Today is the birthday of the popular American comedienne Carol Burnett. I was chiefly a fan of her variety show (1967-1977) during its last leg, when she was truly the reigning queen of American comedy. She ended the show at just the right time. Saturday Night Live, which started two years earlier, was fatal to it, instantly making it seem obsolete. Burnett is a show biz creature who got her start on Broadway. Her instincts aren’t satirical; she just wants to make people happy. I lost my taste for her show when SNL came on the scene, and really haven’t enjoyed The Carol Burnett Show since.
BUT (and this a big but). I’ve always loved her masterpiece creation, and can’t say enough good things about it. While Burnett is often compared to Lucille Ball, there are ways she resembles a much greater artist than Lucy, and that’s Jackie Gleason. Like Gleason, Burnett used her variety show as a platform for sketches that allowed her opportunities to showcase her skills as a comedic actress. To my mind the “Family” sketches on Burnett’s show have much in common with The Honeymooners, which likewise had started as a series of sketches on a variety show. Eunice is Burnett’s crowning achievement, absolutely ranking with Lucy Ricardo, Ralph Kramden, Barney Fife, or Felix Ungar — all of which I consider brilliant pieces of comic acting. (TV doesn’t get enough respect as far as these things go). Like those other examples, not only was she side-splittingly funny in the role, but she always reached for (and attained) notes of pathos. Ultimately, I think this turned her head, and she wound up going in other directions (cheesy tv movie dramas and such) which changed her career trajectory. She did do one TV movie as Eunice in 1982, but if she had been so inclined, she could have spun it off her variety show as a series and it would have been one of the greatest sit-coms of all time.
As it happened, it did turn into a highly successful tv series, only without Burnett. Scene stealing co-star Vickie Lawrence had a hit with Mama’s Family from 1983 to 1990. The success of that show rested on the audience’s affection for Lawrence’s performance. The show itself was dreadful. It needed the magical chemistry of Burnett, Lawrence and Harvey Korman, and The Carol Burnett Show writers. Unfortunately Burnett divorced her husband Joe Hamilton in 1984. He had been her producer and owned all the characters. So that is the last the world has seen of Eunice. “The law,” said Mr. Bumble, “is a ass.”
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of variety (including television variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.