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Funny Lady: 'The Carol Burnett Show'

The first major female-hosted variety show debuted 33 years ago

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By the late 1960s, guys like Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, and Dean Martin had been hosting variety shows for years. It was time for the format to get a woman’s touch. On Sept. 11, 1967, that arrived in the form of The Carol Burnett Show, featuring a young, Tarzan-calling female star who broke the mold with on-camera audience Q&A sessions, skills that ranged from singing to acting to, er, housecleaning, and a cast that cracked up during the program’s sketches (and were proud of it).

Of course, Burnett was already famous for her antic talents, rubbery face, and trademark ear tug (a nod to her grandmother watching at home). She’d won an Emmy for The Garry Moore Show in ’62, and, that same year, CBS signed the entertainer, not yet 30, to an impressive 10-year, $1 million contract that called for several specials (like her duets with Julie Andrews and Lucille Ball) and, eventually, a series. But she hesitated at the idea of starring in a variety show. ”I just never thought I could be the host of a regular [series] … It was a man’s field,” Burnett says. But she and her then husband, exec producer Joe Hamilton, ”were broke. So I said, ‘I guess we better push the button.”’

The program didn’t immediately push America’s buttons: Its first episode — which guest-starred Jim Nabors — wasn’t even aired by many CBS affiliates (they figured it would bomb), and attracted lukewarm reviews. ”We would do things, off-the-cuff things, that I don’t think any other show ever did,” Burnett says. Moreover, it debuted just when prime-time variety extravaganzas, once a TV staple, were on the decline.

Nevertheless, buttressed by the affable ensemble of fickle straight man Harvey Korman, faux matinee idol Lyle Waggoner, Burnett look-alike Vicki Lawrence, and, later, puckish zaniac Tim Conway, the program was a Nielsen top 30 mainstay (it peaked at No. 13 in its third season). Twenty-five Emmys, 286 episodes, and countless riffs on everything from Gone With the Wind to Adolf Hitler later, The Carol Burnett Show was so treasured that when the host decided to call it quits in 1978, CBS begged her to reconsider. ”I didn’t want somebody to come in and say, ‘Stop doing this,”’ she recalls. ”It was time — before we wore out our welcome.”

Still, the show’s legacy lives on: Parody-centric programs like Saturday Night Live and MADtv owe something to Burnett’s freewheeling spirit. (Not to mention constant reruns of Mama’s Family, a spin-off of her most famous sketch.) And Burnett, now 67, recently starred in the Sondheim revue Putting It Together on Broadway. Later this month, The Carol Burnett Show will have another renaissance when Columbia House releases it on video for the first time — further proof that despite the lyrics to her classic theme, it will never be time ”to say so long.”


Time Capsule: Sept. 11, 1967
At the movies, Sidney Poitier stars in the James Clavell-directed schoolhouse drama To Sir, With Love. On TV, Robert Culp and Bill Cosby team up in NBC’s racially groundbreaking espionage/adventure series I Spy. In music, the Beatles’ seminal hit Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band continues its run atop the Billboard album chart. And in the news, the Surveyor 5 spacecraft lands on the moon, marking the first ever on-site analysis of a celestial body. Less than two years later, Neil Armstrong would take his one small step for man.