In the 1960s and ’70s, while television blared bad news about war, protests and a presidential resignation, “The Carol Burnett Show” made us laugh. The great comedian filled America’s living rooms with pratfalls and Tarzan yells. It was a gift.
Carol Burnett’s new memoir, “In Such Good Company,” captures this zaniness with relish. Written in Burnett’s laughing voice, the book chronicles how she prepared her weekly dose of mayhem. It was a magical recipe, and in an era ruled by “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Andy Williams Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show” was an audience favorite. From 1967 to 1978, Burnett’s 276 programs won 25 Emmys and averaged 30 million viewers a week. The show earned Burnett the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.
Show business was part of Burnett’s DNA. Growing up with her grandmother near Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, she saw as many as eight movies a week and would “act out the movies with the neighborhood kids.” This is also how she learned to yodel like Tarzan. Her Broadway breakthrough came in the 1959 musical comedy “Once Upon a Mattress,” and she was soon hired as a regular on the popular comedy-variety program “The Garry Moore Show.” She discovered that she loved the small screen more than Broadway’s bright lights. “Garry’s show allowed me to be different characters every week,” she writes, “as opposed to doing one role over and over again in the theater.”
When “The Garry Moore Show” made her a star, CBS offered her a 10-year contract to create her own program but vetoed the idea that she host a variety show. Burnett writes that variety was then “a man’s game” on network television, with shows headlined by the likes of Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason and Dean Martin. Nevertheless, variety is what Burnett wanted, and she flexed her star power to force CBS to put “The Carol Burnett Show” on the air, beginning with a 30-show season in 1967-1968.
The first thing Burnett did was to create a remarkable repertory company that included “hunky” Lyle Waggoner, newcomer Vicki Lawrence and consummate comedy actors Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. She also welcomed prominent guest stars such as Lucille Ball, Bernadette Peters, Vincent Price and Jim Nabors.
Music and theater were her first loves, and Burnett’s program became a showcase for both. She writes that “the sets, the costumes, the orchestrations, and the execution were worthy of a Broadway show.” Her “mini-musicals” often featured production numbers that celebrated Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and the Gershwins. Movie takeoffs were also signature segments, and the show’s parodies of “Gone With the Wind,” “Mildred Pierce” and “Sunset Boulevard” remain television comedy classics.
Costumes for all of these segments played an essential role, and Bob Mackie designed a remarkable 60 to 70 costumes every week. Burnett gleefully describes the costume everyone remembers best, her Scarlett dress made from drapes for their “Went With the Wind!” sendup: When she met with Mackie for her fitting, he brought out “a green velvet gown still attached to the curtain rod.” Burnett donated that stunning assemblage to the National Museum of American History, along with her charwoman costume, which is on view in the museum’s Laughing Matters display.
Production of the weekly show began with script readings and music rehearsals Monday mornings and continued through Friday run-throughs. The show was taped Friday night in Studio 33 at Television City in Hollywood, and Burnett is proud that, unlike many shows that did take after take, her tapings finished in under two hours. She did few retakes because she wanted to “have a spontaneous feel.” Actors cracking up in sketches was all part of the fun.
As many of us can still remember, each show began with Burnett’s warm-up. She would come onstage and say, “Let’s bump up the lights,” so that the audience could ask her questions. Ongoing sketches were key elements of each program, notably Conway and Burnett in “Mrs. Wiggins and Mr. Tudball” and the whole ensemble in “The Family.” After segments spotlighting musical or movie features, the grand finale would showcase everyone onstage taking bows. Burnett would sing “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together” pull her left ear “as a signal for Nanny, my grandmother who raised me,” and everyone would wave good night.
Resonating with Burnett’s lively enthusiasm, “In Such Good Company” captures the excitement of being there once again, and it’s a joyous addition to her earlier memoirs, “One More Time” (1986) and “This Time Together” (2010).
Amy Henderson is the author of “On the Air: Pioneers of American Broadcasting” and has written extensively on media and culture.
By Carol Burnett
Crown Archetype. 320 pp. $28