NEW YORK — Once upon a time, there was no DVD. Not even VHS. No Internet. No Netflix, no video games. No cable TV shows! In the ’60s and ’70s, people couldn’t just pick their Saturday night home entertainment. They had to wait until something great came along.
And then, it appeared — an entire Saturday night’s network TV lineup of instant legend. A string of comedy shows (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show) so golden, only a magical queen could possibly top such entertainment excellence.
Cue Tarzan yell — Yahhh-ee-elee-el-ee-el-eee-ELLLL! Carol Burnett’s crazed sketch comedy endures today, four decades later. And now we’ve got the DVDs to prove it. The Carol Burnett Show: The Ultimate Collection is Time-Life’s impressively gift-worthy new DVD box, holding 22 discs of inspired lunacy from her 1967-1978 comedy-variety hour — 50 full episodes boasting hundreds of sketches and extras, plus two discs of bonus comedy and interviews. (The box is offered at CarolonDVD.com. Its six-disc component Carol’s Favorites also sells separately in stores.)
Watch the first disc, and down tumbles Carol as Starlet O’Hara in her best-loved movie parody, “Went With the Wind” — she’s clothed post-Civil War in not just her home’s curtains, but the curtain rod, too. There’s Carol and her cast of fellow feisties as The Family, a battling yet somehow uproarious Southern clan of dyspeptic dysfunction.
The collection documents TV commercial parodies so inspired, they remain riotous after the ads are forgotten. Sketches built around a secretary, a ham actor, a hollow soldier, a supermarket checker, a bus stop — they’re all infused with Carol’s gonzo facial expressions, knockabout physical flair, and sheer, fearless gusto.
“In my soul, I’m 11 years old,” Burnett, 79, said recently by phone while touring to promote the DVD.
Oh, heck, let’s call her Carol. She so immediately makes you a friend that you might dare to request she do her famous Tarzan yell. First heard during her 1959-62 ensemble stint on host Garry Moore’s variety show, it came in a sketch where she was playing Supergirl (and it’s among the DVD’s bonus features).
But Carol demurs: “I only do it under controlled circumstances.” (She recently unleashed it for DVD during a bonus reunion with surviving Carol Burnett Show co-stars Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, and Lyle Waggoner. Harvey Korman died in 2008 at 81.) Carol explains that during her youthful New York years, she once rushed into Bergdorf Goodman to grab something for a Garry Moore taping. “A lovely lady recognized me and said, ‘Can I help you?,’ and she said ‘If you could do some autographs for me, that would be grand.’ And so I did. But I didn’t have the right credit card and wanted to write a check. So she said, ‘I’ll need some ID.’ Store policy. But a supervisor decided the Tarzan yell would suffice. So in the middle of the lingerie floor, I did it. And the exit door behind her flew open, and there was a security guard with a gun pointed at us.”
The Carol school of comedy means grasping the impact of what you do. In another DVD extra, she recalls a table read of a Family sketch at which the cast decided to “do it as if it’s a one-act” play, straight dramatic, about their son’s trouble at school. “‘It’s because we didn’t wallop him enough,’” Carol quotes Korman. “‘My father walloped me and made a man out of me,’ And then Vicki says, ‘I think maybe you’re a couple wallops short.’
“Now, those aren’t funny lines,” Carol says in our phone chat. “You’ve got to hit them with an accent,” adding the exaggerated vocal twangs and body language of comedic intent. A “straight read” turned the sketch into tragic drama. “Being as out there as we were” turned it into comic gold. Oops — comedic gold.
“I’m not good at jokes,” Carol says, conveying an important distinction she learned from vaudeville clown Ed Wynn (Mary Poppins) when he was a guest during her Moore stint. “We were sitting around the table having lunch and talking about comedy. And Ed Wynn said the difference between a comedian and a comic is: A comic says funny things. A comedian says things funny.”
Carol is a comedian, because she’s a character. Watch the person evaporate and the performer radiate when she’s got a larger-than-life personality to play — Starlet O’Hara, family black sheep Eunice, overripe secretary Mrs. Wiggins, her “As the Stomach Turns” daytime divas. She flings herself into the moment, matched best perhaps by Conway in creating characters so intense that they magnify into some cosmic mix of insane and surreal. Even the show’s in-character breakups — Korman would lose it to laughter when things got nuts — don’t seem to break the spell.
And with that spell being cast, we conclude our once-upon-a-time tale of the magical queen of comedy and her uproarious DVD treasure chest.
The Carol Burnett Show spent the first nine of its 11 CBS seasons among Nielsen’s Top 30 ranked programs. But its star says she “felt we really started to cook probably around the seventh year.”
That’s borne out by the program choices in the DVD box The Carol Burnett Show: The Ultimate Collection ($200 for 22 discs, at CarolonDVD.com). Of the 50 episodes in the set, 42 are from seasons 7-10; five from season 6, three from season 11. Among the bonus features are several sketches from early seasons, spotlighting guests Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, and Jerry Lewis.
Separately available at retail, the box’s six-disc volume of Carol’s Favorites ($60 list price) includes early work by Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, and The Jackson Five, along with show-biz veterans Rock Hudson, Dinah Shore, Vincent Price, and Maggie Smith.