Clearly these episodes weren't entirely lost, but whether they would in some way end up in syndication is another matter, so we must say thanks and give a big Tarzan yell to Time Life for packing them together in this box set. And packed together they are, 22 discs worth of previously released material, and therefore really not all that lost after all. Whether you are willing to pony up two hundred-fifty dollars for this collection is down to the depth of your pockets and your love of Burnett. (Or someone you love's love of Burnett, as this would obviously make a stunning gift and is quite likely meant as just that.) All things being equal and despite the steep price tag it's hard to call this collection anything less than highly recommended. This is historical TV at its absolute zenith, manna for comedy fans, and what amounts to a treatise on how to be a true entertainer.
As a child of the '70s, I had my run-ins with Burnett. My elder brothers loved the show, so we all watched it with quasi-religious fervor. It was often the funniest thing we'd ever seen, especially when Burnett and her co-stars would struggle to keep their composure. There's nothing in entertainment quite like watching the funniest people on the planet crack each other up, unable to make it through their silly sketches. But I get ahead of myself, don't I?
Burnett's show on CBS was so wildly popular that the network freely adopted the notion that its call letters didn't stand for Columbia Broadcasting System, but simply the Carol Burnett Show. That's pretty high praise for the comedienne's variety hour, in which she acted in goofy skits, sang and danced in elaborate numbers, and invited high-profile stars to do the same. Guesting on Burnett had the same cache then that appearing on The Simpsons did in the '90s, with the star-power of the greats of yesteryear lending their imprimatur to Burnett's already stellar efforts.
The show ran a little something like this: Carol would come out and engage the audience in five minutes of Questions & Answers, a segment often revealing, sometimes awkward, and run masterfully by Burnett. Up next would be a segment of sketch comedy based on recurring characters or ideas, such as the Soap Opera parody "As The Stomach Turns". Next would be a song or dance by luminaries such as Bing Crosby or Lucille Ball, after which came more comedy, and so on in alternating fashion. Sometimes the comedy and song & dance would combine in elaborate fashion, and at least once per episode Burnett herself would join her special guest stars for a duet, showcasing her fantastic voice. Lastly, Burnett would thank the audience, sing her plaintive closing theme, and gather the autographs of her guests like a giddy school-girl.
Though the variety show format these days remains almost exclusively in the realm of Reality TV, with aspiring hopefuls flaunting their sometimes dubious talents for a panel of judges, up until the early '80s celebrities would helm their own showcases: Sonny & Cher, Donny & Marie, hell, even Shields & Yarnell took a stab at it, but no-one did it better than Carol Burnett. By the end of each jam-packed episode, you felt like you'd really seen something, like you'd gotten your full dollar-value of entertainment and then some. Burnett's show was appointment TV of high station, great stuff that works just as well today as it did then. Perhaps I'm just showing my age and nostalgia, but I'd be just as happy, or more so, watching only these lost episodes on a nightly basis, as I would be watching the best of today's TV offerings.
As mentioned earlier, classic repeating sketches such as the Soap Opera parody "As The Stomach Turns" appear frequently, with guest stars getting the full brunt or benefit of the writers' sometimes broad, but always sharp approach. In one classic sequence, the legendary 'Big Mouth', comedian and singer Martha Raye delivers the explanatory line, "...she knew I'd kill her ... if she told anyone I tried to kill her" in the smoke-filled way only she could, shrugging at the camera at the stupidity of it all. I love Martha Raye, she's got the best delivery ever. Another recurring sketch is "The Old Folks", with Harvey Korman and Burnett as an old married couple stuck in their ways, but truly in love. Korman's knees are so creaky he needs a push to settle down into his rocking chair, while Burnett, for some reason, needs Korman to start her chair rocking before she can settle in. They do this in every single iteration of the sketch. It works because it demonstrates their enduring relationship, even as they tear each other down over Korman's constant randy-ness or Burnett's hatred of the neighbors.
