With those magical words that only TV children of the 1970s can relate to - From Television City in Hollywood! - the George Burns: The TV Specials Collection starts a seven hour plus collection of all of George Burns' CBS and NBC television specials from the 1970s and 80s, a veritable treasure chest of Burns' moments for his fans, and an eye-goggling look at what used to pass for TV variety entertainment three decades ago.
If you're a fan of SCTV's absolutely brilliant spoofs of television variety shows, it's difficult to watch George Burns: The TV Specials Collection without cracking up, because often these specials play exactly like those hilarious skits on SCTV, right down to a lame-ass appearance by Bob Hope, oozing insincerity and blowing his lines. Still, this is George Burns, the master monologist, and George Burns: The TV Specials Collection does give you a chance to see him in his prime, delivering some funny fast-patter songs, while telling his same old stories - and getting the same old laughs.
To many younger viewers, George Burns might be an unknown - he certainly was to me when I first saw him in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, in 1975. But of course, he was a legendary performer, along with his wife Gracie Allen, during vaudeville and the early days of radio and TV. However, he was under the radar as far as the public was concerned until his career revival with Simon's film, and then the smash Carl Reiner hit, Oh, God in 1977. After that monster hit, you couldn't get away from Burns, even if you wanted to, back in the 1970s and 80s. He would go on to a reinvigorated nightclub career in Las Vegas, several other movie roles (including two Godawful sequels), and numerous TV specials, such as these.
I was never a fan of this newly recognized George Burns. I had enjoyed his older TV series in reruns, and I always got the impression that Burns probably was a whole lot funnier off-camera - a little rougher, a little looser. But this new Burns was automatically presented as a "national treasure," a label which, regardless of whom it's applied to, immediately gets my hackles up. Quite often, that label is applied for some arbitrary reason (in Burns' case - because he was still performing in his 80s) that you had better agree with, or suffer the wrath of an unthinking, sentimental mob. What made Burns funny in The Sunshine Boys was a decidedly unsentimental air about him. He was a tough survivor. But after Oh, God, a bad case of the "cutes," set in with Burns' fan's perceptions (which, as the total pro he was, he cannily exploited), and suddenly, we were constantly assailed with descriptions of how "cute" he was, how "adorable" he was, how "sweet" he was. What happened to that old vaudeville tough guy?
As for these specials, well, it's amazing what was put on TV back then (honestly, you could say the same thing today, I suppose). The concept of the "variety show" now has become so perverted that people think Dancing with the Stars shows the versatility of "big" stars (poor George Hamilton, drilled mercilessly until he can manage a half-assed rhumba), and that American Idol truly finds the most talented amateurs in America (instead of the processed robots it usually churns out). No, during the 1970s and 80s (as well as earlier in TV history), there were "real" variety shows, where multi-talented stars actually got the chance to show off their skills, whether it be dancing, singing, or doing a comedy skit or two. It was always kind of a kick to see some big star like Jimmy Stewart do a soft-shoe, or see John Wayne stride out and do a comedy bit. Unfortunately, today's stars seem terrified of poking fun at themselves (or more likely, they simply don't have the skills that earlier stars did), so you'll never see a Julia Roberts or Robert DeNiro come out and do a fast-patter song on a Christmas variety show. They're far too serious as "artists" for such drivel. Pity; maybe audiences would like them more, and stay loyal to them, like audiences did for older stars, if they gave just a little bit of themselves back to their fans, and showed them that they didn't think they were better than the "yahoos" who bought movie tickets.
These George Burns specials are absolutely typical of the average TV variety specials of those times: gaudy, superficial, mechanical, and vaguely grotesque in their calculation to hit the lowest common denominator (I'm not sure Christmas is meant to be associated with Ann-Margret gyrating suggestively in a bad Bob Mackie knock-off, or Playboy Playmates fawning all over Burns). That doesn't mean they're without value (anyone want to see Andy Gibb, dressed like an orange cremesicle and obviously "under the influence," rock uncomfortably back and forth while Burns tries to get any kind of reaction out of him?); you can see some top acts like Gladys Knight and the Pips, or Ann-Margret (unintentionally hysterical in various over-the-top musical numbers), and get a feel for what was considered entertainment back then. These nine specials are almost identical in execution from each other, with Burns coming out and doing a funny song and a monologue, followed by a guest star doing their bit, some scripted interaction (where both Burns and the various co-stars look uncomfortably off camera, reading the cue cards), followed by another Burns bit. It makes for repetitive viewing, especially when the same songs and jokes (as well as guest stars) start to pop up in the later specials.
Here are the specials included in the George Burns: The TV Specials Collection:
The George Burns Special
Premiering in 1976, this first special traded in on Burns' hit The Sunshine Boys, including having an appearance by co-star Walter Matthau (who "sings" a gawd awful song). The Osmond Brothers, Madeline Kahn (who does a nice "Gracie" bit with George), Johnny Carson (who embarrasses himself thoroughly), and Chita Rivera also show up.
George Burns One-Man Show
This special, premiering in 1977, clearly came about after the surprise smash hit of Oh, God. In addition to a non-singing (thank god) appearance by John Denver, the Captain and Tennille (yeech), Gladys Knight and the Pips (sensational), Bob Hope (blowing lines and slurring his words), and Ann-Margret (has to be seen to be believed it's so bad) make appearances.
