"I'm so glad we had this time together,
Despite a somewhat disappointing design for this compilation...necessary viewing for fans and anyone interested in television history. Time Life and StarVista has released The Carol Burnett Show: Carol's Favorites - Collector's Edition, a 6-disc collection of 16 uncut episodes from the beloved CBS comedy variety show. A more affordable sampling of Burnett's magic than the hefty The Carol Burnett Show: The Ultimate Collection (reviewed here by DVDTalk's John Sinnott), The Carol Burnett Show: Carol's Favorites - Collector's Edition also contains over three hours of bonus material (all of it previously released, I believe) that should more than satisfy any fan of the iconic series.
The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS in the fall of 1967. Burnett, a familiar-if-second-tier TV performer who had worked her way up through small roles in New York television (The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show and Buddy Hackett's sitcom Stanley), to a Tony nomination for the musical Once Upon a Mattress, and an Emmy-winning three-year stint on The Gary Moore Show, had by 1967 increased her visibility on the small screen with numerous appearances on variety shows (The Ed Sullivan Show), sitcoms and anthologies (a reoccurring role on the smash hit, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., an appearance on The Twilight Zone), and one-off specials, such as 1962's Emmy-winning Julie [Andrews] and Carol at Carnegie Hall (her first stab at the big screen, however, the Dean Martin dud, Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed/, did her no favors). Under contract to CBS for a series of specials, her 1966 show, Carol + 2, garnered such good reviews (and healthy ratings, thanks to co-star and mentor, Lucille Ball), that (according to which version you believe) CBS either offered her any kind of regular series she wanted for the upcoming 1967-1968 season, or she was forced to pick between a variety or sitcom format...or ditch her one-off specials contract. Either way, The Carol Burnett Show premiere that fall, and, despite some network concerns about a woman headlining a heretofore male-dominated format, managed after 11 seasons to outlive all her male rivals from that time period (Dean Martin, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, the Smothers Brothers, and Rowan & Martin would all be long gone by the time Burnett voluntarily wrapped her show at the end of the 1977-1978 season). A consistent high-mid level performer in the Nielsen's, staying in the mid-to-lower 20s through the first 9 of its 11 seasons (with a peak at 13th during the 1969-1970) season), The Carol Burnett Show was the kind of classy, Emmy-nominated popular hit that CBS head honcho William Paley loved to have on his schedule, and the kind of "true" family-friendly television that has disappeared from network schedules today.
I don't think I can offer anything new in terms of remembrance of this beloved classic; pretty much every review I've read comes at The Carol Burnett Show the same way I did: quite simply, we watched it as kids with our families (particularly during its Saturday night run from 1972 to 1977), and we loved it. It was one of those shows that came out at just the right time (a nervous America, still connected largely by just three TV networks, watching in disbelief at the country was torn apart), with just the right performer (Burnett, a seasoned pro who could hold her own with her heavyweight celebrity guests...right after playfully answering silly questions from her hometown audience), and with just the right material (gentle-but-hilarious combinations of celebrations/spoofs of old vaudeville routines, Broadway theatre, Hollywood movies, and television commercials). The Carol Burnett Show was the kind of series that could truly reach all the generations in a household and entertain them: Mom and Dad could laugh at the sometimes naughty implications of Tim Conway's and Harvey Korman's ad-libs, the kids could laugh at Carol's and her crew's slapstick and corpsing, and Grandma could appreciate the take-offs on Alice Faye and Betty Grable and Gloria Swanson while admiring the big musical number at the end of each episode. If I have one lament about the passing of series like The Carol Burnett Show (aside from missing the laughter, of course), it would be the loss of this kind of education, if you will, for viewers in the traditions of American stage, screen and particularly musical genres. There is no appreciation for those traditions and formats and genres on network television today, unless it comes in the dismissive form of cheap, easy, one-dimensional lampooning (or perhaps more accurately, castigation).
As well, I can't really add anything new to the reams that have already been written about Burnett and her equally talented cast. To write that Burnett in particular is one of the most versatile and talented performers to ever grace the small screen, is to be, frankly, obvious. With her multitude of skills―comedienne, dancer, singer, pantomimist, dramatic actor (particularly in the brilliant "The Family" sketches)―her enduring legacy rightfully places her among the true "greats" of the medium. You can't mention Gleason or Ball or Skelton...and leave out Burnett. So let's just look at The Carol Burnett Show: Carol's Favorites - Collector's Edition set itself, and its contents.
