The Carol Burnett Show (also Carol Burnett and Friends in syndication) is an American variety/sketch comedy television show starring Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway. It originally ran on CBS from September 11, 1967, to March 29, 1978, for 278 episodes, and again with 9 episodes in the fall of 1991. The series originated in CBS Television City's Studio 33 and won 25 prime-time Emmy Awards, was ranked No. 16 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time in 2002,and in 2007 was listed as one of Time magazine's "100 Best TV Shows of All Time."
In 2013, TV Guide ranked The Carol Burnett Show #17 on their list of the 60 Greatest Shows of All Time.
In 1967, Carol Burnett had been a popular veteran of television for 11 years, having made her first appearances in 1956 on such programs as The Paul Winchell Show and the sitcom Stanley starring the comedian Buddy Hackett. She then began to be seen more often on television as a guest on such series asPantomime Quiz; The Tonight Show hosted by Jack Paar; The Jack Benny Program; and The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1959, she became a regular supporting cast member on the CBS-TV variety series The Garry Moore Show. During her three-year run on the program, Burnett became a television favorite and won her first Emmy Award. During her time on Moore's series, Burnett also starred first off-Broadway and then on Broadway in the musical Once Upon a Mattress. She also guest starred on the CBS-TV interview program Person to Person (with her sister Christine) hosted by Charles Collingwood; an episode of The Twilight Zone ("Cavender Is Coming"); and headlined, with British singer-actress Julie Andrews, a highly praised CBS-TV special called Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, which resulted in Burnett winning her second Emmy Award. Also, during this period, Burnett had the opportunity to display her talents as a singer by recording two albums for Decca Records and, during the 1961–62 season, while appearing as a regular on The Garry Moore Show, she sang and hosted a CBS radio show.
In the spring of 1962, Burnett left The Garry Moore Show to pursue other projects which included not only television, but also Broadway and films. Her Broadway career came to a halt in 1964 when right after the opening of the musical Fade Out, Fade In, Burnett was injured while riding in a taxi on her way to the theatre, and started missing performances. As a result, ticket sales suffered and the musical closed soon after, amidst a great deal of legal hassling and acrimony that was unsettled for quite some time. That same year, she was signed to star in a CBS variety series, The Entertainers, which failed to catch on with the public. In the meantime, Burnett had made her not-so-auspicious motion-picture debut opposite Dean Martin and Elizabeth Montgomery in the romantic comedy, Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963). During this transitional time, Burnett continued to appear on CBS specials with such stars as Robert Preston and Rock Hudson. Burnett also starred in television adaptations of the musicals Calamity Jane in 1963 and Once Upon A Mattress in 1964. In addition, she occasionally appeared on Garry Moore's series as a guest star and was also featured as a guest on such programs as Get Smart, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Gomer Pyle USMC, and The Lucy Show.
After leaving the Garry Moore Show, Burnett signed a contract with CBS for 10 years which required her to do two guest appearances and a special a year. Within the first five years of this contract, Burnett had the option to "push the button" to be put on the air for 30 weeks in an hour variety show. After discussion with her husband Joe Hamilton, in the last week of that fifth year of the contract, Burnett decided to call the head of CBS Mike Dann and exercise the clause in the contract. Dann, explaining that variety is a "man's genre" offered Burnett a sitcom called "Here's Agnes". Burnett had no interest in doing a sitcom and because of the contract, CBS was obliged to give Burnett her own variety show.
In addition to Carol Burnett, the cast consisted of:
Comedic actor Harvey Korman had done many guest shots in TV sitcoms. From 1963 to 1967, he had been a semi-regular on the CBS variety series The Danny Kaye Show. When Kaye's program ended in the spring of 1967, Korman was immediately hired for The Carol Burnett Show. He left the show after its tenth season, and was replaced in the fall of 1977 by Dick Van Dyke. Lyle Waggoner, who often played a self-absorbed Adonis and did a lot of skit narration, left the series in 1974 to pursue a dramatic acting career and the next year was cast inWonder Woman. Between 1974 and 1978, some of Waggoner's duties were performed by lead dancer Don Crichton. Vicki Lawrence, a young singer from the Johnny Mann Singers, joined the series shortly after its start. Lawrence wrote a letter to Burnett when she was 17, remarking on her physical resemblance to the comic actress. She was initially hired to play Burnett's kid sister in numerous "Carol and Sis" skits. Lawrence was the only other original cast member apart from Burnett to continue with the series through 1977.
