Even if some people tried to stop her from doing so… First airing in 1967, the variety show kept America entertained thanks to some of the funniest comic performers of all time, including Dick Van Dyke and Vicki Lawrence. They often spoofed popular movies and TV shows which proved to be hugely popular among TV audiences, along with coming up with their own original material too. Over the 279 original episodes, plus nine special episodes back in 1991, the series was consistently ranked in the top 30 most-watched shows in America.
The show was immensely successful, winning a whole cabinet full of awards, but wasn’t without its share of backstage drama. From setbacks to replacements, The Carol Burnett Show had plenty going on behind the scenes that many of us never saw. We’ve uncovered the secrets of the show, 40 years after the final episode aired.
Burnett, struggling for acting roles at UCLA, was performing at a college party when a perfect stranger came toward her and it finally looked as though her fortunes might be changing. She never has told anybody who this person was, but has said that the strange person came to her with a proposition. The person, a mysterious man, gave her something that would change her life forever. He approached Burnet with $1,000 and told her she could have this money on three conditions. Firstly, he would always remain anonymous, secondly, that when she made her money she would pay him back, and thirdly, if ever he was in the same position she would repay the favor. Although we don’t know who the man is, we can assume Burnett held up her end of the bargain as he remains anonymous to this day.
Burnett had signed a ten-year contract with the TV network CBS and part of that contract mentioned a variety act. The network told Burnett that during the first five years of her contract if she wanted to air a variety act, they would make it happen. Needless to say, Burnett decided she wanted to create a variety show, and after spending four years and 51 weeks thinking about it, she requested her own variety show in the last week of the five-year agreement. Despite this agreement in place, the network wasn’t all that keen, calling her premise a “man’s game,” as famous variety hosts such as Dean Martin and Sid Caesar already had their own variety shows. They weren’t sure about their agreement, so instead pitched a sitcom to Burnett, but she had her mind set on the variety show so she refused their offer. Insisting they carry on with the variety show, she wouldn’t budge and the network made good on their agreement, airing her variety show in 1967, and never looking back from that moment.
As the show began taking shape, the producers really wanted somebody to come into the production like Harvey Korman. They didn’t think to approach Korman himself because he was busy with a different show at the time, The Danny Kaye Show, so they just started looking for someone they could use that would give a similar performance. Burnett managed to have a chance meeting with Korman in a parking lot and pretty much begged him to join her show. Korman was soon to be out of work so accepted the offer.
No love for Van Dyke
Korman proved to be a huge hit on the show and when he was absent from it, the producers looked to a massive star to fill the void left by him. They approached Dick Van Dyke thinking he would be the perfect fit as his larger than life personality would help people forget about Korman. Audiences really didn’t like Van Dyke and he was removed from the show just three months after first appearing in 1977.
The show didn’t want to rely on the gimmick of canned laughter so instead of using this tool, they took that brave decision to perform it in front of a live studio audience. Producers were aware that if any jokes flopped they would have to deal with the embarrassing aftermath. Although they didn’t use canned laughter, the show did use a few tricks of the TV trade. They would film each show twice, stitching together the funniest performances and audience reactions to make the best version possible.
Burnett would open each and every show with some back and forth between her and the audience, mostly in the form of Q&A. This routine was an idea thought up by her husband, as Burnett didn’t want another comedian to compete with when warming up her audience. The audience needed to be warmed up before the sketches so she made sure she did the warming up herself, preventing another funny person from taking away any of the spotlight from her.
Keeping it in the family
Although she was getting advice from her husband, he wasn’t giving it out for free. Burnett’s husband, Joe Hamilton was the executive producer of her show and worked pretty hard to ensure the success of the show. Not only was he the producer but he also came up with the theme tune proving that he was ready to roll up his sleeves to help out his wife. The pair were married for 21 years before divorcing in 1984, raising three daughters.
The Carol Burnett show was incredibly popular among TV and studio audiences. It wasn’t just audiences who loved the show though, and throughout the 11 years it ran for it won an incredible 25 Emmy Awards. Burnett, the star of the show, was nominated for 22 individual awards, winning six times. Harvey Korman, a fan favorite gained seven Emmy nominations, winning four times while another member of the show, Tim Conway gained ten nominations, also scooping the prize four times.
One of the show’s most memorable characters, Mrs. Wiggins, stood out from the crowd thanks to her slightly irregular walking style. She would often be seen waddling around on the stage, which became iconic for the character. This weird walk was not originally intended to be so strange, but happened because the actress was given a skirt that was too big. The only way she could stop it from falling down while on stage was to do the waddle. Audiences loved it, and so it stayed in the show forever.
Although there was a script for the actors to follow, some of the best moments came from the cast ad-libbing. One particular cast member, Tim Conway, frequently had the cast in stitches thanks to his razor-sharp wit that often took him off-script. The cast members reactions were often genuine laughter as they had no idea what he was going to be saying next, but it was pretty much always guaranteed to be hilarious and caught them off guard more often than not.