As a cranky purist about these things, I can't say I was initially wild about how The Carol Burnett Show: Carol's Favorites - Collector's Edition was put together. Obviously, the ideal―if you want to truly celebrate the series―is to release single season sets, beginning with the first one from 1967. However, I'm also not one of these "TV collector/hysterical fan" thugs (and you know who you are...) who bitch and moan and whine and threaten boycotts when TV releases don't go exactly their own way. It simply may not be physically or legally possible to release complete, uncut season sets for The Carol Burnett Show. Numerous factors may preclude that: legalities like rights issues (music or performer contracts), the loss of original materials (a surprising number of these network taped shows went missing―look at Carson's pre-1972 stuff: all gone), or sadly, lack of consumer demand (it takes more than a few thousand rabid Carol Burnett fans to economically justify an expensive undertaking like releasing 11 years of shows). So, I'm not going to crucify TimeLife just because I don't like compilations and "best ofs" as much as complete series―especially when I don't have the facts.
With that said, if you're going to have a set called Carol's Favorites...can I have at least one small indication of why these are supposedly Carol's favorites? As a TV fan, I want to know why these particular episodes made the cut. I see Carol Burnett is listed as a "contributing producer" for this disc set, but how much of that was hands-on? If she did indeed personally approve these 16 episodes...how about actually saying so, either with a short paragraph in the booklet, or an on-screen title card, or even better, a 30-second spot with Burnett herself telling us these indeed are her "favorites" and why. Maybe that might provide a clue to my next minor beef with this set: why the heavy emphasis on the 1974-1975 season (6 episodes here)? The earliest offering here is 1 episode from 1972, from the show's 6th season, with 3 from 1975-1976, 2 from 1976-1977, and 1 from 1977-1978. Again, is this a rights issue, or an availability issue, or was this Carol's favorite season in terms of production? It's impossible to say for sure, but I would think, barring any physical or legal availability issues, we'd get maybe 1 or 2 episodes from the first 5 seasons, too, particularly when the early ones represented the series on its ratings upswing (poor Lyle Waggoner, who left the show in 1974, suffers the most in The Carol Burnett Show: Carol's Favorites - Collector's Edition set: he shows up all of about 4 times here).
Okay, then if I can't have a true cross-section of the series in this admittedly small sampling (16 episodes out of the series' 278)...can I at least get them arranged chronologically? It seems a simple-enough (and logical) thing to do, but apparently, I have to keep referring back to the episode guide to see where I'm at in terms of which cast is present (is it a Waggoner episode? Is Korman still there? Is Conway a regular by this point?). Again, if this kind of ordering is deliberate, then explain why it is (this kind of arbitrary stuff drives vintage TV fans nuts). Even worse are the unexplained inclusion of intros taken from the 2001 CBS reunion show that are not labeled as such. Now I know those bumpers are taken from that nostalgic, well-received TV special, but what about other viewers who may not be aware of that fact? How about a simple title card explaining what we're watching? All of this may sound like the nitpicking I was disavowing above, and maybe it is for the casual Burnett fan; however, it seems like the least the disc producers could do is to help orient the viewer to what they're actually watching and why they're watching it.
As for the actual content of The Carol Burnett Show: Carol's Favorites - Collector's Edition...what can I say other than, "It's still often hilariously funny?" Sure, some skits and production numbers and guest stars fall flat, but even those can be enjoyed from a different perspective. When I was a little kid, the big musical numbers at the end of the episode often left me non-plussed, but now I find them fascinating, particularly from a production value standpoint. As for guests who bomb...how can you not love seeing a somewhat bleary Rock Hudson try and warble Mine with pint-sized Nancy Walker? When the relentlessly topical Saturday Night Live premiered back in 1975, it's been reported that the writing staff's frequent refrain in rejecting a potential bit idea was the contemptuous put-down, "That's a Carol Burnett skit." Well...as much as I've enjoyed SNL over the years (go back and look at those early seasons...a whole lot of those skits are horrible), the "classic" comedy of Burnett's show still holds up beautifully.