The popular variety show not only established Burnett as a television superstar, but it also made her regular supporting cast household names, with such sketches as "As the Stomach Turns", (a parody of As the World Turns) and "Went with the Wind" (a parody of Gone with the Wind), "Carol & Sis", "Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins", "The Family" (which would lead to a made-for-TV movie, titled Eunice, as well as spin off television series, titledMama's Family), "Nora Desmond" (Burnett's send-up of Gloria Swanson's character Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard), and "Stella Toddler." A frequent repeated segment was "Kitchen Commercials", in which cast members parodied TV commercials that drove a woman (Burnett) crazy. The long-running show was frequently nominated for Emmys, for best variety series and won three times.
A favorite feature consisted of an unrehearsed question-and-answer segment with the audience in CBS Studio 33 (now "Bob Barker Studio") lasting about 3–4 minutes at the start of most shows. Burnett stated that she borrowed the concept from Garry Moore who did the same on his variety show, but never taped it ("The Florence Henderson Show" RLTV, 2009). Burnett would ask for the lights to be turned up ("lets bump up the lights") and then randomly pick audience members who raised their hands. Burnett would often ad-lib funny answers, but occasionally ended up as the straight (wo)man. For example:
- Young woman: "Have you ever taken acting lessons?"
- Carol: "Yes, I have."
- Young woman: "Do you think it did any good?"
The show was rehearsed for three to four hours each day until the Friday tapings, when two recordings were made. As there were only two recordings, if an actor flubbed a line in both takes, the error appeared in the broadcast, giving the show some immediacy. Pick-ups were exceptions, and usually only used for musical numbers.
A recurring guest star from the show's launch and later a regular cast member, Tim Conway provided unrehearsed bits to sketches that became known to the staff as "Conway's Capers". Conway would play the first taping straight, but ad-lib bizarre scenarios during the second. Some notable clips included Conway as a Nazi interrogator berating an American captive (Lyle Waggoner). Using a Hitler puppet and a pencil as a "club," Conway sang three verses of "I've Been Working on the Railroad." Some, like the Hitler puppet, made it into the final broadcast; others, like a notably convoluted story about Siamese elephants joined at the trunk (ad-libbed during a 1977 Mama's Family sketch), would be edited, the uncensored version only appearing years later on CBS specials. Conway's favorite victim was Harvey Korman, who would often break character reacting to Conway's zaniness, such as when Conway played a dentist misusing Novocain or the recurring role of "The Old Man" – an elderly, shuffling, senile man who slowly rolled down stairways and fell prey to various mechanical mishaps (including an electric wheelchair and an automated dry cleaning rack).
The show also became known for its closing theme song, written by Burnett's husband, with the following lyrics:
- I'm so glad we had this time together
- Just to have a laugh or sing a song
- Seems we just get started and before you know it
- Comes the time we have to say, "So long."
At the close of each episode Burnett would tug her ear. This silent message was meant for her grandmother who raised her, and meant she was thinking of her at that moment. After her grandmother's death, Burnett continued the tradition.
When The Carol Burnett Show made its network debut on CBS-TV in September 1967, it was scheduled on Monday nights at 10:00 pm (E.S.T.) opposite NBC’s I Spy and ABC’s The Big Valley. At the end of its first season and through the spring of 1971, it consistently ranked among the top 30 programs. (For the 1969–1970 season, it posted its highest rating ever, ranking at #13.) In the fall of 1971, CBS moved the show to Wednesday nights at 8:00 pm (E.S.T.) where its chief competition was NBC’s Adam-12 and the ABC sitcoms Bewitched and The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Despite the schedule change, the show continued to do well until the fall of 1972, when the ratings slipped. In December 1972, CBS again moved The Carol Burnett Show to Saturday nights at 10:00 pm (E.S.T.) where, for the next four years, it not only received solid ratings but was also part of a powerhouse Saturday night lineup of primetime shows that included All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show.
In the spring of 1977, Harvey Korman decided to leave the series. After a decade of working with Burnett and winning several Emmy Awards, Korman had been offered a contract by ABC to headline his own series. Also, the ratings had begun to decline. During the 1976–77 season, the series ranked 35th. Nevertheless, CBS renewed Burnett's show for the 1977–78 season.
