CarolBurnettShowcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes, but…
1967-73, 1255 min. (16 shows), Color
Time Life/StarVista
Not rated (mostly G, some PG sketches)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 6 discs, color booklet
Amazon link

The Carol Burnett Show is a tough one to review because it’s a variety show, and that brand of television is nearly extinct—TV-land’s dinosaur. It’s like trying to assess a pterodactyl, even though this particular old bird won 25 Emmys, eight Golden Globes, and three People’s Choice Awards.

Now TV is dominated by reality shows and snarky talk and news shows, but during TV’s golden age the variety show was king. The Ed Sullivan Show, which ran from 1948 to 1971, preserved the vaudeville format almost exactly, televising animal acts, circus acts, magicians, mind readers, musical acts, dancers, musical acts, and comedians. But it was Sid Caesar in Your Show of Shows (1950-54) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-57) who pioneered sketch comedy as the meat-and-potatoes of future variety shows, and that’s the direction that Carol Burnett took.

The Carol Burnett Show ran for 11 seasons, tying her with Milton Berle for eighth all-time among variety shows, and it was as popular as TV gets. But to watch her show now just isn’t the same as watching it then. So many of the sketches were parodies of TV shows, movies, and commercials, and topical humor loses its edge. Plus, as SNL fans know, sketch comedy is hit or miss. Amazingly, many of the sketches in this six-disc collection still work. In fact, I’d say that there are more “hits” here than the current SNL group manages to muster in an average week.

“Interactive” is a big buzzword now, but Burnett interacted with her audience from the time her show debuted. Instead of doing a monologue, Burnett strode out onto the stage and took questions from the audience for a full three to four minutes. Sometimes she was quick to crack jokes, while other times the questions prompted more serious responses. But can you see a studio allowing a live audience to interact with stars today? Stars would be a nervous wreck, and network honchos would be that times 10. So it’s a fascinating part of every show, and half of Burnett’s weekly traditions.

As for the other half, Bob Hope had his “Thanks for the Memories” theme, and Burnett often closed her shows by singing the words to her own theme song:

I’m so glad we had this time together
Just to have a laugh or sing a song
Seems we just get started and before you know it
Comes the time we have to say, So long.

CarolBurnettShowscreenIn between there was song and dance and performing guests. But anchoring the show were the comedy sketches, starring, at first, Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Wagoner, and later Tim Conway, after Wagoner left the show to do “Wonder Woman.” Guest stars got in the act too, and the talents on these 16 episodes are Chita Rivera, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Mel Tormé, Nanette Fabray, Jim Nabors, Bing Crosby, Paul Lynde, Tim Conway, Eydie Gorme, Burt Reynolds, Lesley Ann Warren, Don Adams, Lucille Ball, Bobbie Gentry, Phyllis Diller, Gwen Verdon, Nancy Wilson, Andy Griffith, Bernadette Peters, Cass Elliot, Flip Wilson, Vicki Carr, Carol Channing, Steve Lawrence, Jack Jones, and Ruth Buzzi. I suspect that the more of these celebrities you recognize, the more likely you will be to appreciate The Carol Burnett Show. It’s suitable for families, but children and a new generation of viewers may find the musical numbers especially dated, though the sketches are still funny, and Burnett is as likable as ever.  

What makes this set fascinating is that it includes a range of shows. From 1967 we get #3 (in which Burnett explains that the “Carol and Sis” sketch is based on her real life), #6, #8, and #13. From 1968 we get shows #16, #107, and #108, while from 1969 there’s #112 and #309, from 1970-71 we get #316, #422, #503, #506, and #510, and from 1972-73 there’s #521 and #522. In the early shows you can see Carol as the charwoman that became part of her animated title sequence and see the evolution of ongoing sketches like “As the Stomach Turns” (their mostly funny soap opera parody), “The Old Folks” (Burnett and Korman offering the kind of innuendo we got from the Ropers in Three’s Company), and their parodies of movies and Hollywood tropes. Curiously, though, the shows aren’t ordered chronologically. You have to skip around.

One of the most memorable sketches from this batch was one in which Burnett plays a “Fireside Girl” who basically extorts donations from a hung over man. The “Tin Pan Alley” sketch is also pretty funny, as is a salute to Oscar that includes a cute bit on The African Queen. And yes, you get to see Burnett do her Tarzan yell in a parody called “The Jungle Kook.”

Fans ought to be pleased with this set, and not just because the episodes are pretty clean for standard def DVDs. There are some terrific bonus features too. Along with the requisite interviews there are also several bonus sketches (“The Dentist,” “Morton of the Movies” “Julie and Carol at Lincoln Center”) and some funny outtakes. There’s also an uncut Q&A segment from show #3 so that you can compare the edited and uncut versions, and a featurette on that unique feature of the show—along with a color booklet that details information about all the episodes and offers an intro and some remembrances from Burnett herself.