I can’t remember with much clarity what I did last Wednesday. (I know Lost was a rerun, which was a crushing blow, and that’s about it.) But somehow, I can remember in great detail nearly every Saturday night of my youth, because those nights were always spent the same way–savoring the greatest lineup in TV history, the unparalleled early 70s Saturday night of CBS. In a Murderer’s Row that any current network president would give his right arm and his Blackberry for (O.K., not the Blackberry), the Tiffany Network gave us All in the Family, MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and capping it off at 10 P.M., The Carol Burnett Show.
Of course, those shows are all a deserving part of television history, but I have a special place in my heart for The Carol Burnett Show. Maybe because my parents liked it every bit as much as I did, maybe because I became friends with Tim Conway Jr., later in life (and enjoyed a hilarious Christmas dinner with Tim Sr. and his family), maybe because Carol Burnett was the last of its kind–a true variety show–but I cannot think of Carol, Tim, Harvey Korman, and the gang without immediately smiling.
This week, President Bush awards Carol Burnett the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, commemorating “her combination of creativity, humor, and compassion.” (The roster of honorees this year is impressive, by the way–Jack Nicklaus and Muhammad Ali in the same year? Alan Greenspan and Andy Griffith? I mean, geez, who got it last year? Oh. Pope John Paul II and Doris Day.) This will not be the first award for Ms. Burnett. In her long and distinguished career, she has collected six Emmys, eight Golden Globes, twelve People’s Choice Awards, and a passel of others. One imagines bathroom doors held open by an Ace Award, a Peabody as a bookend. (Jealous? Me? Damn right. I have been consistently slighted by the Academies because of my politics, or my height, or perhaps my subpar work.)
Carol Burnett was born in Texas, and her childhood was anything but ideal. Her parents split up when she was four, and she eventually moved to Los Angeles with her mother and grandmother. Carol’s relationship with her grandmother was particularly close, and throughout her career she always sent “Nanny” a secret hello with her traditional show-closing gesture, the tug of her left ear. (She continues the gesture today as a memorial.) Carol graduated from Hollywood High, studied at UCLA, and came to national attention in a most unusual way–singing a silly love song to the secretary of State. “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles” was a novelty hit in the mid-50s and led, eventually, to Broadway. (The reader may pause to imagine Fifty Cent penning a similar ode to the current secretary of State.)
A hit on Broadway (Once Upon a Mattress) opened the doors to television, and in 1967 The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS. With its roots deeply entrenched in vaudeville, the show presented sketch comedy, song and dance, and celebrity guests at a remarkable level of quality for the next eleven years. The sketches ranged from big-budget movie parodies to simple character pieces–Burnett’s “Charwoman,” with her blue bonnet and mop, became a signature for the show. Burnett and Conway’s office duo, the agonizingly slow Mrs. Wiggins and her long-suffering boss, Mr. Tudball, were particular favorites for my brother and me. We tortured our parents endlessly with our Tudball impressions. (My boys now repay the debt with similarly nonstop Napoleon Dynamites, as well as Butthead from Beavis and, who they’ve never seen, and then a hilarious mix of the two we call “Buttpoleon.”)
Then of course, there were Eunice and Ed Higgins (Korman), the blue-collar couple whose dysfunctional family included Vicki Lawrence’s classic portrayal of Mama. The Eunice sketches were clearly drawn from Carol’s own troubled upbringing and had a darker edge than almost anything I can remember from that era. One memorable installment featured Eunice proudly going to Hollywood to sing “Feelings” (unironically) on The Gong Show. When, after a few tortured verses, she was gonged, the camera cut to a close-up of her stunned reaction, then slowly faded out on her disappointment. It was chilling, and I’ve never forgotten the power of not getting a laugh.
Carol’s humor was amazing, not just for what it was, but also for what it wasn’t. While great movie characters were ripe for parody, Carol and her cast never stooped to malicious impersonation or lampooning the real-life excesses of celebrities. Topical or political jokes were nowhere to be found. Essentially, Carol played on 60 percent of the field that Saturday Night Live used, but with greater consistency and considerably less meanness. Of course, the rise of SNL as the country’s favorite sketch show led within a few years to the end of The Carol Burnett Show. Somehow, a relatable everywoman who frequently obliged her studio audience’s petitions for her “Tarzan” yell was suddenly out of synch with America in the age of Belushi, Aykroyd, and Radner. Were we better for it?
Carol closed every episode of her show with another (now quaint) tradition, a closing theme song. “I’m so glad we had this time together / Just to have a laugh and sing a song / Seems we just got started and before you know it / Comes the time we have to say, ‘So long.’” Well, America is certainly glad for its time with Carol Burnett, and since we’re a long way from having to say “so long,” let’s instead say “thanks,” and congratulations to her on this much-deserved honor.
–Warren Bell is a 16-year veteran of the sitcom business (currently executive producer of ABC’s According to Jim) and a not-so-secret conservative. He lives just far enough outside Los Angeles to stay sane.