Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’ new Netflix series With Bob And David has us thinking about our favorite episodes of our favorite sketch shows.
The Carol Burnett Show (season eight, episode 13; originally aired 12/21/74)
Carol Burnett is a bona fide legend for her variety show that had its heyday in the ’70s, when it was the best of the best of that decade’s variety shows. Granted, her competition included Donny And Marie, The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, The Sonny And Cher Show, and Pink Lady And Jeff. But Burnett was such a consummate performer, she would have risen to the top of any field.
The night that Alan Alda guest-starred on The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett wisely kept the focus on herself and her leading man for the week. She and Alda were childhood friends, and he was riding so high at the time—as the lead on another CBS hit, M*A*S*H*—that a young fan who got to meet him during the episode’s kickoff Q&A session immediately started sobbing hysterically. Burnett followed that segment with the best her show had to offer: a Mama’s Family sketch.
Burnett’s Family was a bittersweet thread that ran throughout the series, as we viewed the humorous but horrific clan through the eyes of poor Eunice (Burnett), who strove for happiness, only to be thwarted at every turn by her petulant, vindictive Mama, played by Vicki Lawrence. Eunice’s hapless husband, Ed, did her no favors either, played by Harvey Korman. For this episode, Alda plays prodigal son Larry, who returns for the holidays looking so suave amid the tackiness that he only highlights how awful the rest of his relatives have it. Eventually, fed up with the family’s cracks about his “sissiness” and their inability to let him finish a sentence, he storms out.
Alda didn’t have much more to do than play the straight man in that still-funny sketch, but his next two with Burnett hit home immediately. They portray two lonely holiday store clerks, using snappy but sad pop songs like “Nobody Does It Like Me” to tell the story of their possibly developing relationship. Then in the hour’s best moment, “Morton Of The Movies,” Alda plays a shy man who can only romance Selma (Burnett) by imitating old movie actors he sees on the late show. To an audience used to seeing Alda only in army scrubs, the sketch offered the actor the chance to play everyone from a hopeless dweeb to a mysterious loner to a Hollywood lothario, all within the same five minutes. His considerable chemistry with Burnett is based on the two players’ complete trust in each other, pushing the scene into next-level territory. Small wonder that when Alda made his directorial debut a few years later with The Four Seasons, he cast Burnett to play his wife, and again, the two fit so well together, it was entirely believable that they’d been married for years.
As on most variety shows, Burnett ended her hour with a musical-filled extravaganza. This episode features a medley (they were all medleys) that paid homage to New York during the holidays, with actual talented backup dancers, players (Korman and Lawrence) juggling various supporting bit parts, Bob Mackie’s color-coordinated costuming, and Alda and Burnett as they confidently strolled through songs like “Lullaby Of Broadway.” This is what all those other variety shows were trying to achieve, and so often failed—entertainment that hit on every level.
Availability: This episode of The Carol Burnett Show is available in various DVD box sets. It is also streaming on YouTube and other services.