Dick Van Dyke, fresh from headlining his own variety series, Van Dyke & Company, was brought in to replace Korman. However, his presence did not help stem the sagging ratings, as the show faced new competition in ABC's The Love Boat. After three months, Van Dyke departed the show, and CBS, in a desperate attempt to save the series, moved The Carol Burnett Show from Saturday nights at 10:00 p.m. to Sunday nights at the same hour, beginning in December 1977. Regular guest stars Steve Lawrence and Ken Berry were brought in to fill the void left by Korman and Van Dyke. The ratings improved considerably.
CBS wanted to renew the show for another year, but by this time, Burnett had grown tired of the weekly grind. With the changes in cast along with the mediocre ratings, she felt that television was undergoing a transition and that the variety series format was on its way out. Therefore, Burnett decided to end the series on her own rather than be canceled later. Thus, on March 29, 1978, in a special two-hour finale, The Carol Burnett Show left prime-time television after eleven years, finishing its last season in 43rd place. Reruns were aired during the summer of 1978.
- As the Stomach Turns – A soap opera parody taking place in the fictional town of Canoga Falls with Burnett as the main character Marion
- Carol and Sis – Burnett as Carol and Lawrence as her sister Chrissy with Korman as Carol's husband Roger
- The Charwoman – Burnett's signature character (most often in a musical number), whose animated image has been used in the opening credits
- Chiquita – Burnett's parody of Charo; in one sketch, Charo herself played Chiquita and Burnett played her mother
- Nora Desmond – Burnett and Korman in the take-off of the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, portraying has-been silent film actress Nora Desmond, and her bald, dutiful butler Max
- The Family – Burnett and Korman as Eunice and Ed Higgins, a married couple, with Lawrence portraying Eunice's very difficult mother Thelma Harper
- Funt and Mundane – Korman and Burnett as two over-the-top stage actors; the names are take-offs of legendary acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne
- Mother Marcus – Korman as a full-figured, Jewish-type mother; usually featured in As the Stomach Turns, but has also been portrayed in other sketches such as the grandmother in La Caperucita Roja, the Mexican version of Little Red Riding Hood, and the fairy godmother in Cinderella Gets it On, the 1970s version of Cinderella
- The Old Folks – Burnett and Korman as Molly and Bert, an elderly couple that sit in rocking chairs on a porch talking about their lives
- The Oldest Man – Conway as an old, slow moving man, usually in various situations involving Korman being annoyed with his lack of speediness
- Alice Portnoy – Burnett as a little girl who is a member of the Fireside Girls of America, a Girl Scout type of organization, always trying to blackmail adults into making a contribution to the Fireside Girls
- The Queen – Burnett's parody of Queen Elizabeth II, with Korman as the king, and Conway as a soldier who is completely hollow due to having swallowed a live grenade
- Stella Toddler – Burnett as an elderly woman who always ends up in unfortunate accidents
- Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins – Conway as Mr. Tudball putting up with his empty-headed secretary Mrs. Wiggins played by Burnett
- Zelda – Burnett as a whiny, nasal-voiced woman and Korman as her husband George
The most frequently cited sketch is the 1976 parody "Went with the Wind!", a take–off of the classic 1939 movie Gone with the Wind. Burnett, as Starlett, descends a long staircase wearing a green curtain complete with hanging rod. When Starlett is complimented on her "gown", she replies, "Thank you. I saw it in a window and I just couldn't resist it." The outfit, designed by Bob Mackie, is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
In addition to Gone with the Wind, The Carol Burnett Show featured many movie parodies. These included take-offs of, for example, Airport, Babes in Arms, Born to Be Bad, Caged, Double Indemnity, The Enchanted Cottage,The Heiress, Jaws, The Little Foxes, Love Story, Mildred Pierce, National Velvet, The Petrified Forest, Random Harvest, Rebecca, A Stolen Life and Torch Song.
Burnett went on to star in movies, write a Broadway play, and continues to make appearances. Conway and Korman traveled to do comedy routines together all over the country. Vicki Lawrence had a U.S. No. 1 hit record in 1973 ("The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia") and went on to star in several shows of her own (Mama's Family, the NBC daytime edition of Win, Lose or Draw, and her short-lived talk show, Vicki) and continues to perform around America writing and performing comedy sketches.
