‘Carol Burnett’ Videos Put Shows Back Together
From 1967 until 1978, Carol Burnett was the queen of TV comedy. Her CBS comedy-musical-variety series, “The Carol Burnett Show,” featured skits, spoofs of old movies, musical production numbers, guest stars and a wonderful cast of regulars, including Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner.
Though the Emmy Award-winning series has been seen in syndication for years, each hourlong episode was edited to a half-hour, with all production numbers eliminated. Now Columbia House Video Library is releasing unedited, restored episodes.
Each volume features two episodes duplicated from the original, first-run masters and features all-new interviews with Burnett, Conway and Korman. Every video includes liner notes about the series, as well as trivia information, airdates and photos from the skits of the episodes included on the volume.
The first volume includes “Went With the Wind,” a “Gone With the Wind” parody that finds Burnett quite literally wearing curtains, complete with curtain rod.
Burnett, who appeared on Broadway last year in the Stephen Sondheim musical revue “Putting It Together,” recently chatted about her series, as well as her current project.
Question: Why was “The Carol Burnett Show” edited down to a half-hour when it went into syndication?
Answer: When we first went into syndication, we were the first musical variety show to do that. Because of the musicians’ union at that time, we couldn’t afford [to syndicate] the whole show. It was just prohibitive [to pay the additional costs], so there were never any of the production numbers seen on the syndicated show.
Q: Did Columbia House approach you about releasing the hourlong episodes on tape?
A: Yes. We were just thrilled. Of course, [the show] is here [on video], warts and all. There are some things I wish would never see the light of day again. But the fun of it is there.
Q: Did you choose the episodes for the video collection?
A: Yes, they allowed me to pick. What we have now is a list of 30. What they are doing is releasing 10 to begin with. There are two episodes on each tape.
Q: I love the fact that you, Korman and Conway introduce and talk about each episode.
A: We did that in the same studio [at CBS] where we taped the show. The entire thing between the three of us was totally ad-libbed; nothing was scripted. It is usually so stiff and formal when you have to introduce stuff.
Q: Are you surprised that the series has endured 33 years after its premiere?
A: We had no idea anything like that would be seen 30 years [later]. That is a very pleasant shock.
Q: Would you talk about the genesis of “The Carol Burnett Show”?
A: I had a contract with CBS that was highly unusual that they had forgotten about. We got to the point where my husband [Joe Hamilton] and I said we better push this button because this contract was going to run out, which was pay or play: a 30-[episode], one-hour variety show. If I didn’t push the button, [the contract] would be over. Joe and I were sitting on orange crates, just having bought a house we couldn’t afford, and we said we better call CBS and do that. So we called and got the CBS suits on the phone. I was cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes at that time. I said, “I think I really want to push the button now and do the variety show.” They didn’t remember [the contract]. They said, “Variety show? Wonderful. We’ll get back to you.” It was an ironclad contract. They called back and said, “Carol, it would be better if you did a sitcom.” I said, “Variety is all I know and all I want to do--I love the music, the guest stars. This is what I know and what I love.” So they had to put it on.
Q: Did CBS think it would be a hit?
A: Even before we taped the first show, Joe flew back to New York and went into one of the V.P.s’ offices [at CBS]. Usually, behind the desk [in the office], they have a big bulletin board of the fall season and winter season coming up. They had us on at 10 p.m. on Monday nights, beginning in September, and then in January, [the show] was there with a question mark. Joe said, “I see you have a lot of faith in us.” But we figured, “OK. We’ll get 30, play or pay. At least we can buy the house and take care of the kids.” We had no idea that it would go the way it did. We were just happy to be on.
Q: The production numbers you did every week were so lavish.
A: I know. We did the whole show in under two hours. The audiences really saw a little Broadway show every week.
Q: One of the unsung heroes of the series was costume designer Bob Mackie. His designs were so funny, outrageous and glamorous.
A: Listen, Bob Mackie is responsible for so many laughs and so much of the success of our sketches. No question about it. He was the one who came up with the “Gone With the Wind” thing, which is one of the longest laughs ever. I just trust him with my life.
Q: I know you appeared on Broadway in “Putting It Together.” What’s next for you?
A: I had written a memoir about growing up out here and going to movies with my grandmother in Hollywood in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Carrie, my daughter, said, “Mom, why don’t we write a play?” Carrie is a writer and I have always written. So just for the hell of it, we did. We went to the Sundance Theatre Lab workshop. They accepted us and we worked on it there. We did another workshop last year in New York.
I gave it to [producer and director] Hal Prince so he could recommend a director. He said, “I want to direct it.” So we just got back from New York last week, where we had a reading in New York. It’s called “Hollywood Arms.” That is the name of the building where I was raised. We are not in it. We just wrote it. So now, the next thing is to get a producing entity. We are very gung-ho about it.
Q: I know the two variety series you did in the early ‘90s were short-lived. Would you ever want to try another series?
A: No, I don’t want to be around the suits. We didn’t have that problem [during “The Carol Burnett Show”]. Mr. Paley [CBS Chairman William Paley] and all of [the CBS executives] left us alone. That doesn’t happen today.
* “The Carol Burnett Show” is available from Columbia House Video Library at (800) 638-2922 or at https://www.columbiahouse.com. The first volume is $4.95 plus shipping and handling; subsequent volumes will arrive every four to six weeks and cost $19.95 plus shipping and handling.