The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
The Carol Burnett Show is up there with Murphy Brown, The Phil Silvers Show, and Moonlighting as shows that were massive hits during their time but have all but disappeared today. Everything has a shelf life but when you consider the fact that Carol Burnett went on for 11 seasons, from 1967-1978, featured big comedy names like Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, had it's own spin-off sit-com, you'd expect some kind of recognition today and yet it's completely vanished from the dial. Well, in this edition we're putting it in the spotlight.
After a successful decade of appearing on other people's shows, in 1967 CBS decided to give Carol her own show. She used the opportunity to showcase her talents, and those of her cast/guests, in comedic timing, big Broadway production numbers, and genuine human interaction (I'll explain that one in a second). An episode that aired during the show's third season on November 24, 1969 serves as a perfect example of what an archetypical Carol Burnett Show looked like and featured guest stars George Carlin and, as Carol introduces her to the live studio audience, "Lucy." Once their applause dies down she then continues, "Of course, that's Lucy Schwartz…"
The first segment of the show was a straightforward Q&A with the audience, a practice that Carol enjoyed so much that in 2004 she devoted an entire special to doing just that. I had a hard time telling whether or not this segment was staged or not as Carol's reactions do seem rather genuine. The first question takes up the bulk of the segment and really isn't much of a question. The audience member has a photograph of Carol dressed up as a witch, which launches the host into a story about decorating her house and dressing up with her husband for Halloween and frightening children. However, the second question "where is your hometown?" is so boring and so unlikely to lead to any kind of comedy that I lean more towards the idea of these being actual interactions.
Later in the show, Carol returns to this segment by talking about a woman who asked a question a few weeks ago on the show. Her name was Sue Vogelsanger and she had written a song entitled "Just Talkin'" and had it printed up as sheet music specifically to ask Carol Burnett to perform it. In the clip they show of this moment, Carol seems delighted by this bespectacled housewife and says that she will definitely perform it another week. Well, tonight is that night. The curtains part and Carol performs an incredibly elaborate version of this woman's song with backup dancers, and enormous letters on wheels that spell out "Vogelsanger." The show flew Sue and her husband in that evening, and following the production she seems genuinely touched. It's a really sweet moment that I can't imagine ever happening on television again. While doing research for this article, I found an article from 2011 about Sue's brush with fame and her subsequent encounters with Carol Burnett. It's great reading if you like charming old ladies.
George Carlin, one of the guests that evening, manages to create his own massive production, though in this version he plays all the parts. Here in a transitional period of his career, Carlin is beginning to move away from his clean-cut material of the early sixties and is beginning to become the more counter-cultural, outspoken "truth teller" he would later embody. Here he still has his high and tight respectable haircut, but sets it off with some casual, colorful clothes, and a cravat. His material, appropriately enough, is on television, beginning with the observation that the Emmy awards ignore shows with small budgets, and then talks about two of his favorite low-budget shows: the Star Spangled Banner that used to be played at the end of a broadcast day, and the FBI List of Most Wanted Men. He then demonstrates what this show would look like with a larger budget, prefiguring the show America's Most Wanted, transforming it into an elaborate, talk show-style blowout hosted by J. Edgar Hoover. "But first, this word from the Justice Department. Hi there, mom. Have your civil rights been violated today? Has some corporate monopoly closed down another small merchant in your community? We'll worry about the small stuff another day. For now, let's worry about the Commie agitators in our kindergartens…"
Then, to the strains of Carson's Tonight Show theme, Carlin as J. Edgar appears from the curtains, does a few corny monologue jokes. (But it's Hoover's attempts at humor so it's intentionally corny.) "That's enough of the personality stuff. Time now to meet the guys who really make this show possible: the evil, vicious criminals." Carlin then shows the audience a few of the Most Wanted which include Mad Dog "Moose" Loskovitch whose crimes were sending obscene candy grams and leaving prison without a note and Pretty Boy Dwayne who "considers himself something of a lady-killer, and so do the police." It's fun, highly performance based bit that, to my eyes, serves as an interesting step in the evolution of Carlin's act.
This being a variety show, there are also a few musical numbers not written by audience members, but I'm skipping over those to get to the sketches. The first, featuring Lucille Ball, has her and Carol pitted against each other as airline stewardesses competing for the best employee award by trying to offer the best service to their customers. The highlight of this sketch for me was Harvey Korman, dressed in a giant beard, who plays a ridiculously exaggerated version of a Cuban plane hijacker. Lucy, of course, immediately recognizes his accent as being from Havana because, "If there's one thing I know, sir, it's a Cuban accent." Eventually he grows frustrated by the ladies' constant attention, pulls a gun, and announces he's hijacking the plane. The stewardesses continue to try and help him by taking the gun from him and holding it to their own heads so he doesn't have to, until he accidentally falls out of the plane. The women shout out their names one last time in the hopes that he'll still vote for them.
The second sketch is a parody of the then-recent movie Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, which deals with the topics of infidelity, open marriages, and wife swapping. Of course, those things are a little too racy for television in 1969, so instead this sketch is about a couple that is staying at their friend's house, and sleeping in their bed with them, and wearing out their welcome. Instead of being a satire of the film, it feels more like a sketch written by somebody who didn't have time to see the movie and walked by the poster.
The final sketch gets everybody involved. In 1919, Carol and Lucy are a Vaudeville duo called The Rock sisters. After their first performance the theater owner declares the terrible, and they are out of show business. Flash forward to 1969 where George Carlin plays a disc jockey that is promoting a rock show of 100 acts. However, one of his acts just dropped out so he leaves it to his dopey assistant to book one more. She books an old timey Vaudeville act and long story short, at first the crowd boos the old ladies, but then the rest of the rock and roll bands go up there with them and they finally get their moment to shine. I know I started this paragraph by calling this a "sketch," but I actually think "one-act play with occasional jokes" would be a better description. But, having said that, it's a perfectly entertaining one-act play with occasional jokes.
At the end of each episode, Carol would tug her ear as a message to her grandmother, to let her know she was thinking of her. The Carol Burnett Show may not have always been the edgiest place for humor, and was overshadowed by the popular Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, but it did consistently bring light-hearted humor to the world each week for 11 years, that even Carol's grandmother could enjoy. And that's nothing to sneeze at.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.