Cheek to cheek
Carol Burnett admitted the network’s censor only ever had to intervene in her show once, mostly accepting her show was safe for their intended audience. In one sketch, Burnett and co. were pretending to be a part of a nudist group who were being interviewed by a reporter. The reporter asked the group what they liked to do for fun and they answered dancing. They were asked how they danced and Burnett replied “carefully!” This comment was censored from the show and was changed to “cheek-to-cheek!”
Going out on top
Although CBS had initial concerns about the show, it aired for 11 seasons from 1967 to 1978. During the first few years of the show, it regularly featured in the top 30 most-watched TV programs. Although the ratings began to dwindle in later years, the show was still popular among TV viewers, and CBS wanted to renew it for a 12th season. Burnett thought that variety shows had run their course and wanted to end the show, going out on her own terms.
Struggling to contain themselves
Tim Conway would always interject with hilarious off-script comments that had his co-stars in stitches. During one particular sketch, a cast member was in such hysterics that they lost control of their bladder. Harvey Korman was laughing so hard that he couldn’t contain his amusement, soiling his pants as he couldn’t make it to the restroom in time. Conway owned a dry cleaning company so was happy to have made Korman laugh, and he’d found a new customer for his business too!
The Carol Burnett Show did lots of sketches, but one that stood out was Burnett’s portrayal of a Tarzan-like character. She would swing on a vine rope yelling at the top of her lungs just like her jungle-inhabiting counterpart. On one occasion, Burnett went to a store but forgot to bring her I. D. and credit card, all she had was her checkbook. The cashier didn’t believe she was actually Carol Burnett, so to prove she was, Burnett let out her Tarzan yell and the assistant knew immediately who she was.
During her show Burnett would tug at her ear, something that became known to regular viewers. While it might have just seemed like a fun gimmick for the variety act, there was more to the ear tug than met the eye. Burnett would tug at her ear as a simple little reminder of her grandmother. Throughout her life Burnett’s grandmother would tug at her ear as a way to tell her that she loved her, Burnett was so fond of the gesture that she wanted to put it into her show.
Almost calling it quits
It was a long road into acting for Burnett, so much so she almost called it quits. She was constantly told she was too loud or too big to fit into the Hollywood mold. Despite being knocked back time and time again, she continued in search of her dream and became one of the most famous women during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Burnett should be a role model to many people, she showed that no matter what if you work hard and keep going you can achieve your dreams.
Making it to the Smithsonian
Bob Mackie is a legendary costume designer who designed many of the costumes on The Carol Burnett Show. Of the hundreds of costumes he created, one has made it all the way to the Smithsonian Museum! When the cast performed the Gone with the Wind sketch they had no idea that it would become one of the most treasured comedy performances of their generation. The dress was made from an old curtain rod, and museum staff knew they had to display it for the world to see.
This is the iconic Gone with the Wind spoof scene titled, Went with the Wind! The dress would resemble the famous dress adorned by Scarlett O’Hara in the famous movie but with a twist, it was made from old curtains. Not only was the dress made from old curtains, but it still had the curtain rod running through them as Burnett was wearing it. She received the longest laugh in the show’s history as she made her entrance to the stage coming down a grand set of stairs.
One of Burnett’s most famous characters was Eunice in The Family sketches. Eunice wore a trademark dress that was pretty garish and stood out as an eyesore, but it added just the right charm to the character. The dress was actually an old 1930s number that was found by the costume designer at a thrift store. Eunice wore the dress in every scene, and after a while it became pretty battered. Bob Mackie made Burnett a new one, but she refused to wear it and continued wearing the threadbare older version.
Drawing on experience
Sometimes the best comedic moments are born from real life experiences of comedians. One scene that many viewers remember fondly is the dentist sketch, and although it might seem too far-fetched to be real, it actually happened to one of the cast members. Tim Conway was in the Army and actually had to live through the experience at a dentist, he thought the memory was too funny and wanted to share it with the world.
Some people are lucky (and talented) enough to get the opportunity to work alongside their idols. For a longtime Vicki Lawrence starred in The Carol Burnett Show alongside her idol, but before she appeared in the variety show, she was a major fan of the female comedy star. Desperate to appear alongside Burnett, Lawrence wrote her a letter telling her she wanted to work with her. Burnett attended a talent show that Lawrence was featuring in and decided she liked her, so amazed at her talent that she offered her a job!
A number one smash hit
Proving that she has many talents, Vicki Lawrence didn’t just stick to making people laugh, she took the music charts by storm. In 1973 she released a single titled The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia. Not only was it incredibly popular, it made it all the way to number 1 on the Billboard charts. Lawrence was so associated with comedy that people didn’t believe it was her singing and assumed it was somebody else with the same name.
Not for everyone
The show was incredibly popular and hundreds of the top stars at the time wanted to appear on the show, but not everybody felt the same. The biggest stars often made cameos and it became a sport to try and spot the latest celebrity on the show. There was one person who was not a fan of the show at all, actress Bette Davis was approached but refused to go on the show. She claimed the fee wasn’t big enough, so instead of offering more money, Burnett took her offer back.
