Thursday, August 7, 2008

DVD Review: The Carol Burnett Show, Vol. 1

In my last Kitten Confessional, I disclosed that I had subscribed to Guthy Renker's Carol Burnett DVD series, after seeing an informercial. Well, last Saturday afternoon, it arrived in my mailbox, one week ahead of the schedule that the Guthy-Renker representative gave me. I tore the box open, took out the DVD, and sat back to watch two glorious hours of classic TV.

This DVD series is billed as "The Collector's Edition," and what makes it collector-worthy is the commentary from Carol, Harvey, and Tim that bookend each episode. The DVD opens with a wide aerial shot of a camera panning the seats in Studio 33 at CBS Television City, where The Carol Burnett Show was filmed. (Studio 33 is now known as the Bob Barker Studio, named after the longtime host of The Price is Right). The stage itself had mannequins displaying the costumes worn by Carol's most famous characters--Eunice, Stella Toddler, Nora Desmond, Mrs. Wiggins, the Charwoman, and, of course, the famous curtain rod dress she wore in her legendary takeoff of Gone With the Wind. The trio reminisced about the episodes that were on the DVD, reminiscing that was, to me, unscripted. (Then again, you had Tim Conway as a part of the discussion, so any outline of a script was certainly to have gone to pieces).

The first episode of the DVD contained the famous Went With the Wind sketch, which appeared in the second half of the show. The first half started with a Carol/Harvey sketch about a harried business couple who discuss marriage as if they were in a corporate meeting. Harvey showed Carol charts, graphs, and stats of their "potential merger," while Carol was concerned about their "second quarter dip." It was a sketch that could really work well today, with a little updating: add some cell phones, Palm Pilots, and laptops, but don't change the basic humor or premise of the sketch, and it will still be funny.

Dinah Shore followed, with a bluesy, jazzy rendition of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." I watched episodes of Dinah's talk show as a child, because she reminded me of my grandmother--sweet and gentle. I watched her golf tournament on TV, not for the golf, but for Dinah. I didn't realize she was a singer till I was much older, and fell in love with her all over again. Dinah can put the phone book to music and come up with a #1 hit.

After Dinah Shore, there was a Harvey/Tim sketch that featured Tim as the Old Man. In this one, the Old Man was a butcher. I'll let you use your imagination as to what happens with this, but I will say one thing: it's one of the rare sketches where Harvey does not crack up at what Tim says or does. It's still funny, though.

Then comes Went With the Wind. Many remember this sketch for the curtain rod sight gag, and rightfully so. However, there was still some brilliant acting in this one, particularly Vicki Lawrence as Cissy. She was absolutely amazing in this sketch, from her one-liners, her energy, and that accent she uses. I don't think the depth of her talent has ever been fully appreciated; she really belongs up there with Carol, Harvey and Tim in the Comic Powerhouse echelon. Vicki Lawrence is really one of the underrated comediennes of our time.

This episode concludes with a medley of New Orleans-style blues. Carol, Vicki, and Dinah all have solos and a group number. Harvey joins in with a song and a trumpet, which he pretends to play. And the dancers get to show off their stuff, too.

The second episode on the DVD guests Roddy McDowall and the Jackson 5. It leads off with Carol's classic Q&A intro, followed by a medley of love songs between Carol and Roddy. Here's the catch: Roddy is wearing his full Planet of the Apes style makeup.

The second sketch of the show is a milestone in Carol Burnett Show history: it's the first appearance of "The Family". Eunice, Mama, and Ed all make their debuts here, and Roddy McDowall guests as baby brother Philip, who just returned to his hometown after winning the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes. The actors haven't yet fleshed out the full potential of their characters yet, but it was a strong beginning to what has become a classic in American television.

The next sketch is brilliant. It features Harvey and Lyle Waggoner as two carpenters who argue that women can't be as good as men in their jobs--until Carol comes along, and does the whole job while the two of them argue some more. They refuse, however, to accept Carol as a part of their crew--until Carol changes her outfit into a VERY mini dress. I thought this sketch was brilliant because of its underlying issues of sexism in the workplace. Carol does as good a job--even better, in this case--than the men in this sketch, but still has to keep a little femininity in order to be accepted by the guys.

The Jackson 5 make their first guest appearance in the following sketch, singing their hit, "Dancing Machine." As I watched Michael, I couldn't help but get saddened by what he's done to his life over the years.

The four regulars participate in the following sketch, about four people waiting at a bus stop, when the pay phone rings, and it turns out to be from a radio quiz show. I couldn't help but think how much Harvey looked like Karl Malden in this one. (Remember those old American Express ads, kids?)

Roddy and Carol star in the next sketch as two Brits having tea. This sketch was amazing because each line of dialogue was only one single word. Too bad it's not on YouTube; it's something that really needs to be seen in order to be believed.

The show's finale features the Jackson 5 performing their hit "ABC" as students in a music school. During the sketch, the Jackson 5 and the show's dancers are sitting in their desks when an earthquake occurs. Yes, an honest to goodness, San Andreas Fault, honey we're in California now earthquake. You can see the cameras and stage shake if you look really carefully. The Jackson 5 is caught off guard, but not Carol. She just goes on with the sketch, as if nothing had happened.

The DVD ends with Carol today, thanking us for watching, and she, Harvey, and Tim all pull their ears.

Sigh. They really don't make TV like this anymore. The sketches have amazing writing, and none of it is cynical, bitter, or too intellectual. There's no rapid-fire dialogue, and all of the situations in each sketch are real, even though some of the characters, like those in the "Family," can be outrageous. But my favorite parts had to be the finales, which were like mini Broadway revues every single week. There are some clips on YouTube of some more of these finales, and I'll have to post them eventually.

Overall, The Carol Burnett Show is quality entertainment, something the whole family can watch, even if some of the sketch dialogue flies over the kids' heads. I really, really hope people are buying this DVD collection, because my biggest fear is that Carol will become one of those forgotten TV comedians like Milton Berle or Garry Moore (who was, ironically, her mentor). In this day and age, if you don't get extensive press saturation, you're forgotten. I really hope no one ever forgets her; it would be a travesty if they did!

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