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As she prepares for return to TV, Burnett recalls classic variety show

In Such Good Company:
Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox
By Carol Burnett
Crown Archetype
320 pages, $28  

Carol Burnett made news last week when it was announced that she will return to television as the star of her first-ever sitcom, produced by Amy Poehler. This may have seemed a strange pairing to some – Poehler being the bad girl of television comedy and Burnett its patron saint, beloved by not only audiences but by ostensibly everyone in Hollywood. But Poehler is a huge fan of Burnett, having participated in presenting her with the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year.

For 11 years, Burnett made television history with “The Carol Burnett Show,” a one-hour variety show that every network has tried since to re-create. It had everything – hysterical sketch comedy, musical numbers with a 28 piece orchestra, 60-70 Bob Mackie costumes per show, an amazing array of guest stars and, at the center of it all, a comic genius and consummate ensemble player.

Although Burnett has written several previous memoirs, “In Such Good Company” is a kind of show memoir – a look back at the entire run of the show. In preparation for the book, Burnett rewatched all 276 episodes and recounts the stories behind the shows, and how the cast (Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman) got together. The best of these focuses on how Lawrence sent Burnett a photo telling the star that everyone remarked on their resemblance. Carol and husband Joe tried to sneak in to a local pageant to see her and ended up onstage crowning her instead.

Since the show has been off the air since 1979, fans may be familiar with a few of the anecdotes. Other sentiments seem fresh, as when she notes that she was the butt of many jokes over the years: “If I could go back in time, these ‘jokes’ would have never seen the light of day. The flat-chested and homely jokes were a holdover from my ‘Garry Moore Show’ days. The all-male writers used them for easy laughs and I went along with that concept. Shame on me. However, as I’ve mentioned, that changed as our show – and I – ‘matured’.”

She also wants to dispel the myth that she and Korman and Conway “cracked up” regularly during sketches, explaining that it only actually happened in about 7 percent of the shows. She writes lovingly about her favorite guest stars and Hollywood friends – and the list is often one and the same – Jim Nabors, Betty White, Roddy McDowall, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. She also reminds readers about some unusual guests — the Jackson 5, Ray Charles, Jerry Lewis and James Stewart.

To underscore what an accomplishment “The Carol Burnett Show” was, she reminds readers that they often did a full 25-minute film spoof or musical within an episode – film noir, Busby Berkeley musicals, even the classic “Gone with the Wind” parody for which Burnett gives costume designer Bob Mackie his due:

“When I walked into the fitting room, he said, ‘I have an idea for the drapery bit.’

“He brought out THE DRESS. It was a green velvet gown still attached to the curtain rod. It would fit across my shoulders with golden curtain tassels at the waist. He had even made a hat out of the tassels.

“I fell on the floor laughing. The Friday taping has gone down in history. When Starlett appeared at the top of the stairs in that getup, the audience went crazy. It has been called one of the funniest moments in the history of television.

“And it was all because of Bob.”

Today his spectacular creation is on view at the Smithsonian.

There is an interesting section on her relationship with Lucille Ball, in which the two legends discuss how fortunate they were that their husbands ran their shows’ productions, allowing them to focus on the content. The two were lifelong friends with Ball affectionately referring to Burnett as “Kid.”

“I loved Lucy. She died on my birthday in 1989. Her flowers arrived late that afternoon, “Happy Birthday, Kid.”

“In Such Good Company” is nostalgia at its best – a marvelous reminder of the golden age of TV comedy and variety shows that will make you want to revisit the series. Happily, “The Ultimate Carol Burnett Show” collection has been released on DVD and this book is its perfect companion. There are sections on each cast member and many guest stars, as well as some reprinting of actual scripts and lyrics. The appendix lists every episode of the show the date it aired, and the guest stars.

Finally, there is one interesting takeaway in light of the sitcom news. In describing her schedule, Burnett explains with great pride that after a week of preparation and rehearsal, they taped her entire show with all the sketches, musical numbers, scenery, costume changes and special effects in less than two hours weekly.

“I have been a guest on a few sitcoms where they took as many as four hours to tape twenty-two minutes! AND in front of a captive and increasingly bored audience! Needless to say, that drove me nuts.”

Looks like Amy Poehler has her work cut out for her.

Kathleen Rizzo Young is a longtime contributing critic with The Buffalo News.

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