On December 3rd last year, the CBS Television Network paid fitting homage to the woman whose 1967-78 variety hour not only proved to be the gold standard of that type of series, but the last truly great example of the genre as well. In one of the extras on The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special—which will be released by Time Life tomorrow (September 25)—Burnett herself notes that her show would never get the greenlight by TV execs today; for starters, her longtime cast member (and “sister”) Vicki Lawrence had just turned eighteen and it’s unlikely she would have been hired due to her inexperience. (The bonus is included as “commercial break banter,” in addition to chit-chat on “the red carpet” and anniversary shout-outs. Many thanks as always to my compadre Michael Krause at Foundry Communications for providing Thrilling Days of Yesteryear the screener.)
Fans of the show will be most enthused by this valentine to the show, which allows Carol to be feted by a bevy (I think that’s the proper nomenclature…I was never much good at science) of younger stars who owe her a debt of gratitude for paving the comedic way. (Tina Fey recalls an anecdote that she was punished for some childhood infraction—she doesn’t recall what it was—by being denied Carol’s show that week.) In an example of these tribute segments, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, and Tracee Ellis Ross goad Burnett into doing her famed “Tarzan yell”…but Carol insists her guests give it their best shot first. The “winner” is decreed to be Steve Carell (who mails his in via a videotaped insert that frankly left me stonefaced), but I think Hader did a not-too-shabby job…and Poehler sent me to the floor by yelling “HEY TARZAN!” (Hader also has a nice anecdote in which he reveals that when he does his Vincent Price impression—one of my favorites in his repertoire, as you can imagine—the voice may be Price’s but the mannerisms were copied from show regular Harvey Korman.)
Carol even recreates the long-running Q&A segment from the beginning of each classic telecast by taking questions from the audience in the special; two of the individuals making queries are Tom Selleck (taking time from peddling reverse mortgages, apparently) and Pat Boone (selling walk-in tubs to senior citizens), which I found…honestly, kind of bizarre. The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special is most entertaining when it reminds you how falling-down funny it was with clips from classic shows (personally, I would have upped this portion of the show); they hit a good many of the highlights with bits featuring “The Family,” “As the Stomach Turns,” movie parodies (“Went with the Wind”), and more.
Carol’s longtime partner in crime, Harvey Korman, left this world for a better one in 2008 so his participation is limited to the clips…but apparently Tim Conway was under the weather at the time this special was taped, so he’s mostly remembered from clips as well. (There was an article floating around the Internets not too long back that mentioned Conway’s not in the best of health. Very sad to hear.) Fortunately, Vicki Lawrence is on hand to talk about her experiences (they show that hilarious bit where she’s asked by Carol to talk to the audience and she’s so nervous doing so), but I was really stunned to see that Lyle Waggoner has been transformed into someone’s grandpa. (It happens to us all, I guess.) The show’s costume designer, Bob Mackie, is also marked “present” as are two of the frequent guests from the original series, Bernadette Peters and Steve Lawrence (Steve’s got a few miles on him but he seems to be wearing it better than Lyle).
For every wonderful moment with guests like Martin Short (he ad-libs a hilarious bit involving a ring Carol is wearing) and Kristin Chenoweth (singing a nice medley of movie songs) you’ll have to endure folks like Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, and Harry Connick, Jr…so it’s six of one, half a dozen of another. In addition, there’s a lot of fawning from celebs like Kaley Cuoco and Beth Behrs…who I honestly thought were the same person until they sat down side-by-side (seriously—I had to look these two up to see just what the hell they did for a living…since I’ve never watched The Big Bang Theory or 2 Broke Girls). But that ennui doesn’t last long before they return to wonderful Burnett Show moments (including a nice mention of Carol’s “good luck charm,” Jim Nabors) which, again, I would have made certain this special was larded up with. It’s a DVD Carol Burnett Show fans will want to own for their collection, secure in the knowledge that they’re glad they had that time together. (For a real nostalgia wallow, check out TDOY’s previous reviews of Burnett Show collections here, here, and here.)