FIVE-O YOUR ENTHUSIASM (24)
June 21, 2021
One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite TV shows of the Sixties (in our periodization: 1964–1973).
THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW | 1967–1973 seasons
It’s taken until middle age for me to realize how deeply that most middle-aged of genres, the TV variety show, is coded into my tastes. Variety shows were ubiquitous when I was a small child in the 1970s, playing a few feet away from where my Dad watched Sonny and Cher (or if I got my way, Donny and Marie) in his armchair with rum-and-coke in hand. They might have been my first musical influences. But they were soon overshadowed by the enthusiasms I cultivated for myself, which made those garish hours of song and dance and sketch seem like mundane, fading wallpaper. Today, on YouTube, they look peculiar and exotic, their sensibilities so long dead that they might as well be silent movies from the 1920s. But I can see the continuum between the prime-time variety show and the alternating segments of silliness and song that structured Sesame Street and The Electric Company, those more obvious shapers of Gen-X kid consciousness. Even more so, I see how the evening variety shows gave me a concept of what adulthood would be like, with their formally dressed, restrainedly ribald, not-so-subtly boozy quasi-sophistication. It was a shoddy ideal, but it deceptively made being grown up look like fun.
The Carol Burnett Show looked like the most fun. Unlike the shows hosted by singers, it had an actual ensemble of comedians doing the sketches. The material is dated and sexist now, but Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and especially Tim Conway’s timing, athleticism and face-pulling skills are fit to rouse the dead. When Conway plays a novice dentist who ineptly jabs himself with novocaine and then tries to operate on Korman with a limp, numb hand and leg, it’s Buster Keaton-level slapstick that would be funnier than ninety percent of anything on TV if it were done today. But the secret of the Burnett show is the other side of the sketch — Korman, on the receiving end of Conway’s pantomime, struggling to suppress his own laughter.
The cast were always cracking each other up, breaking character out of apparent sheer delight in each other. I was too young to get most of the jokes, but I sure got that. It aligned with the invitingly pervasive unseriousness of The Monkees and Batman, the pop-art straight-camp of the period’s showbiz culture. But the Burnett players’ fourth-wall demolitions went further, making one feel in on the construction of the event itself. The scripted scene became mere excuse for a hangout, and failure as interesting as success. I’d venture to say their snafus seeded my lifelong interest in improvisation and process art, and a feeling that what lies behind the scenes may outdo any facade.
Even now, when I see a live show, there’s a part of me waiting for a set piece to crash down, for someone to forget a line, for any kind of spontaneous humanity to break through the frame. Error and accident demonstrate how impressive it is that things usually are not falling apart. When he thinks a live set is too flat, David Thomas of the “avant-garage” band Pere Ubu (which formed when Carol Burnett was still on the air) has a shtick of forcing the band to halt mid-song, storming off stage and leaving an awkward silence; when the group relaunches, the sound inevitably seems to take off with the roar of a moon rocket, thanks to the contrast. Imperfection is Leonard Cohen’s crack that lets the light in. Or to paraphrase the Burnett Show theme song (perfectly pitched to a child’s capacity to be nostalgic for 20 minutes ago), it’s what makes us so glad to have our fleeting time together, because before we know it, we’re going to have to say so long.
FIVE-O YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Lynn Peril on DARK SHADOWS (1966–1971) | Mark Kingwell on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1964–1968) | Elizabeth Foy Larsen on I DREAM OF JEANNIE (1965–1970) | Luc Sante on SECRET AGENT/DANGER MAN (1964–1968 seasons) | Erin M. Routson on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW (1963–1966 run) | Gordon Dahlquist on HAWAII FIVE-O (1968–1973 seasons) | Annie Nocenti on GET SMART (1965–1970) | Sara Driver on THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1964–1966) | Carlo Rotella on MANNIX (1967–1973 seasons) | Adam McGovern on JULIA (1968–1971) | Mimi Lipson on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (1970–1973 seasons) | Josh Glenn on BATMAN (1966–1968) | Tom Nealon on HOGAN’S HEROES (1965–1971) | Miranda Mellis on THE ODD COUPLE (1970–1973 seasons) | Peggy Nelson on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (1964–1967) | Susan Roe on THE BRADY BUNCH (1969–1973 seasons) | Michael Grasso on UFO (1970–1973) | Richard McKenna on DOOMWATCH (1970–1972) | Adrienne Crew on BEWITCHED (1964–1972) | Michael Lewy on STAR TREK (1966–1969) | Greg Rowland on THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY (1970–1973 seasons) | David Smay on THE MONKEES (1966–1968) | Vijay Parthasarathy on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (1964–1966 seasons) | Carl Wilson on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW (1967–1973 seasons) | Jessamyn West on EMERGENCY! (1972–1973 seasons).
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