CLEVELAND, Ohio - No less an authority than comedy legend Carl Reiner has said that "The Carol Burnett Show" was prime-time television's last great variety show. And who are we to argue with Carl Reiner?
There is, of course, much else to be said in praise of this beloved series. And much of it is certain to be said in "The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special," airing at 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3, on WOIO Channel 19.
Although "The Carol Burnett Show" premiered on Sept. 11, 1967, CBS opted to delay the celebrating so this two-hour tribute could air as a holiday-season special. Better late than never, to be sure, and better company will be tough to find.
Filmed on the show's original Los Angeles home, CBS Television City's Stage 33, this special includes classic clips from comedy sketches, bloopers and a bunch of reminiscing by Burnett. She reunites with original cast members Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner, as well as her costume designer, Bob Mackie.
Among those showing up to talk about Burnett's impact on television and comedy are Jim Carrey, Kristin Chenoweth, Stephen Colbert, Harry Connick Jr., Bill Hader, Jay Leno, Jane Lynch, Bernadette Peters, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short. Headlines have caught up with the special in two sad ways. A song-and-dance number with Kevin Spacey was edited out after the accusations of sexual misconduct.
And the special is airing just three days after the death of Burnett's "special buddy," Jim Nabors, at 87. Burnett made sure that Nabors was the guest star on the first episode of each new season. "I knew Jim Nabors even before we worked on 'The Carol Burnett Show' together," Tim Conway wrote Thursday on his Facebook page. "He was always a gentleman and a great talent. We had a lot of good laughs together. I'll miss him and the free room he would give my wife and I when we visited Hawaii."
Willoughby native Conway, who grew up in Chagrin Falls and got his start at Cleveland television stations, is absent from the announced segments filmed this year for the special, but that's just because he couldn't make the taping. He recently called Burnett "my friend and the best boss I've ever had."
If the clips made available by CBS are any indication, however, there is no shortage of Conway in either the classic moments or the reminiscing. Four of his five Emmys are for his work on "The Carol Burnett Show," and whether playing the Hollow Man, the doddering Oldest Man, the ever-exasperated Mr. Tudball or bumbling police detectives, he always had the ability to ad-lib Harvey Korman and the other cast members into hysterics.
For our own 50th-anniversary tribute to the 11-season run of "The Carol Burnett Show," here are 10 observations offered by Burnett, Conway and Korman (who died in 2008) during interviews for The Plain Dealer:
Carol on being at the right place at the right time: "I really was born at the right time. Today, I'd never get the opportunities I got. And I was always aware of how fortunate I was. It's not like I'm looking back now and saying, 'Gosh, I wish I had appreciated what I had.' I knew while we were doing the show, 'My goodness, I'm a lucky person.' ''
Carol on adding Tim to the cast as a regular: "Tim was on the show all the time, but we didn't make him a genuine regular until the ninth year. How stupid were we? Finally, it was like, 'Duh! Why don't we have him on every week? What's our problem?' "
Tim on regularly breaking up Harvey on-air: "I had a terribly unfair advantage. I also was a writer on the show, and I was using the typewriter as a weapon. We'd rehearse it one way, then I'd change it. I wrote the sketches, so they never knew what I was going to say. I would never tell Harvey. I saved it for air. Or once we had shot it one way, I'd ask the director if he had everything he needed. If he did, I'd ask to do it again. And then I'd use a completely different accent or something like that."
Harvey on plotting revenge on Tim: "I used to lay awake nights trying to figure out ways to get him, and no matter what I tried, he'd always turn it around and I got it."
Harvey on Carol and Tim: "You know, the wonderful thing about Carol is that not only was she not threatened by having someone as funny as Tim around, she encouraged it. I'm not sure anyone else in the business would have let Tim indulge himself on stage the way Carol did. And she was smart to do it, because Tim is brilliant."
Carol on Vicki Lawrence: "For years, we hardly used Vicki on the show because she was like 19 when she started on the show and hardly opened her mouth. We saw some raw talent there and we knew it would take a while. She would play my kid sister in the 'Carol & Sis' sketches. But we really didn't know how to use her. And Harvey would work with her on accents, because he's the master, and she was like a sponge, absorbing everything. And around the fifth or sixth year, she started to blossom. And boom, when we started to do Eunice and Mama, there she was - and brilliant!"
Carol on Eunice and the Family sketches: "They weren't set in any specific part of the country. When we sat down to read the first one, I just started doing that accent, and Harvey and Vicki picked up on it. It reminded me of some of my relatives in Texas. But the writers were stunned, because they were from Chicago and they were writing about their relatives. After we were doing them for a while, I was getting a manicure, and the manicurist was Russian. And she said, 'You know, that family that you do is just like my family in Russia.' So it hits everybody."
Carol on Cary and Eunice: "Cary Grant was a big fan of our show, but he once told me, 'But I don't watch it when that family is on. It's just too painful.' Cary liked the slapstick humor. He liked it when we got punched in the stomach and fell out the window."
Carol on pain as a source of comedy: "Maggie Smith was just wonderful in the 'Family' skit. She was the schoolteacher, and she called us all in because Bubba was acting up, and she finally realizes that Bubba is acting up because of his mother, father and grandmother, who spend all their time arguing. So just for an acting exercise, in the rehearsal hall, somebody suggested, 'Let's not do it as the family. Let's just do it as a one-act - no accents and playing it completely straight.' I don't remember who suggested it, but we gave it a try. And it was really heavy. There was not one laugh, and it left you feeling, 'Oh, that poor little boy.' Without trying to be those characters, the screaming and yelling was devastating. It was an incredibly powerful experience. And it drove home just how much pain was behind the comedy."
Conway on Dick Van Dyke replacing Harvey in 1977: "Dick is hilarious, but, all of sudden, we were four funny people without a straight man."...Read more