Stand-out comedy (and deliciously weird 70s pop culture) moments for disc 1 include Vicki Lawrence singing her should-have-been-a-goofy-melodramatic-hit-single, Hollywood 7 (check out that abstract rendering of a hooker's apartment), and Dinah Shore sings 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover real slow and MuzakŪ-y (it's wonderfully terrible). Conway scores as "The Old Man" acting as an inept butcher for in-a-hurry customer Korman (when Conway calls out the number "12" with only Korman in the store, it's a scream). Went With the Wind!, probably the single-most celebrated skit in the series' history, shows up here, with Lawrence getting big laughs as the screaming Sissy, and Korman doing an absolutely priceless Gable impersonation ("I really like what you've done with the place," he says, after surveying the ruined Tara). An animated Steve Martin shows up for some funny skits (the Beach Blanket Boo-Boo spoof is spot-on, with Burnett singing the classic line, "After all, I'm sweet 16 and I've never been wiped out,"), while an entry from "The Family" series showing just how talented Burnett was with dramatic material. Unlike critics who disliked "The Family" bits for being too downbeat and "dark," I always found these skits to be the very best The Carol Burnett Show had to offer, with a sometimes-scary Burnett truly harrowing at times in expressing the pain and humiliation of deeply wounded, sad Eunice―a neat trick to pull off when the skits were so funny at the same time (the true sign of a genuine "clown," in its best sense of the word).
Disc 2 has the delightfully bizarre sight of Roddy McDowall in full Planet of the Apes headgear, singing a duet with Carol (no doubt a plug for the upcoming Planet of the Apes fall series on CBS), as well as the Jackson 5 performing during an real-life earthquake (pro Burnett quips, "the earth just moved" as the camera shakes). The divine Maggie Smith, looking glam in those Bob Mackie outfits for her U.S. television debut, shows up to sing with Carol, while Conway has one of his best moments as Simba, the Born Free lion, packing up to leave home. Shirley MacLaine, looking absolutely devastating, has a terrific duet with Carol where they read real fan mail, while one of the saddest Family shows up here, with a flashback to how Ed and Eunice courted. For The Biggest Movie of the Week, Disaster '75 pretty much set the blueprint for subsequent spoofs like Airplane! and The Big Bus that followed, with Burnett dead-on as Karen Black trying to land the plane...before she takes questions from the passengers, a la Carol's opening Q & As (Korman gets off the single best inside TV joke I've ever heard when, as a psychotic bomber, he rails, "I used to be in charge of programming for Fridays on ABC; don't talk to me about 'disaster!" I know my bombs!").
Disc 3 has Joanne Woodward (never funny) dropping by to no effect in a "Family" skit, while Burnett uses the name of a real-life viewer as her character in a dance number―a name that Burnett said was her "new favorite" when it was told to her by another enthusiastic viewer in one of her earlier Q & As (that was the genius of Burnett: a glam Hollywood star who really listened to her viewers). Carol has a great bit as a compulsive joke-teller who's cured by Carl Reiner force-feeding her straight lines (the Sonny Bono one heals her), while a guy in the audience asks Carol, "Is this a repeat show?" (maybe the funniest line in the whole set). Vincent Price and Joan Rivers also stop by (there's a combo), with Rivers doing her stand-up routine and Price showing up in a Waltons spoof, The Walnuts (Korman as Grandpa scores the day's most exciting event: "I saw the goat scratch himself against the post!").
Discs 4, 5, and 6 only have two episodes each (a gyp). Disc four has some series' best skits, including Burnett as Gloria Swanson and Korman as Erich von Stroheim in a Sunset Boulevard take-off (Burnett is unhinged and hilariously funny here), while Korman and Conway score in a funny slave ship parody ("Hi, I'm a leper," Conway politely states as "The Old Man" when he shakes Korman's hand). I know Ken Berry was one of Carol's favorite guests (he appeared 19 times during the run), but he always put me to sleep, while the shaky appearance of Rock Hudson on disc 5 did little for me, either (he looks seriously uncomfortable here). Korman gets a chance for a dramatic little scene where he ditches his ventriloquist dummy partner (he's terrific). Another stand-out "Family" skit finds Eunice once again destroyed by Mama's cruelty (Eunice learns the family ate Eunice's beloved rabbit, Fluffy). And finally, Disc 6 wraps things up with Burnett's good luck charm, Jim Nabors, singing One Life in a leisure suit, Carol as the "Tacky Lady" singing Alice Blue Gown (Burnett was amazing prescient about who, or more accurately what, would be our future celebrities), and Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko palming Korman's ass during the final end credits. And on that final, funny note, I can't think of a better way to end this compilation.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.