George burns 100th Birthday Party
Jimmy Stewart and his wife, Gloria de Haven show up, along with Milton Berle (who brings some energy before he's yanked off), Steve Martin (who does absolutely nothing), Andy Gibb (ease up there, Andy), Don Rickles ("You need to get in a warm tub and quit bothering people, George"), Gregory Peck (certainly the most bizarre guest on any of his shows - he exits spouting dialogue from MacArthur!!!), George Jessel (ask your grandparents, who may not remember, either), Goldie Hawn (you forget how sexy she used to be), Pat and Debby Boone (surprisingly funny), and Helen Reddy (please button up your dress, Helen) also help out George with his fake birthday party.
George Burns in Nashville???
A truly frightening 1981 experience, Loretta Lynn looks uncomfortable while George makes some salacious comments; Larry Gatlin and his Brothers show up to no avail; Minnie Pearl really sells it (like she always did); and The Stony Mountain Cloggers (um.....okay) try to give George some polite Southern hospitality, while wondering quietly what the hell he's doing down in Nashville.
George Burns' Early, Early Christmas Show
Another nasty little treat from 1981, featuring a dearth of guest stars, including repeats Ann-Margret (camp classic) and Bob Hope (in better form this time), along with Hans Conried as Santa, The Hawkins Family and The Playboy Playmates, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
George Burns and Other Sex Symbols
Bearded John Schneider stops by without the General Lee, and the show suffers for this loss. Bernadette Peters is cute, Linda Evans is clueless, and John Forsythe ducks in sheepishly. Strictly for the birds.
George Burns Celebrates 80 Years in Show Business
Coming off like a bad Dino roast, this one is really star-studded. No less than John Forsythe (gripping that mic like grim death), Kenny Rogers (The Gambler does go on a bit), Danny Thomas (never thought he was funny), Buddy Hackett (truly grotesque and over-the-top), Milton Berle (dismissive of all others and mean-spirited as usual), Bernadette Peters (sexy as usual), Bob Hope and Ann-Margret (please go home, both of you), Phyllis Diller (sort of funny), Shecky Greene (goes on way too long, lame Sinatra joke), The Gatlin Brothers (out of place), Don Rickles (uncharacteristically long-winded), Fred Travalena (I think that says it all), Red Buttons (utterly kills), the Rev. Billy Graham (no comment), Carol Channing and Johnny Carson (frightening), Jack Carter (boisterous and funny), and Dionne Warwick (silky smooth singing Do You Know the Way to San Jose, which isn't a funny song) are all forced to submit to phony reaction shots, telling us, the audience, how much fun they're having.
George Burns How to Live to be a 100 Special
A sad, decidedly low-rent affair (Catherine Bach, Diahann Carroll, Artie Johnson (!), The Los Angeles Rams Cheerleaders (!!), Dr. Joyce Brothers (!!!) and Bob Hope), fill out this desultory entry, produced only, one can imagine, for a brief plug for his last God movie (which out of kindness to you, dear reader, I won't mention by name). George seems to be a little off his game here.
George Burns 90th Birthday Party
Bill Cosby and his TV wife do a mercifully brief bit; John Forsythe is back again, pallid as ever; with cameos by Kenny Rogers, Bob Hope (don't you have anything else to do?), and Don Rickles (not funny again, sadly). Ann-Margret shows up again (please, someone get her another job). There's some cool old Burns and Allen clips, but they don't last before Billy Crystal comes out (trying to hard, as usual). More cameos by a threatening Frank Sinatra, Joe Piscopo (who?), Johnny Carson (phoning it in), then some more cool old film clips. Diahann Carroll sings, looking gorgeous. More cameos from pretentious Steve Allen, shaky Cary Grant (still funny), and Red Buttons (more with the "never got a dinner" bit? Enough!). More great old film clips. Then Jimmy Stewart, smarmy, unfunny Chevy Chase, Carol Channing (yikes!) and tired old Uncle Milty. Then Walter Matthau comes out, does his bit, and gets off. Then an Oh, God clip, and unfortunately, John Denver comes out, and sings one of his icky songs. More cameos by Jack Lemmon, noodling on the piano, Brooke Shields (brief, thankfully), Danny Thomas (never funny), and Rich Little (see: Fred Travalena). And now, from the White House, President Ronald Reagan. He's fine, but he unfortunately insists on mentioning Nancy. Then George comes out for the only time in the show, to do the same jokes he's done for 80 years (and the past 8 specials).
George Burns: The TV Specials Collection looks exactly like what it is: vintage video from the 1970s and 1980s. The lighting is harsh, but clear; the colors garish and solarized. It's not a pleasant picture to look at, but that's not the point here.
The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is crystal clear; you can hear every canned guffaw that's ladled on.
There are no extras on George Burns: The TV Specials Collection. There's really no need for them. If you can't get what you need from those specials, you're watching the wrong DVD.
Right up until I wrote this, I was going to say "Skip it" for the George Burns: The TV Specials Collection. But I've changed my mind. It's exactly what it is. If you're a fan of George Burns, you'll want it to see him in action, and he's funny when he needs to be. If you're a fan of old TV variety shows, you can't get a better look at the slop that went out to the masses during the 1970s and 1980s, covered in sequins and flared bell bottoms. If you're a fan of SCTV, you'll need George Burns: The TV Specials Collection to complete your collection - seriously. And finally, if you just want to sit in stunned amazement at a collection of taped comedy and musical bits, all of varying levels of bad taste, you can't go wrong with George Burns: The TV Specials Collection. Recommended.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.