[25 September 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
She got her start as the “funny dame” on the old Gary Moore variety show. She had major success on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress. Befriended by Julie Andrews and Lucille Ball, she rose rapidly, soon seeing herself cast in sitcoms and touring the talk show circuit. But it wasn’t until 1967 that Carol Burnett became a true household name. Surrounding herself with a cast that included Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner, and Vicki Lawrence, the groundbreaking sketch comedy show lasted 11 years on CBS, garnering 23 Emmy Awards and a permanent place in the memory banks of millions of devoted fans. Few can forget her perky personality, the moments of misguided “laughter,” or characters such as Mrs. Wiggins, Eunice and the rest of her firebrand family, or the kind hearted cleaning lady. Today, she is a comic legend. Then, she was major league must-see TV.
With Time Life offering a new mammoth 22-disc, 50-episode collection handpicked by Burnett herself, perhaps it’s time to go back and pick the best moments from this memorable broadcast bonanza. Of course, in order to do that, we have to narrow the scope quite a bit—and what better way to do that than via the format we love to celebrate: film. Indeed, the Carol Burnett Show excelled at taking on the standard Tinseltown titles and turning them into memorable spoofs and lampoons. Along with Mel Brooks, and the amiable Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker group, no other entity did such a great job with such a tricky subject. While there are dozens of other entries to consider, here are the choices we’ve made. Looking over this collection of the 10 Best Movie Spoofs from The Carol Burnett Show, it’s clear while the star has had such a long career. She’s the First Lady of Laughter.
For those of us growing up in the ‘70s, the seminal animal movie was a sacred cow—or better yet, lion. So what better way to take down this otherwise well meaning nature drama than having co-star Tim Conway dress as a big cat and calmly debunk the ‘veddy British’ demeanor of Carol and Harvey Korman. Sure, it’s a slight spoof, failing to deal with many of the issues the feature film brought to the fore. Still, as an example of how this series would settle in and deal with a cultural talking point, the results are hilarious.
During the Depression, one of the most commercial cinematic genres was the musical. Borrowing heavily from the Tin Pan Alley idea of classic songs and constantly referencing the “grass roots, can do” spirit of the era’s struggles, it’s the genesis of the now motion picture cliché “Hey kids… let’s grab a bunch of costumes and put on a show!” In this skit, the references are obvious. We get a little Mickey Rooney. We get some Judy Garland. And thanks to the talent of the overall creative company, we get a lot of entertainment enjoyment.
No one did Joan Crawford better than Carol Burnett. She may not have looked exactly like the infamous Golden Era diva, but she had her on screen mannerisms and demeanor down pat. Take this classic example of the early ‘50s tearjerker. Burnett is a demanding Broadway star who rebuffs the advances of her accompanist. When he is struck blind, true love prevails, kind of. While not necessarily overloaded with laughs, the singing and dancing are enough to warrant inclusion here.
Along with Crawford, Burnett also excelled at another legendary larger than life lady of the silver screen, Betty Davis. Again, it wasn’t so much an impersonation as an interesting impression. The story here centers on a pair of twins who fall for the same man. When one of them dies, the other assumes her place. Based on a novel by Karel J. Benes, there’s a surreal level of mindboggling melodramatic intrigue in the narrative, something that the show can’t help but exaggerate. Yet another amazing example of the series exploring obscure targets, and coming up a winner.
While he may no longer be a household name, there was a time when James Hilton was the John Grisham of publishing. Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, novels like Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips catapulted to the very top of the charts. The same thing happened with this, a book built around the present day problem (at the time) of shell shocked veterans. Again, this was perfect fodder for Burnett and the gang, our leading lady essaying the role made famous by Greer Garson and she tries, desperately, to help Harvey Korman regain his memory. Truly inspired.
Want to see Airplane! before Airplane! Then check out this hilarious spoof of the entire Irwin Allen-oriented disaster genre. In fact, it’s so close to the ZAZ offering that it’s amazing lawyers never got involved. Look closely and you’ll see Burnett channeling Karen Black (ala Airport ‘75) and the Dick Van Dyke Show‘s Carl Reiner as a pudgy (and balding) Charlton Heston substitute. Many of the same beats are there, and so are the laughs. This remains one of the series best, an easy target, but taken down with style and significant wit.
The 1927 musical Showboat was significant in many ways. It introduced serious subject matter (racism and miscegenation) to the song and dance stage, as well as moving the genre away from the variety type show to focus on a more fully realized, inclusion concept. Of course, Burnett and friends have no desire to concentrate on controversy. Instead, they use the storyline to bring their own sensational take on the subjects to the fore. Even better are the song parodies, including “Can’t Help Loving that Bum of Mine” and “Old Mister Sippi”. One of the series’ very best.
We’re back to Bette Davis again, and one of the Burnett Show‘s most amazing spoofs. Using the Lillian Hellman play and eventual movie as a backdrop, the gang goes familial infighting gonzo as they try to swindle and finagle as much moolah as they can out of their rich relative (played perfectly by guest star Roddy McDowall). It was a perfect set up for what would eventually become a running theme of relative-oriented anger and hatred. As a matter of fact, The Family can find some of its roots in this riotous bit of buffoonery.
Along with our obvious number one choice, this remains one of the most beloved lampoons from the entire series run. Burnett is brilliant in the role that made Crawford an Oscar winner (and, later, Kate Winslet an Emmy honoree), with every costume and make-up detail flawlessly recreated. Even better is co-star Vicki Lawrence, who gets a real chance to shine as the daughter destined to cause chaos within her marginal mother/child relationship. Almost all of the jokes work, even if you’ve never seen the original film or read the famous novel. Fierce is truly the word for this hilarious skit.
This is the one everyone remembers. This is the one referenced when “Greatest Comedy Skits” and “Longest Extended Laugh” lists are compiled. For the most part, this spoof of Gone with the Wind is dead on. Korman is classic with this Clark Gable smirk and Lawrence livens things up as a very non-Mammy servant. But it’s Burnett as the never say die Scarlett O’Hara who truly brings the laughs home. Her line about her ‘designer’ dress stands as one of the seminal moments in television comedy. It’s a perfectly executed example of what made The Carol Burnett Show so special.