The first and far better of the two episodes originally aired on December 21, 1974. Per tradition, the show opens with star Carol Burnett bringing up the houselights and taking unscripted questions from the audience. One of these is pretty famous: a member of the audience asks if Carol ever took acting lessons and, if so, did she believe it helped her?
Carol then invites a few young women in the audience on stage, who as it turns out really were hoping to meet guest star Alan Alda. His series M*A*S*H, after a rocky first season, had become a huge hit on CBS, and Alda himself had become a kind of symbol of the modern, sensitive American male who supported the Equal Rights Amendment, among other things. The women positively swoon in his presence; one bursts into happy tears. A real time capsule, this. (Burnett and Alda had, incidentally, starred in a TV production of the Broadway play 6 Rms Riv Vu earlier that year.)
The episode exhibits the program's best assets. The first sketch, featuring the inelegant, working-class "Family" (later spun off into a series of its own) is both funny and a bit unnervingly accurate, with Alda playing Eunice's (Carol) black sheep brother, an artistic, educated type making a rare visit home for Christmas. The tension between Eunice, determined to have a Happy Christmas at all costs, her boozing husband Ed (Harvey Korman) and Mama (Vicki Lawrence) is palpable, and it's all hilariously awkward and uncomfortable.
Next is "Nobody Does It Like Me," with Alda and Carol playing a department store Santa and gift-wrapper who, after closing, are unexpectedly drawn toward one another. Carol's talents as a singer were well known, but Alda comes off surprisingly well, too. "Morton of the Movies" is a pretty funny sketch, Alda playing Carol's suitor, who steals all his best lines from old movies (in segments featuring Korman and Lawrence), and the big finale, an all-singing, all-dancing ode to New York at Christmastime, emulates the big Arthur Freed-MGM musicals of yore.
The second episode, from December 18, 1977, isn't as good. Long-suffering boss Mr. Tudball (Tim Conway) and dingbat secretary Mrs. Wiggins (Carol) get blasted after work, with Conway apparently imitating actor John Qualen's Scandinavian character. Guest star Helen Reddy sings "Blue" in a Babes in Toyland-type setting, Ken Berry dances, and Tim plays an intimidating German water inspector who torments homeowners Carol and Ken. All converge for the big musical finish, "Strike Up the Band."
Video & Audio
The Carol Burnett Show was filmed live-on-tape before a studio audience at Television City, CBS's studio in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, adjacent to Farmers Market. The episodes are complete, in their original form (not the reconfigured Carol Burnett and Friends syndication versions). Considering the limitations of videotape production of that era the presentations are better than expected, bright, clear, and colorful. The mono audio is also fine, and the menu screens are easy to navigate, with specific contents spelled out on both menu screens and in the helpful insert provided.
Supplements include about 17 minutes worth of bonus sketches. From a December 25, 1967 show Jonathan Winters turns up in Carol's place during the Q&A opening, and Carol and Sid Caesar perform a funny "Christmas Night Quarrel." After that, Carol, in her charwoman character, sings, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Finally, Carol is a sarcastic gift receiver in "The Twelve Days after Christmas," from a December 30, 1968 episode. The bonus material plus the two shows brings the total running time to about 115 minutes.
A nice break from the usual holiday season perennials, The Carol Burnett Show: Christmas with Carol is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.