One of my strongest memories as a kid is Saturday nights on channel six (CBS). For a time, the line-up was “All In the Family,” “MASH,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Bob Newhart,” and finally “The Carol Burnett Show.” Being too young to know any better (this was 1972), I thought this was just how television was and always would be. But of course that turned out not to be true. If there’s been a stronger and equally timeless television comedy line-up in the four decades since, I missed it.
As a six year-old, sitting before that 13-inch color TV in our dining room, the shows got better as the night rolled on. “Bob Newhart” is still a favorite, but nothing made me laugh harder than Carol Burnett and a cast and crew, who, by some miracle, put together the equivalent of a top-shelf Broadway show 25 to 30 weeks a year.
I don’t often pester for screeners, but when Time-Life announced the release of 50 full episodes (there were a total of 278 over 11 seasons), along with 20 hours of bonus features and the opportunity to finally see the full 90-minute, 2004 interview of Harvey Korman and Tim Conway at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles — I was a bit of a pest.
What excited me wasn’t just the fond memories the show had given me, but also the opportunity to see compete episodes. For years, the show has been butchered into syndicated, half-hour clips-shows — a kind of “best of” collection — but that’s not the same. I wanted to relive the shows in their entirety because those are what I remember. Those Saturday nights weren’t just about someone else’s choice of highlights; they were about The Show. And this usually included a song by Vicki Lawrence and big musical number to close things.
Of course, there’s always the worry that, like “The Six Million Dollar Man,” time will not have been kind to meeting the expectations of childhood. So it was with some trepidation I dived into the set, yes, on Saturday nights. But I had nothing to worry about. The clothes and set design might be dated, but each episode has more laughs than any Hollywood comedy released in the last 15 years.
Obviously, I haven’t yet made my way through all 50 episodes, but what I have seen is everything I remembered and better.
Burnett, Korman, Conway, Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner, and whomever was that week’s guest star, enjoy an absolutely perfect comedy chemistry (especially Korman and Conway), and the shows just whiz by. Carol opens things by taking questions from the audience, and it’s during these off-the-cuff exchanges without a net that truly prove her comedy genius. Then it’s right into the skits and musical numbers.
There was also a unique chemistry between the cast and the audience. As the years rolled on, Burnett and company knew and perfectly exploited the fact that their audience had built up an institutional knowledge of the show and its characters. Quite brilliantly, this shared knowledge is frequently used for huge laughs with the kind of in-jokes that made viewers feel like they were part of the family.
The show is probably most famous for its characters (Mama, Stella Toddler, The Oldest Man, Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins), the cast breaking up laughing, and Bob Mackie’s costumes. Of course, all of that’s included, as are the most famous sketches like the on-the-floor-laughing “Went with the Wind” and (in the comprehensive bonus features) Tim Conway’s killer sketch as a dentist who accidentally numbs different parts of his body. Again, though, the best thing about the set is the complete episodes.
The best example of why this matters is “Saturday Night Live.” For years, all you could get on home video were clip collections of the original cast (1975-1980). And those were fun, but it just wasn’t the same. Finally the full and complete first five seasons were released on DVD — which now allow you to relive those Saturday nights.
The same is finally true for the “Carol Burnett Show.” And what you might find most surprising is that there’s nothing corny or old-fashioned about the humor. This is truly brilliant writing and performance. And the show wasn’t exactly G-rated either. Though it never stooped to cheap, dumb and dirty shock-humor, there was a maturity to many of the sketches (especially the soap opera spoof “As the Stomach Turns”) and they could even get naughty — but always in a way that would go over the heads of the kids.
Whether you have memories of the show or not, if you enjoy watching extremely talented professionals in every conceivable arena of show business (performance, music, writing…) and belly laughs, “The Best of the Carol Burnett Show” is a real treasure trove.
If you’re a fan, it’s an absolute must-own.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC