Columbo and Peter Gunn. While she appreciates the skillful touches in these entertainment products — Peter Falk’s acting, Blake Edwards’ moody direction — she also and perhaps especially appreciates that, after long hours of juggling big ideas, she can trust these shows to demand almost nothing of her and that they will soothe and still her mind.

I am a half-educated lummox with pretensions, grabbing at concepts like Peter Boyle’s monster inYoung Frankenstein grabbing at imaginary butterflies, so it isn’t the same for me. As a boy I was mesmerized by shows like those, but as I grew older I came to be embarrassed by network TV and mostly watched high-minded PBS, which had plays and experiments and nudity, and when I moved out on my own I abandoned TV altogether until VHS came to put the old idiot box to better use.

Now when I revisit “classic” TV it's like opening a dusty box in my parents’ attic. Usually even nostalgia doesn’t leaven the experience. I recently watched some episodes of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and was mainly surprised by how much of the appeal (such as it was) came from frenetic cutting and camera movement (TV as an actual drug), amazed that shiny- and pink-faced Dan Rowan didn’t die of cirrhosis, and embarrassed that I ever liked it.

The Carol Burnett Show is another matter. When I was a kid it lived in the shadow of Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Show, but even jaded pre-teens respected it because it delivered the goods. Watching it again on Amazon Prime — which recently supplemented its grossly edited set of early episodes with 13 unedited ones from between 1967 and 1972 — I got real pleasure out of it, and was struck by how it held the line for the old-fashioned musical-variety genre, resisting the antic modern stuff that would eventually give the whole genre its fatal heart attack — and how that made its brief connections to the world outside the studio more poignant.

Up into the ‘60s the TV variety format still had a whiff of vaudeville about it: At heart it was always about a bunch of acts coming out of the wings one after another to kill time between sponsor announcements. By the ‘60s some wise guys like Steve Allen and Jay Ward were pushing the envelope, and the epileptic Laugh-In showed where things were headed.

The Carol Burnett Show was in the older style; its broad sketches hearkened back to Your Show of Shows — though they eased back on Sid Ceasar’s urban shtarker attitude, with which increasingly suburban audiences were less in love than they used to be. But they kept the energy high and the shtick greasy. Harvey Korman, Burnett’s primary foil on the show, specialized (as I said in his obituary in 2008) in “a fusillade of stutters, mad walks, lazzi and double-takes straight out of the Orpheum circuit” that “played as well with stoned teenagers as it did with elderly variety-show fans.” He walked into every scene with the confidence of an old pro who knows he’s got something they want and if they don’t want it he’ll give them something else.

Burnett was of course a great clown — not only rubber-faced and an expert pratfaller, but possessed of a keen sense of just how far to push a gag. There’s a wonderful bit with guest Garry Moore about “Princess Marianne of Morovia” (Burnett) having to videotape a toast to an honoree, which she keeps getting wrong, requiring her to keep toasting, with predictable results. Burnett rings all the drunk-joke changes, from hiccups to inappropriate remarks, with clean timing, but has one really wild moment when, totally stoned, she can’t get off the couch and Moore tries to pull her up; to each of his attempts she responds with absolutely unhinged, shrieking laughter — until she suddenly stiffens and tells Moore, “Watch it!” Some comedians can do a drunk act, but to actually portray losing control, then reel it back in with a sudden tug — that’s genius.

One thing I kept noticing, though, was how much of Burnett’s humor relied on the idea that she was plain. When I was young I found her very attractive but accepted the convention as an appropriate mode for a woman not shaped like a beauty queen. Revisiting now the many, many gags about her alleged ungainliness and man-hunger, and the studio-audience laughter they raised, I found myself again accepting the convention in a way I wouldn’t have done if someone were trying that routine for the first time today. And it wasn’t because the sexism actually tickled me in the way reactionaries like to imagine stuck-up liberals are secretly attracted to sexist (and racist etc.) ideas, but rather because I recognized that Burnett’s comedy required that I do so, the way one has to accept the choruses in Greek drama and long guitar solos in ‘70s rock if one is enjoy the thing at all. In other words it was out of respect for her talent that I respected the convention, not the other way around; and it made me wonder whether that wasn’t how it had always been without my knowing it.

In those old shows there are only occasional references to current events, usually in Burnett’s homey audience-questions openers, and these are mostly silly and cute — throwaways about long-haired boys (can’t tell ‘em from the girls, ha!) and mini-shirts and maxi-dresses. Occasionally politicians are mentioned in the sketches, but only gently ribbed — there’s a lot of Texas humor surrounding LBJ — except in the case of George Wallace. Here’s a bit from October 1968, with Burnett and the black (Antiguan!) actress Vivian Bonnell as city neighbors talking out the window at each other:

BURNETT: You made up your mind who you’re voting for yet?

BONNELL: I may just do something different and vote for Wallace.

BURNETT: You’re kidding.

BONNELL: Sure I’m kidding, I wouldn’t vote for Wallace if my life depended on it.

BURNETT: What do you mean if your life depended on it?

That got a round of applause from the studio audience. Back then people weren’t bitching about that sort of thing — at least no one who would be published in a newspaper. How interesting, though, that someone so devoted to the old ways as Burnett, as unlikely to do anything like satire, would feel comfortable putting that in front of her viewers.