Welcome to our Fall Comedy Reads series, where we take a closer look at some of the newly released comedy-related books worth checking out this month.
By the end of 1966, Carol Burnett was living in Los Angeles “sitting on orange crates and packing boxes.” Her Broadway career had not exploded the way she’d expected while starring in Once Upon a Mattress half a decade earlier. Out of options, she called CBS to offer them a variety show that she would host and star in. While CBS executives insisted that “comedy-variety shows are traditionally hosted by men,” they had signed Burnett to a pay-or-play deal in 1962 and had little choice but to let her make the show she wanted to make. That show, The Carol Burnett Show, ran for eleven years on CBS and has had an enormous impact on American comedy.
Carol Burnett’s newest book, In Such Good Company, is more or less the author’s fourth memoir. Following 1986’s One More Time, 2011’s This Time Together, and 2013’s Carrie and Me, Burnett focuses this book almost exclusively on the eleven-year run of her variety show The Carol Burnett Show (and its followup, Carol Burnett & Company). The book feels somewhat padded (her previous memoirs, particularly This Time Together, already featured many of her memories of the show), but it’s still the same warm and inviting Burnett providing some fascinating nuts-and-bolts details on putting together an enormous weekly television production.
Though it’s less well-known today, The Carol Burnett Show was a television milestone, airing in its original hour-long format for eleven years on CBS, then cut down to a half hour in syndication (as Carol Burnett & Friends) for years after. Generations of modern comedians, writers, and performers came of age watching Carol Burnett on television. Her show and her characters are iconic but can be challenging to find for millennials. As Ms. Burnett notes, “Recently, because several of the entire one-hour shows have been released on DVD and also as a result of us being on YouTube, we’ve garnered a whole new generation of viewers.” One of the show’s most famous sketches, “Went with the Wind” (a parody of Gone with the Wind), is uploaded in two parts to Funny or Die:
Part of what makes the above sketch stand out, particularly to modern viewers, is how long sketches could be on The Carol Burnett Show. Sketches were often a full half hour, taking up the entire second half of the show, and could include musical numbers and “sixty to seventy costumes a week” designed by the legendary Bob Mackie. This level of production value has only been approached by the likes of Key and Peele and Kroll Show, neither of which was filmed live weekly.
Another thing that stands out is that the sketch aired 37 years after the release of Gone with the Wind. Like Jimmy Fallon today, Carol Burnett’s best material often drew from nostalgic references to things she and her contemporaries grew up on. Young Carol Burnett grew up watching “as many as eight movies a week… I was absolutely enamored of the movies, in the late forties. So I’d come home and I’d play Betty Grable or Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, etc.” Through her variety show, Burnett could inhabit the stars of her childhood – there were plenty of parodies of contemporary film and television, but she really shone recreating Hollywood’s Golden Age.
As Burnett herself mentions in the introduction, “Some of these stories may be familiar to those of you who know me best, but they needed to be retold in order to give you the whole picture of those eleven wonderful years!” It’s true that many of the anecdotes related in the book have been addressed elsewhere (including in Burnett’s previous memoirs). In some cases she attempts to correct the record, as she does after relating the story of a famous deleted scene. Her reputation for breaking during sketches is unearned, she insists, but “It’s just that when it did happen, it stands out in people’s minds…and often created even more hilarity.” She unfortunately doesn’t go quite far enough in these corrections, omitting entirely almost any negative experience she had while making the show, and omitting names elsewhere. The worst thing she has to say about anyone is that they didn’t like the show (like Doris Day and Joan Crawford). She describes a difficult interaction with Harvey Korman, which ended amicably (“Harvey always loved telling the story of the night he got fired”). There is genuine drama between Burnett, costar Vicki Lawrence (who went on to star in the spin-off Mama’s Family), and Burnett’s ex-husband Joe Hamilton, who produced both series. It would have been thrilling to read Burnett’s side of the story.
But that’s not the kind of book this is. It is full of “laughter, mayhem, and fun,” but easy on the mayhem. It features extensive beat-by-beat recountings of particular sketches, but without the lengthy annotations that make, say, Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate so edifying. At the book’s most interesting, Burnett describes Bob Mackie’s process at length (his famous curtain rod dress designed for the Gone with the Wind parody is now in the Smithsonian) and recounts how the show evolved over its decade-plus on the air. In writing the book, Burnett rewatched the series, and offers insights into why her dynamic with Lyle Waggoner felt off in the show’s first few seasons, and why Dick Van Dyke was ultimately a bad fit in the show’s final season.
Fans of Ms. Burnett will not be disappointed by this book, apart from its repetitions of her previous memoirs. Readers looking for juicier details, or more anecdotes not previously published elsewhere, may be somewhat disappointed, but Burnett’s positivity is infectious. It’s a kind remembrance of a fantastic collaboration, in good company.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.