Stars: Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Wagoner, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman
Released by Time Life
Available on 9/25/12
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
What makes the Carol Burnett Show so different? Running from 1967 to 1978 this unique comedy variety show had an appeal that reached Middle America as well as the young and hip crowd. Back in the late sixties when the show debuted that was a rare thing; few shows spanned that generation gap and built such a loyal following. It was very unusual for a woman to headline a show then. There were sitcoms like I Love Lucy, and Hazel. There were dramatic shows, too. However the landscape of the variety show was a very male dominated field. Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Red Skelton and others were all very successful with shows built on their own names. Back in 1967 Carol Burnett who had been a huge hit on Broadway with Once Upon A Mattress had established herself on shows like Garry Moore as a terrific second banana, a supporting player. Her distinctive Tarzan yell had been heard and she was given a shot with her own one-hour variety show on CBS. Instead of coming on gangbusters with lots of bravado she chose to create a very intimate show. The way she let the audience in on the jokes and beside her was a very original tactic.
While the episodic 60 minute long form TV shows were shot on film, allowing the actors retakes to get each scene correct and then assembled later in an editing room much like a movie on a very rushed schedule sitcoms were very different. The way they work is much closer to the theatre. On Monday they have a table read with everyone involved and then they begin to rehearse. Over the week they block the show on a stage with very few sets. Costume changes, lighting cues, music and everything else are readied to present a show before a live audience. On Friday afternoon or night they do two shows. The show that is later broadcast is edited together from the best of both shows. If an actor flubbed a line twice, you were stuck with it. That rarely happened in most shows and if it did they would try to edit around it. With The Carol Burnett Show, right from the start sometimes things were so funny even the actors on stage could not keep a straight face. Frequently Tim Conway reduced Harvey Korman to a shambles. Even Carol lost it. The TV audience at home was allowed to see this and they loved it.
This six-disc set presents 16 complete shows chosen by Carol herself. They are not in chronological order and none date back further than 1972. We are treated to guest stars like Steve Martin, Carl Reiner. Jim Nabors, Pearl Bailey, Betty White, Joan Rivers, Vincent Price, Phil Silvers, Ken Berry, Maggie Smith, Joanne Woodward and The Jackson Five. Surprisingly the guests do not integrate themselves into the shows as strongly as they might have. That may be due to the incredible tightness and timing between the regulars. To be fair Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway were all powerhouse comedians with some of the best improvisational skills in the business. The comics tend to hold their own better while others are more successful with the musical numbers. It should be noted that even as a young man Michael Jackson is very comfortable with Carol in a classroom sketch and song number. From a collector’s and historical point of view it makes sense to present episodes in their entirety. The format is the same throughout with Carol taking live questions from the audience and closing with that “I’m so glad we had this time together” song as she tugs her ear in a private signal to her grandmother that everyone was in on. The shows are wildly uneven. However anytime Tim Conway gets out there the odds are very good he’ll crack you up. There are many different styles of comedy. Perhaps his is classed as slapstick, vaudeville or old school. Whatever the nomenclature if you’re the kind that appreciates that sort of humor he kills more often than not.
The movie parodies are very well done with extravagant sets. Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner are a strong part of the team, though one can spot Vicki growing more and more secure and funnier as the seasons go on. The first disc includes the most famous one, Went With The Wind. Carol’s take on Gloria Steinem’s character from Sunset Boulevard, as Nora Desmond is hysterical. There is a classic sketch here with Conway trying to get her to a do a bug spray commercial. Every bit of her from the top of her head to her toes gets in on the act. These sketches hold up very well today. Tim Conway’s scenes as a Swedish businessman trying to call Carol’s Mrs. Wiggins on the intercom are a lesson in comic timing. There are several of their sketches included here. There is a slave ship sketch with Harvey Korman rowing the heavy oars. He gets a new partner in Tim Conway. Just watching Conway do his little old man walk down the stage sends Korman off the edge. He can barely keep it together. Tim just keeps pushing Korman and the audience knowing he is cooking. It should also be noted that while Conway and Korman have an uncanny sense of improvisation neither one upstages the other or the star of the show, Carol. There is a genuine affection on display between them that is touching and also inviting. The quality of intimacy that this show built and earned with its audience is wonderful and one of the reasons why the show was so good.
1.33:1. These shows are taken from old tapes. For the most part they look very good. Perhaps some of the earlier episodes did not hold up as well visually. There are occasional artifacts associated with videotape. However colors are strong. Everything looks nice and clear since the stage sets were lit by such bright TV lights. Allowing that most of us are used to seeing these on TV, the upgrade to DVD is substantial. The first disc was not read by my Blu-Ray player, yet performed fine in other regular DVD units. Make sure you check this. Time Life has been responsive to any aberrations with this first disc in the others sets in this new release
English Mono as was the case with all TV shows then. Everything sounds nice and clear with no problems to note whatsoever.
Extras – There is a plethora of extras, the majority of which are taken from TV reunion specials. As such they are mostly reminiscing and joking. The featurette, I Want To Push The Button The History of the Carol Burnett Show however gives some excellent background on how the show came about, how the cast was chosen and Carol’s working method. That one was very enjoyable, the best of the lot. Carol Burnett was a true TV pioneer. It’s nice to see some of that story get out like that
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
DVD – Good
TV Episodes – Good