- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

It’s probably a “generational thing,” but many of you reluctant to add full seasons of “Friends” or “Sex and the City” to your home DVD collection might be more receptive to a sampler of “The Carol Burnett Show.”

CBS, Miss Burnett’s home network for more than a generation, is distributing a three-DVD “Collector’s Edition” through a home video subsidiary, Columbia House. Priced at about $40, the set preserves half a dozen examples of the consistently cheerful and clever comedy-variety hours that starred the versatile and endearing Miss Burnett, arguably the most beloved of this December’s Kennedy Center Honorees. The shows selected were originally telecast between 1973 and 1977.

Miss Burnett was a fairly early recruit to TV: She played the girlfriend of Buddy Hackett in a short-lived sitcom in 1956, “Stanley”; coming on with a bang, she made an indelible slapstick impression doing an outrageous confessional ditty, “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” on the “Tonight” show while Jack Paar was the host.

The young Carol Burnett became a huge shot in the arm for Garry Moore’s supporting cast, first on a daytime series and then with his popular evening variety show, starting in 1959. She carried a Broadway musical, “Once Upon a Mattress,” with irresistible comic gusto and vocal authority.

Hollywood underestimated the phenom’s ability to sustain a serio-comic career along the lines of Shirley MacLaine. Miss Burnett did fleeting wonders for “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?” a Dean Martin romantic farce in which she played the subsidiary, lovably hilarious gal (Elizabeth Montgomery got the straight part). Regrettably, her skills as a physical clown were systematically exploited only in the overblown John Huston film version of “Annie” and in Peter Bogdanovich’s neglected version of “Noises Off.”

Miss Burnett’s weekly musical variety and comedy show ran from 1967 to 1978. Originally, it anchored the CBS roster at 10 p.m. on Mondays. After a stopover on Wednesdays at 8 p.m., “The Carol Burnett Show” became the anchor for a Saturday night lineup that seemed impregnable throughout the 1970s. “All in the Family” and then “The Jeffersons” kicked off a three-hour comedy bloc during much of this period, while Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart filled the 9 o’clock hour, and the Burnett troupe took over at 10.

“Volume One” of the DVD collection starts auspiciously with a 1976 show that featured Dinah Shore as the guest star and peaked with a parody of “Gone With the Wind.” Called “Went With the Wind,” it cast Miss Burnett as Scarlett, Miss Shore as Melanie, Harvey Korman as Rhett, Tim Conway as Ashley, Vicki Lawrence as a whiteface Prissy and Lyle Waggoner as Yankee stragglers.

The skit’s best-remembered brainstorm was a costuming triumph from Bob Mackie, who suggested leaving in the curtain rod when Scarlett appears for her postwar date with Rhett in a gown improvised from the living room drapes. Miss Burnett’s entrance as a kind of walking masthead at the top of Tara’s staircase is a cherished sight gag for everyone who has ever seen it. The subsequent quip makes it even funnier: “I saw it in the store window and just couldn’t resist.”

I had forgotten how much this show demanded of its comics week after week in terms of physical stamina and dexterity. Miss Burnett does two tumbles down the staircase, and Mr. Korman lugs her up half a flight.

“Went With the Wind” is the only full-blown movie parody included in this collection. That leaves the Burnett versions of “Double Indemnity,” “Mildred Pierce” and “Random Harvest,” among other choice sendups, available for later anthologies.

“Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” is the pretext for a witty sketch that doesn’t depend on a movie prototype. It also illustrates how nimble the cast needed to be, since the gags exploit a double set of doubles: Mr. Korman as the tormented Jekyll and Miss Burnett as his change-of-sex Hyde, plus Mr. Waggoner and Miss Lawrence as a similarly schizoid pair, with manuevers calculated to create confusion around the drawing room as the alternate identities replace each other from the concealment of sofas, desks, closets and partitions.

The time-capsule curios include a 1973 guest appearance by the Jackson Five. A number with Miss Burnett as their strait-laced music teacher coincides with a California earthquake — relatively minor but answered with a memorable ad-lib from the star.

Mr. Conway’s genius at slow-motion slapstick is admirably preserved in a sketch with Mr. Korman; the comedians are placed on a collision course as senile butcher and impatient customer. Tim Conway appeared so frequently that he was presumed to be a regular for several seasons before that status was actually finalized.

Evidently, he’s pinch-hitting in one hospital skit that gives him an opening for some astonishing bits: a slow-motion somersault and then a slide to the floor that pulls two props along with him, also descending at a glacial Conway tempo that looks impossible for inanimate objects.

The backlog of soap-opera parodies, attributed to a series called “As the Stomach Turns,” remains untapped for the time being. They boasted a peerless running sight gag: the return of a prodigal daughter, typically Miss Lawrence, to entrust a prop baby with Miss Burnett, her long-suffering and resentful mother, who would promptly drop the little bundle into an umbrella stand.

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