The comedy sketches of the show were reedited into freestanding programs; the resulting show enjoyed success for many years in syndicated reruns (asCarol Burnett and Friends, a half-hour edition of selected 1972–77 material).
In the spring of 1979, a year after The Carol Burnett Show left the air, Burnett and her husband Joe Hamilton hosted a party at their home which included Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence. At that gathering, Burnett got wistful and started reminiscing about the show and making suggestions to Conway and Lawrence of future sketches that she wished they could create if the show was still running. Hamilton suggested to Burnett that she do a summer series. Taking that idea, Burnett and Hamilton approached CBS about doing a four-week program in the summer of 1979. CBS already had their schedule filled for the summer months and rejected the idea. However, ABC was interested and as a result, four post-script episodes of The Carol Burnett Show were produced. Under the title Carol Burnett & Company, the show premiered on Saturday, August 18, 1979, and included many favorite sketches such as "Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins", "The Family", "As The Stomach Turns", and Burnett doing her impersonation of Queen Elizabeth II. Its format was very much similar to Burnett's series with two exceptions. Due to the unavailability of Harvey Korman (who, ironically, had been under contract to ABC since he had left Burnett's show in 1977), comic actors Kenneth Mars and Craig Richard Nelson were added to the supporting cast, thereby joining Lawrence and Conway. Ernie Flatt, who had been the choreographer on Burnett's show for its entire 11-year run, was replaced by the show's lead dancer Don Crichton. The guest stars in that four-week period were chronologically Cheryl Ladd, Alan Arkin, Penny Marshall and Sally Field. The reviews of the series were very favorable with several critics heartily welcoming Burnett back to weekly television, albeit on a limited basis. Plans were announced for the program to become a yearly summer event but the ratings, while respectable, did not warrant an annual renewal of the series, although Burnett did headline several ABC specials during the 1980s.
The "Family" sketches led to a 1982 CBS-TV special called Eunice starring Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Betty White and Ken Berry. The success of this program spawned a spin-off sitcom entitled Mama's Family starring Vicki Lawrence and Ken Berry which ran from 1983 to 1990. It occasionally featured Burnett and Harvey Korman guest starring as Eunice and Ed Higgins, respectively. In the first year and a half of the show's run, Korman also appeared as narrator Alastair Quince introducing each episode (a parody of Alastair Cooke hosting Masterpiece Theatre) and also directed 31 episodes of the series.
NBC aired a comedy half-hour repertory series called Carol & Company that premiered in March 1990. It proved to be moderately successful in the ratings and was renewed for a second season. The regulars on the show included Peter Krause, Jeremy Piven, Terry Kiser, Meagen Fay, Anita Baroneand Richard Kind (and occasional guest stars such as Betty White and Burt Reynolds); each week's show was a different half-hour comedy play. This program lasted until July 1991.
CBS brought back The Carol Burnett Show for another run in the fall of 1991; new regulars included Meagen Fay and Richard Kind (brought over from the NBC show), and Chris Barnes, Roger Kabler and Jessica Lundy. However, the times had changed and Burnett's humor, however hilarious and funny, seemed rather tame in the cutting edge flavor of the 1990s. As a result, the series failed to catch on with the public and only nine episodes of this revival were aired.
In 1994, reruns of the syndicated Carol Burnett and Friends package aired on Nickelodeon. The show also aired on The Family Channel in 1996.
The cast of The Carol Burnett Show were reunited on three CBS specials:
- The Carol Burnett Show: A Reunion (January 10, 1993) featured several clips of the show's best moments from 1967 to 1978 with the gang reminiscing about their time together on the show
- 21.4 rating; 27.1 million viewers (9-11pm)
- The Carol Burnett Show: Show Stoppers (November 26, 2001) consisted mostly of bloopers and outtakes from the series
- November 26, 2001: 29.8 million viewers (timeslot rank: 1st)
- April 26, 2002: 11.5 million (timeslot rank: 1st)
- September 20, 2002: 6.2 million (timeslot rank: 3rd)
- The Carol Burnett Show: Let's Bump Up the Lights! (May 12, 2004) featured one of Burnett's favorite ongoing bits, turning up the house lights and then taking questions from members of the studio audience
- 13.6 million (timeslot rank: 2nd)