Tonight's special 90-minute review of highlights from the "Carol Burnett Show" on Channel 9 at 9:30 does more than celebrate the show's 10th anniversary. It serves to remind us why Burnett is the most versatile television comedian since Sid Caesar in his prime.
The word is comedian, rather than comedienne, because gender has no meaning when it comes to comedy. Others may be funnier within a specific range (Lucille Ball in a comedy series or Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker), but of the leading television comedians of the past 20 years, Caesar and Burnett have shown the widest range of excellence in a comedy-variety format.
Burnett and Caesar have something else in common. Their comedic genius has been expressed within the framework of ensemble comedy.
Caesar had Imogene Coca. Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. Burnett surrounded herself in the beginning with Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Wagoner, the last being re place in the past two years by Tim Conway who previously had appeared on the show intermittently. The Caesar and Burnett ensembles have only been matched by Steve Allen's crew --Nye and Bill Dana -- and more recently by the Not Ready for Prime Time Players on NBC's "Saturday Night."
But tonight's special marks the end of Korman's participation in the Burnett ensemble. He is leaving for ABC, where he will be given free rein to develop his own comedy variety show.
No longer will we be able to watch Korman being broken up by Conway's antics, the only on the air conterpart to what it is said George Burns used to do to Jack Benny in private.
The funniest segment in tonight's show is Korman breaking up as he sits in a dentist chair and watches Conway -- doing to the dental profession what hasn't been done to it since W. C. Field's short film on the same subject -- first push a novocaine needle into his right hand, then into his leg and then into his forehead.
The rest of the episodes from the 251 shows that have been aired in the past decade is a mixture of take-offs on old movies, commercials and television shows. Burnett is absolutely devastating as Mary Hartman in an exchange with Vicki Lawrence playing Loretta Haggers.
After Mary Hartman decides that she is tired of saying "Good morning" on the telephone and opts in favor of saying "Fair morning," Loretta comes in the kitchen to describe what happened to her when she was eating a breakfast of instant curds and whey: "I was in the middle of the biggest curd this morning."
Another funny episode is when Conway, playing a Gestapo interrogator tries to force information out of a political prisoner by seeking to intimidate him by the use of a Hitler hand doll.
There is more: Conway as a priest trying to sell Burnett, about to go to the electric chair, a church raffle ticket ("You don't have to be there to win.") and Korman, asking Burnett, who is dying in five minutes of a rare disease, if she wants anything to eat: "I'd like a four-minute egg."
You get the point -- this is probably the funniest comedy show, variety or situation, that you are likely to see this year.
Beyond that, it is worth watching simply because it's last time you're likely to see Korman acting in this ensemble. Dick Van Dyke will join the cast next season and no doubt will be funny because he is a talented man. But it is unlikely that we shall ever again see with Burnett and company, anyone who did so much with his surroundings as did Korman.