No question, the most successful variety show of all-time has to be The Carol Burnett Show (CBS 1967-1978) - but one variety show failure almost derailed Carol Burnett's amazing career before it really got underway.
Carol Burnett got her start in off-Broadway theatre, first achieved national attention with a novelty tune entitled "I Made A Fool Of Myself Over John Foster Dulles" (Eisenhower's prim Secretary of State - don't ask), then made her way to television via appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Burnett's first regular series role was on a sitcom called 'Stanley' (Sept. 1956 - March 1957) - one of those early TV shows with a high-quality pedigree that failed to catch on.
In Stanley, Buddy Hackett starred as the lackadaisical manager of a hotel lobby newsstand/ticket agency in New York City, and Carol Burnett played his loopy girlfriend Celia. Writers and producers from Sid Caesar's 'Your Show of Shows' were behind the production - produced and directed by Max Liebman, with playwrite Neil Simon on the writing staff. This NBC sitcom (broadcast live) barely lasted one season.
During the run of Stanley, Burnett did a guest shot on the Garry Moore Show (1950-1958), a popular daytime variety program on CBS. This led to Burnett's next big break - as a regular player on the prime-time Garry Moore Show (1958-1964), one of many easy-going variety shows of the early-sixties.
"I auditioned for [Garry Moore]," Burnett told Dick Cavett in 1974, "And he put me on his morning show and then when he got the nighttime show I was a guest a couple of times and then I was asked to be a regular."
The producer of the show (with Bob Banner) was Joe Hamilton - he and Burnett eventually married and had three children, causing a minor scandal since Hamilton was married with children when they began going out. The bad publicity almost cost wholesome Burnett her career.
With a pliable face and a circus contortionist's body (TV Guide called her "the girl in the rubber mask"), Carol Burnett won the hearts of TV viewers playing the nervous klutz in dozens of hilarious skits on the Moore show. She was an instant hit with the home audience, one of the emerging medium's first bright stars.
Each week, hapless Carol would find herself in the most outrageous predicaments. No matter how sketchy the script, the comedienne turned each performance into a farcical romp with her spasmodic interpretations. She quickly became the de-facto star of the program.
In 1962, Burnett left The Garry Moore Show to tour with a stage revue and in 1964 turned up as one of three rotating hosts on The Entertainers (a variety series with Bob Newhart and Caterina Valente as the other alternate MCs).
The series was a huge, unanticipated flop, lasting less than a year. Almost nothing has been written about The Entertainers, everyone involved seems to have blotted the series from their resumes.
Despite this blunder, CBS gave Carol Burnett a ten-year, million-dollar contract to make one special a season and do two guest shots on the network. She resisted the network's strong suggestions that she star in another traditional sitcom, reasoning, "They would probably name me Gertrude or Agnes and that's all I'd be forever."
Over the next three years, Burnett hosted some of the finest variety specials ever broadcast (including her Emmy Award winning special Julie and Carol at Lincoln Center and 1964's Once Upon a Mattress) until CBS finally talked her into hosting a weekly, hour-long variety series of her own.
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SPECIAL LEADS TO SERIES
Carol Burnett's last special in 1967 before starting her long-running variety series was the closest thing she had done to a straight-ahead variety show format since leaving the Garry Moore Show.
The result was Carol + 2 - an unsatisfying mix of luke-warm skits and flat performances, very unusual for a Burnett special (which were all highly acclaimed).
Guests on the show were Lucille Ball and Zero Mostel. The opening theme music was one of the most bizarre ever written for a comedy special (more appropriate for Night Gallery, maybe) and the set was decorated with gigantic, grotesque caricatures of the three stars.
You Tube - Carol Burnett talks
Burnett must have learned something from this experience - The Carol Burnett Show began production just a few weeks later - with a different production company and much better results.
- PART TWO:
CAROL BURNETT SHOW
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