Carol Burnett joined by fans and old friends for anniversary special

Saturday, 02 December 2017, 12:10:46 AM. The greatest-hits collection marks 50 years since the Emmy-winning variety hour debuted on CBS.

A good comedy bit is timeless, as “The Carol Burnett Show” has proven for a half-century.

The legendary performer offers a sampling of the iconic musical-comedy variety hour’s greatest hits Sunday with “The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special” (7 p.m., WBBM-Channel 2), a two-hour show taped in early October.

On stage, Burnett was joined by co-stars Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner and performers who grew up as fans, including Amy Poehler, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader. (The comforting reminiscence bumped into today’s news as Kevin Spacey, who performed in a musical segment, was edited out after accusations of sexual misconduct arose weeks later.)

Longtime fans of the Emmy-winning “Burnett,” which ran from 1967 to 1978, will enjoy rewatching the classics, including movie send-ups of “Gone With the Wind” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice”; “The Family,” with Lawrence as Mama; and the farcical pairing of Mrs. Wiggins (Burnett) and Mr. Tudball (Tim Conway, who couldn’t make the taping). But Burnett also was pleased with how well those clips played with first-time viewers.

“When we were rehearsing and showing clips, there were these young cameramen who were screaming with laughter, because they hadn’t seen some of this stuff. I got the biggest kick out of that,” says Burnett, 84, whose show still draws viewers on DVDs, MeTV and YouTube.

The anniversary celebration also includes tributes to the late Harvey Korman and to costume designer Bob Mackie, who appears on the special. He came up with 65 outfits each week for everyone from Burnett to the show’s dancers.

“We did the math,” she marvels. “He designed a little over 17,000 costumes in 11 years.”

The show’s elaborate costuming, dancers and extensive musical performances are one reason Burnett thinks it’s been so hard for more recent prime time variety shows to replicate her success.

“You couldn’t do what we did today, because of the costs,” she says. “We did a musical-comedy revue every week that was like a Broadway show.”

She also had creative freedom, which allowed her to hire Lawrence, a recent high school graduate with no professional experience. “Today, no network would let me cast Vicki.”

The idea of a woman fronting a musical-comedy variety show was unusual at the time (Dinah Shore had a show more focused on music) and Burnett only got the chance because of an unusual clause in her contract.

“They said it was a man’s game — Sid Caesar, Dean Martin, Milton Berle — because it hadn’t been done. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done,” the trailblazing performer says.

Burnett, whose fan Q&A tour is scheduled to return to the Chicago Theatre on June 12 and who has an upcoming Netflix unscripted comedy series, “A Little Help With Carol Burnett,” got a kick out of singing her signature theme with Harry Connick Jr., who was born the day of the show’s premiere: Sept. 11, 1967.

“I said, ‘Will you join me?’ And he said, ‘I’ve been waiting 50 years to do this,’ ” she says. “How often does that happen?”

Probably about as often as we get a “Carol Burnett Show,” a program fans still enjoy spending time with nearly 40 years after it officially said “so long.”

By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY

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