It was expected to be one of this fall’s most talked-about new entries. Instead, The Carol Burnett Show was the year’s quickest and most astonishing flop. When Carol Burnett’s fledgling series bit the dust after just four broadcasts, both CBS and the star suffered brutal defeats in their bring-back-variety strategy.
What went wrong? Apparently, everything. As Burnett’s show rushed through production, its large staff fell into two bitterly opposed factions. In one corner were the traditionalists — led by CBS brass and Burnett — who wanted the show to return to its 1967 roots. In the other were young writers and producers more attuned to the Saturday Night Live era. Quickly, the old guard won: By the show’s third telecast, producers Neal Marshall, Rocco Urbisci, and Marilyn Suzanne Miller, and performers Rick Aviles and Jann Karam were gone.
The purge left only a few outsiders on the producing staff, and threw the show into chaos. Days before the cancellation, Touchstone Television, which produced the show, was calling it a ”success,” hiring Tony Roberts, and adding new (or, more accurately, old) writers. ”They were literally taking sketches from the ’70s, dusting them off, crossing out Harvey (Korman) and writing in another name,” says one staffer. ”It was so insulting to the writers — dead guys were having an easier time getting their stuff on the show. And as much as Carol said, ‘I can’t be in every sketch,’ if you pitched an idea that didn’t involve her, it was dead.”
The crisis also extended to leadership. ”Carol wants everybody to like her,” says the staffer. ”She has a hard time saying no until the sets have been built and it’s too late.”
The cancellation tears a gaping hole in CBS’ lineup: At press time, the network was without a single regularly-scheduled Friday-night series.