The ear tug, the Tarzan yell, the riotous spoof of Gone With the Wind, complete with the most awesomely ridiculous gown ever made from curtains and a rod. The Carol Burnett Show, which ran on CBS for 11 years and produced 278 episodes, is responsible for some of the funniest and most enduring TV moments of the 20th century. Few shows since have been able to duplicate Burnett’s comedic recipe: physical and broad, yet sly and sophisticated. And to think it almost didn’t happen. ”CBS did not want to put me on the air in a variety show because they said it’s a man’s game,” Burnett recalls. ”They said no woman has ever had a comedy variety show, but I had it in my contract that they had to give me one. They tried to talk me out of it — to do a sitcom. But I said variety is what I know and love — to do different characters every week.” The characters, be it Mama from the ”Family” sketches or Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins (”a person who the IQ fairy never visited,” quips Burnett), are indelible to both viewers and the cast. ”I have such fond memories of the show — not The Carol Burnett Show, other shows that I’ve done,” Tim Conway jokes. We asked three of the surviving members of the troupe, Burnett, Conway, and Vicki Lawrence (Harvey Korman passed away in 2008), to share some of their favorite behind-the-scenes stories.
Carol Burnett on the Gone With the Wind Spoof
When I got my own show, I thought, ”I want to do takeoffs of some of the movies I loved as a kid.” I remember [the sketch] had first been written that I would come downstairs with the draperies just hanging on me. I went to costume fittings and [the show’s costume designer] Bob Mackie said, ”I have an idea, come here,” and I went into the dressing room and there was the curtain rod with the draperies on it. And I fell to the floor. Of course, that was one of the longest — if not the longest — laughs we ever had on the show.
Tim Conway on His ”Old Man” Character
Carol gave us the opportunity to do whatever we wanted on the show, which was always great because we would surprise not only the audience but her, too. There were so many things we did on the air that were never done until we actually did them for taping. One was the Old Man. When we got the script that week, Harvey said, ”Wait a minute. He’s not doing an old man. I do the best old man there is.” So all week, Harvey is saying, ”What are you going to do as an old man?” and I said, ”I have no idea.” And I didn’t. I really didn’t do that shuffle with the Old Man until we were actually taping the show. When I started shuffling across the room, I noticed the rug was gathering in front of me and I thought, ”Jeez, if they let this go, we’re going to be here for three days.” But they let it go and it was created out of air.
Vicki Lawrence on the Creation of Mama
The writers who wrote the sketches hated their mothers. It was sort of like an homage to these horrible dysfunctional families they came from. They lovingly wrote Mama for Carol, and they had figured we’d have a guest star play Eunice. But when Carol saw the final draft of the sketch, Eunice just totally spoke to her upbringing. So she gave me Mama. She wanted to play Eunice — that pissed the writers off. She wanted to do it Southern — that pissed the writers off. They just figured we had ruined the whole thing. They said, ”You’re going to offend half the country.” And on the contrary, everybody loved it.
Today, all three comedians continue to perform for live audiences. Lawrence, 62, tours with her production Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show, where she tells autobiographical stories and then channels Mama to riff on current events. Conway, 77, is often on the road with his Tim Conway & Friends tour, reprising characters such as his diminutive golf instructor Dorf. Burnett, 78 — who appears in Laughter and Reflection With Carol Burnett, a free-flowing Q&A session with the audience — guest-starred on Glee last season as Sue Sylvester’s Nazi-hunting mother and is working on a book about her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, who passed away from cancer almost 10 years ago. (Tour dates are available on vickilawrence.com, timconway.com, and carolburnettfan.com.)
It’s hard to imagine that anything like The Carol Burnett Show will air on TV ever again. The cost would be prohibitive — the show employed a 28-piece orchestra, and designer Mackie led a team of seamstresses who were making 60 to 80 outfits per week. And to find a star with Burnett’s repertoire of considerable talents — comedian, singer, dancer, actor — seems impossible. To everybody except Conway, that is, who deadpans, ”Maybe the Kardashians.”