So what made The Carol Burnett Show such an outstanding hit? You have to start with Carol herself, of course. She’d been doing this kind of show for years and was paying attention to what worked and what didn’t. She knew it started with the writing staff, and she hired only the best and the brightest. When it was time to put together a cast, she knew the first thing she wanted was a “Harvey Korman type”. She did better than that. She got Harvey Korman. She knew you had to have a ladies’ man in the cast, and she got that element with Lyle Waggoner. He was relatively unknown at the time, but she knew how to spot talent. Then there was the need for another female lead. She wanted someone who looked a little like her to play her sister is an ongoing sketch she had planned. That’s when she remembered young 17-year-old Vicki Lawrence, who had written a fan letter to her a year earlier. Lawrence had invited her to attend a talent competition in her small town, and Carol decided to go. She was impressed enough by what she saw that she remembered the girl later when casting her show. The resemblance was quite remarkable. The last cast member didn’t even really become an actual regular cast member for the first eight years. That doesn’t matter, because who can imagine The Carol Burnett Show without the loveable Tim Conway? He would become such a great partner to Korman that the two continued to perform and tour together up until Korman’s death in 2008.
Carol herself was not only quite funny, but she was famously generous. It wasn’t important to her to feed her own ego. She was well known for feeding her fellow cast-mates and guests the best material. She knew how to get out of the way and was perfectly happy letting someone else shine. It meant the cast was always very comfortable together, and it showed in the performances. There was almost no turnover in personnel, and the unit functioned very much as a repertoire company and family. It’s obvious that even today they enjoy each other’s company and have only the fondest memories of each other.
The show itself was your typical variety show, and it was pretty much the last of its kind. The episodes feature wonderful song and dance numbers. There were favorite characters and sketches that would become fan favorites and classics today. One of the sketches starred Lawrence as an old crotchety lady with her son and daughter-in-law. That sketch proved so popular that it went on as its own show for five years. You know it. That was Mama’s Family. Only Lawrence returned to the series in her role of Mama. It was enough, because she was the heart and soul of the character. The show also featured Carol’s question-and-answer period with the live audience. It was not a scripted or rehearsed segment. She swears there was never an audience plant, nor did she have any idea what someone would say when she called on them. She was quick on her feet, and this became one of the most popular segments of the show.
Timeless Media and Star Vista have given us several collections of the show in the last year or two. Now they’ve decided to add a little Christmas cheer to your Carol Burnett collection with The Carol Burnett Show: Christmas With Carol (with some apologies to a certain Mr. Dickens). It’s a single-disc release that contains two of her Christmas episodes. It’s a bit of a surprise to me, but Carol never did do a Christmas special in all of her years of doing specials. This is the next best thing. You get two very complete episodes.
Show #813 (aired 12/21/1974)
The guest that week was Alan Alda, and he figures into all of the sketches. It starts with Carol’s traditional Q&A session in which Alda arrives to greet a weepy fan.
The Family: Christmas Home For The Holidays:
Of course, this is that series of sketches that led to Mama’s Family. In this one Alda comes home for a holiday visit as Larry, Eunice’s brother. He’s a freelance artist and can’t seem to get any attention from his family who don’t understand how he keeps “losing jobs”. It’s very much like the very first Family sketch with Roddy McDowall.
Nobody Does It Like Me:
This is a musical number with Carol and Alda. He’s a department store Santa and she’s a gift wrap girl. They’re both unhappy with their lives and discover each other.
Motion On The Movies:
Carol and Alda play a couple returning from a first date. Carol is very impressed until she turns on the late show to find he’s stolen all of his lines from old movies.
Take Me Back To Manhattan:
This is a musical finale with everyone. It’s a musical medley tribute to New York City.
Show # 1113 (aired 12/18/1977)
The guests were singer Helen Reddy and Ken Berry, who would go on to play Vint in Mama’s Family.
Again it starts with a quick Q&A with a cameo from Jonathan Winters who thinks he’s doing his show.
Mrs. Wiggins Gets Bombed:
This was another on-going skit with Carol playing a “dumb blond” secretary and Tim Conway playing her boss. She always thought he wanted to make a move on her but that was the last thing on his mind. Here the two share a holiday drink that looks much worse than it is when Conway’s wife shows up.
Helen Reddy is a lonesome rag doll at Christmas time and sings Blue.
German Water Inspector:
Tim Conway intrudes on a couple’s home (Carol & Ken) as a Gestapo-style water inspector. He’s there to find out who has been wasting water. He has ways of making them talk and us laugh.
Song And Dance Man:
Ken Berry puts on a song and dance extravaganza.
This 2-part skit spoofs People Magazine and performs skits based on articles in “Person” Magazine. It’s also the musical finale. The pieces star the entire cast.
There are some bonus sketches from two more shows as extra features. You get highlights from Show #017 (aired 12/25/1967) and Show # 114 (aired 12/30/1968). The bonus sketches give you a pretty good look at Carol and the cast in a much younger state.
Carol Burnett brings us the warm Christmas entertainment some of us remember growing up as a kid. It’s the kind of thing you might pop in this holiday season even if the kids do roll their eyes all the way through. If you look closely enough you might just catch them hiding an occasional laugh along the way. “What a wonderful way to start the party.”