Movie parodies crop up, and Burnett's CharWoman character, the dowdy cleaning woman that became her de-facto logo, appears every so often to sing wistfully and dance like a loon. Burnett's takedown of child star Shirley Temple (Shirley Dimple in this case) also crops up frequently with her ridiculous poofy skirt, smarmy voice and bad attitude. Alice Portnoy, Burnett's avaricious, blackmailing Girl Scout character extorts corrupt men with glee. "Carol and Sis" finds Burnett and Vicky Lawrence smoothly lobbing sassy softballs at dating in the Seventies, and there is so much more, such as the times when the show was given over to a single story arc, like the travails of vaudevillian twins The Doily Sisters.
Not every sketch is a winner, nor is every dance sequence captivating, but the hit-to-miss ratio is pretty phenomenal. How about Chita Rivera climbing down a giant spiderweb during an elaborate dance number set to the tune of Lucretia MacEvil by Blood Sweat And Tears? Or Lucille Ball as a sexy Catherine The Great, in a song and dance that aims to educate viewers on powerful women in history? How can you fail when your supporting cast is as strong as Korman and Tim Conway playing undercover cops making out on a park bench? Conway goes so deeply into his womanly disguise he seems genuinely slighted by Korman's desire to catch suspects rather than please his date. Korman, for his part, can barely hold it together for much of the sketch, creating that magical contagious laughter born of being silly while trying to keep a straight face.
While I didn't watch every single episode in this giant collection, (60 hours of viewing is a lot, even for your unpaid servant) I can say confidently that I've never enjoyed a reviewing assignment quite as much as this one. Firing up the old DVD player to spend some time with Burnett and her friends on a nightly basis is the closest I'll ever get to the hot-tub time machine; warm, bubbly, welcoming and fun; the best TV gets, with top notch choreography from Ernie Flatt and amazing costumes (on the weekly, doncha know) from Bob Mackie. Is it also impolite to mention that Burnett, in all her sincerity, confidence, talent and geeky enthusiasm is pretty darn hot? Or should we ask the departing usher, whom Carol invites up to the stage on his last day on the job, only to plant not one, but two lingering kisses on his mouth. Hubba hubba!
With guest stars from the smokin' Bernadette Peters to the smoky Martha Raye, the scorcher Lucille Ball to the elemental Chita Rivera, the ridiculous Paul Lynde to the ridiculing Don Rickles, Burt Reynolds, Art Carney, and Burnett family friend Jim Nabors, (who guest-starred on the first episode of every season) anyone who was anyone from the 1940s on up cruised by Burnett's stage. Heck, her show was so popular that folks like Buzz Aldrin would just randomly appear in the studio audience. At any rate, this is a lot of entertainment to wrangle. If you'd like a complete rundown of episodes, guest stars and sketches, head on over to Time Life for an exhaustive listing.The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes Ultimate Collection packs 45 episodes (from the first five seasons, 1967-72) of Burnett's all-time great variety show onto 22 discs, four of which are composed entirely of extras. This is in truth a repackaging of previously released sets, with episodes in random order on each disc, but it's nice to have it all in one place. Featuring sidesplitting comedy, and all-star-quality song and dance, Burnett's show was in many ways the last, best gasp of a more innocent time. It's also fun as hell. Even at a costly retail price, this collection will warm the hearts of fans old and new. This is historical TV at its absolute zenith, manna for comedy fans, and what amounts to a treatise on how to be a true entertainer. Highly Recommended.
Of particular note is a lengthy two-part Writer's Roundtable in which the show's writers reminisce and discuss the finer points of crafting a show. It's fascinating from a BTS standpoint, as well as just watching how these creative minds and strong personalities interact. You can also enjoy Once Upon A Mattress, the 1972 Burnett special of the successful musical, and Carol + 2, her TV special with Lucy and Zero Mostel. And there's just so much more. Contemporary interviews of Burnett's current admirers can be a little awkward, (I'm looking at you Bill Hader) and seem intrusive to the vibe of the set, but that's just me being weird, I guess. Of course, any of the Outtakes and Bonus Sketches are to be treasured for the gold they represent.