CBS’ The Carol Burnett Show ran from 1967 to 1978 and produced close to 300 hour-long episodes. The series has recently been released in a number of iterations, including the entire series set, and three different editions entitled “Carol’s Favorites”. The two-disc edition includes seven full-length episodes from the series’ 1974-1976 seasons when it was an established hit with an array of recognizable recurring characters.
The Carol Burnett Show is very much of its time, not only in terms of the guest stars featured, including Shirley MacLaine, Vincent Price, Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers, and The Jackson 5, among others, but also because many of the sketches were current spoofs of popular television and film, such as “The Walnuts” take off on The Waltons. In addition, some sketches dealt with the gender politics of the time, such as a construction worker sketch with Burnett as the unlikely new addition to the crew.
One of the more heavily featured sketches was a pre-Mama’s Family set of scenes entitled “The Family”. They consisted of Vicki Lawrence as Mama, and Burnett and Harvey Korman as Ed and Eunice. There’s also one with guest star Ken Berry, who would go on to be a regular on the sitcom. The best part of these scenes is always Burnett’s Eunice. While she and Korman occasionally popped into Mama’s Family, they weren’t regulars, but Eunice reliably brought anger and sadness to the sketches that grounded the characters and made them more interesting.
Another recurring sketch was “Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins”, in which Conway played a Swedish businessman in a bad toupee who was always at odds with his flighty secretary. Burnett and Conway often improvised much of their scenes and this particular sketch made that all the more difficult for Burnett, whose Mrs. Wiggins was always played as never fully understanding Tudball. She comments in one of the special features that she had to repeatedly chew on her fingers in order to keep from laughing.
Though not specifically a recurring sketch, “Disaster ‘75” was a part of the regular lampooning of popular movies of the day; in this case, disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure. One of the longer sketches featured, it takes place on an airplane, years before the film Airplane, with Burnett as a stewardess who must save the day. It also features a meta moment with Burnett distracting the passengers by taking questions, much like she does at the beginning of each show. It’s a very funny sketch, complete with signing nuns, a nurse with her patient, and her ex-boyfriend (played by Carl Reiner) at air traffic control demanding an apology before helping her land the plane.
In addition to the sketches the series is most known for (although this DVD set does not include its most famous sketch, “Went with the Wind”), The Carol Burnett Show was a true variety hour with musical numbers and banter with guest stars. Everything from a number with Shirley MacLaine singing about fan mail, to a stand-up set by Joan Rivers, to a short interview and song with Roddy McDowell was fair game and the series did a lovely job of incorporating all these elements. Burnett’s trademark question and answer sessions at the beginning of each show was also a great way to offset all the over-the-top characters and big numbers that would come after. Burnett was charming and quick with her adlibs, endearing herself not only to the live studio audience, but to those watching at home as well.
There’s no shortage of hilarious moments in these handpicked episodes, but what makes them so enjoyable is the camaraderie of the cast. The core group of players, Burnett, Korman, Tim Conway (who, shockingly, was only a guest star, albeit one who appeared very often, until he was made a full cast member in the eighth season), Lawrence, and Lyle Waggoner were clearly having a great time and it translates very directly to the viewer. Even in the moments when someone would break character and laugh – Korman was especially prone to breaking up in scenes with Conway – it always felt genuine and more like the cast was having too much fun to hold it in, rather than a cheap play to get laughs.
A series that went all out in its comedy sketches, it also took the time to show some smaller, more serious vignettes. For example, one of the episodes features a short scene between Burnett and Korman in which he is leaving to get married and she is obviously heartbroken. Burnett performs an emotional version of “Send in the Clowns” that is unexpected, but affecting. In successfully bringing together so many elements – humor, music, and drama – into one show, Burnett and her fellow cast members created a true variety show, in the best sense.
It should be noted that the picture quality isn’t always the best. There are even a few segments that seem as if they’ve been transferred directly from an old VHS tape. However, thankfully, the show rarely suffers for it.
The two-disc DVD set contains three bonus features: an episode of the Garry Moore Show, starring a young Burnett, as well as Alan King; a featurette on the Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins characters; and an interview with Burnett. Not included as official special features, there are some introductory set-ups for a few of the episodes by Burnett, Korman, and Conway.