Carol Burnett can sing, dance, act, mug, pratfall and clown around. If she attempted to showcase all those skills today on TV, she’d most certainly flop.
A new PBS “American Masters” profile premiering Monday reminds us how much fun we once had together, but it’s also a sad reminder that the comedy-variety genre, once the dominant staple of prime time, would have less chance of success these days than “Woodworking With the Stars.”
When “The Carol Burnett Show” debuted in 1967—Sept. 11, to be exact—she had the company of eight other similar programs, hosted by the likes of Jerry Lewis, the Smothers Brothers and Jackie Gleason. By the time she went off the air in 1979, there were none. With few exceptions, the genre has been dormant ever since.
“I feel sorry for anybody starting out today who might want to do what we did, because I don’t think it can be done anymore,” said Burnett, 74, in an interview this past summer. “I don’t think a network would have the faith in it, nor would they want to put the money into it.’
Perhaps she’s wrong. The success of “American Idol” proves that people still eat up singers belting popular covers and sketch comedy occasionally sneaks onto the air, most recently with “Blue Collar TV.” But the genial nature of “Burnett” would be as out of place today as a Henny Youngman routine.
Looking back at the best of the series, it’s clear that it didn’t hold a candle to “Your Show of Shows” or Jim Carrey’s dumb and dumber characters on “In Living Color.” It’s no mistake that its most memorable moment, a spoof of “Gone With the Wind,” hinged primarily on Bob Mackie’s curtain-rod dress, not on any inspired dialogue or performances.
But no series, with the possible exception of “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet,” made us want more to be members of their family. The most popular skits would dissolve into fits of laughter, not the most professional of reactions—Sid Caesar would have dangled Harvey Korman out the window by Week 3—but it contributed to the sense that these goofballs were having a grand ol’ time.
Burnett rarely ripped others (her most pointed piece of comedy was a love song dedicated to former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles), choosing instead to air gentle movie takeoffs or lovable losers like the misfit members of “Mama’s Family.”
“I’m so grateful that I grew up in the `40s and `50s, because of the movies of the era,” said Burnett, whose twangy voice harks back to her Texas upbringing. “You might look at them now and say, `Oh, they’re so old-fashioned,’ but they gave this little girl hope. I never felt cynical, I never felt angry. I had a real Mickey (Rooney) and Judy (Garland) mentality. There is fun. There is music. There is laughter.”
That’s an ultra-tame attitude compared with today’s comedy, with its vicious putdowns, bathroom humor and crude sex jokes. If you can think of a current sitcom that doesn’t average at least three filthy jokes an episode, you win a year’s supply of vanilla wafers.
Burnett herself was the victim of a particularly cruel bit in a 2006 episode of “Family Guy,” in which Peter Griffin and the gang visited a sex shop and ran into her Charwoman character (readers tripping back to the wistful days of “Donny & Marie” and “Sonny & Cher” are advised to skip the next paragraph).
“Oh, I always loved it when she pulled her ear for her mother,” Peter remarked. Another guy responded: “Yeah, I wonder what she pulled when she said good night to her father.”
Burnett, who was actually signaling her grandmother and lost her dad just before she made it big, sued the network and lost.
“We did some sketches that were pretty pointed, but we were never intentionally cruel,” Burnett said.
Today, a cruel streak is almost required to practice comedy, which is why it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a performer like Burnett shine like that again. (A 1991 attempt at a revival lasted less than two months.) Still, the Pollyanna in Burnett holds out a bit of hope.
“There are a lot of talented people out there who could do it,” said Burnett, citing Bette Midler and Martin Short. “They’re funny. They can do sketches. They move well. They sing. I’d sure love to be a guest on one of their shows if that ever happened.”