The unpopular family
One of the most iconic sketches from the show was The Family. It became really well known, and there were numerous skits featuring the funny family. Although most fans loved it, one huge star in the entertainment business really detested it. Cary Grant bumped into Burnett at a fancy dinner and laid it on her how much he disliked the fictional family she had created. He thought they were vulgar and got pretty angry about the whole thing during their interaction.
A sleepy kiss
As each season of The Carol Burnett show would come to a close, it became tradition for her to kiss a sleeping man on the head. It sounds kind of strange, but audiences loved it. Despite seeming to be pretty staged it was actually something that happened out of the blue when it first happened. At the end of the first season, Burnett spotted a member of the audience snoozing so she decided she would give him a kiss on the head as she left the auditorium.
It wasn’t all puppies and rainbows for Carol Burnett while her show was running on air. In 1976 she was reported to have had an altercation in a restaurant with none other than the secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. According to the gossip report, Burnett was loud and obnoxiously offering restaurant goers some of her dessert before spilling a drink over someone. Burnett deemed this untrue and took the newspaper to court, suing them for libel before settling out of court for a fee around $200,000.
Making a heartthrob
Thanks to the exposure gained on The Carol Burnett Show, Lyle Waggoner became a very popular man. He showed that a good sense of humor is as attractive as a six pack, but also had the benefit of being a very handsome man. Fans enjoyed tuning into the show to get a good look at Waggoner and soon they would be getting to see more of him than they bargained for. Waggoner would go on to become the first male centerfold of Playgirl.
Mrs. Wiggins wasn’t meant to be young
When outlining the character Mrs. Wiggins, Burnett and her writers wanted the character to be an elderly and grumpy woman. Tim Conway created the character and insisted she be grumpy, but the costume designer Bob Mackie didn’t want Burnett to be typecast into only playing elderly characters. He insisted Mrs. Wiggins be made younger, and despite protests from Conway, the producers and Burnett agreed with the costume designer turning the famous character into a much younger person than first expected.
A gassy guest
Acting legend Betty Grable had always been considered a very graceful woman during her Hollywood career and was the actress who took home the most money in the USA in both 1946 and 1947. Grable made a cameo appearance on The Carol Burnett show in 1968, but some of that elegant image had slipped. Grable was now enjoying her retirement and admitted that she had become obsessed with drinking Coca-Cola, drinking up to three cans a day. The acting legend confessed that the fizzy drink meant she couldn’t stop burping!
The whale blubber diet
Carol Burnett often brought guests on the show multiple times, particularly if they went over well with the fans. One guest star, Carol Channing made several guest appearances, but it was what she did off screen that proved pretty shocking. Channing went to dinner with Burnett, and when asked what she’d like, all she wanted was a plate. As the dish was out on the table, Channing whipped out a piece of raw whale blubber and began tucking in.
Unsurprisingly there were some characters who fans loved more than others. Often there were calls from fans to develop spin-off shows about them, and one character who came close to getting their own show was Mr. Tudball, played by Tim Conway. The actor was offered the opportunity to create his very own spin-off show, but he refused the offer in the end as the producers didn’t want Burnett to feature in her role as Mrs. Wiggins.
People loved The Family sketch that Burnett and her co-stars created. The offbeat family were loved by so many that they got their very own show during the ‘80s. The show was a sitcom based off the small sketch but the idea was so great that people just wanted to see more of the characters they had invested so much time in during The Carol Burnett Show. The family created through the variety show became so popular it became a no-brainer for producers to create a show starring the characters.
We almost missed out on mama
From that initial idea of a spin-off, the producers created Mama’s Family, but there was a time when it almost didn’t make it to our screens. The producers knew it was a hit during The Carol Burnett Show, but Vicki Lawrence declined to be a part of it as she didn’t want to appear on screen as an old woman all the time. Her other issue was that she didn’t want to abandon her mentors, Burnett and Korman, but was eventually convinced by Burnett to take the part.
Keeping it southern
The Family sketch that featured on The Carol Burnett Show had to go through some lengthy discussions before it was agreed upon. Burnett wanted the family to be from the south, but the producers insisted they be from the Midwest. That wouldn’t do, as Burnett had always imagined that the family would be from the south, so she dug her heels in and got the accents that she wanted for her characters. Once she read the script through in a southern accent, the producers were sold on the idea.
Not loving the spoof
Part of the show’s attraction for many viewers was the spoof sketches they would do, making fun of many big Hollywood productions at the time. They parodied the 1970 movie Love Story, but the male lead in the film didn’t appreciate the show’s interpretation of his character. Ryan O’Neal did not like how he was portrayed in the sketch and told Burnett that he couldn’t stand the guy they used to play him after they accused the actor of acting violently, a claim that followed his career.
The Carol Burnett Show is synonymous with Burnett, but Harvey Korman was there for pretty much the entire run and is just as well known for his time on the show as Burnett. Korman really made a name for himself through the show and fans were sad to hear he was leaving in 1977. Korman made it seem as though he left of his own free will, but it has been reported that he was forced off the show due to his rude attitude toward guests and his dark moods.