Comedy legend Carol Burnett blazed a trail for other women when she launched her variety show in 1967. With sketch programs being a male-dominated genre at the time, Burnett noted how vastly the media landscape has changed over the years, and how certain types of humor would not be a part of The Carol Burnett Show if it were on the air today.
‘Here’s Agnes’ is a ‘no’ for Carol Burnett
After Burnett’s stint on The Garry Moore Show, followed by a run on Broadway, she had some ideas for her own program. With time left on her CBS contract, Burnet and her husband, Joe Hamilton, decided to launch a variety show that they had been discussing and contacted CBS executive Mike Dann to pitch the idea.
“[Dann] said ‘Well, yes, I can see why you called, but I don’t think the hour is the best way to go,’” Burnett wrote of the network bigwig’s response in her book In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox. “‘Comedy-variety shows are traditionally hosted by men: Gleason, Caesar, Benny, Berle, and now Dean… it’s really not for a gal. Dinah Shore’s show was mostly music.’”
Burnett was undeterred, and pushed for her idea despite Dann’s offer of a different show for her to lead.
“‘But comedy-variety is what I do best!’” She told Dann. “‘It’s what I’ve learned doing from Garry’s show – comedy sketches. We can have a rep company like Garry’s, and like Caesar’s Hour. We can have guest stars! Music!’”
Dann replied, “‘Honey, we’ve got a great half-hour sitcom script that fits you like a glove. It’s called Here’s Agnes! It’s a sure thing!’” Burnett’s response? “Here’s Agnes? No way… we pushed the button.”
Carol Burnett saw comedy evolve
The famous redhead took questions from the audience before each show for the entire 11-season run. Burnett recalled one inquiry she got when she ushered out one of her co-stars, and the punch line she delivered.
“I bring out a very shy and giggly Vicki Lawrence (with the same bad haircut I had) to answer any questions,” Burnett wrote, sharing that an audience member proceeded to ask their ages and she told him to guess. He gave “26” as an answer. “‘Right!!’” Burnett responded, grabbing her chest. “‘Right here.’”
Burnett revealed that she was used to this type of self-deprecating humor about her appearance. Jokes that would now be seen as demeaning to women were widely accepted at the time.
“This became a running gag about being flat-chested,” Burnett explained. “If I could go back in time, these ‘jokes’ would never have 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 the concept. Shame on me. However, as I’ve mentioned, that changed as our show – and I – ‘matured’ over the years.”
‘The Carol Burnett Show’ star still prefers some aspects of classic TV
In a June 2020 interview, Burnett named some of her current favorite comedians. She noted how the field has become more populated with women since her debut.
“The ladies,” she told AARP. “I’m so happy there are so many: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Jane Lynch, Maya Rudolph — I could go on. When I started out, it was Lucy [Ball] and Imogene Coca, and that was about it. Women would write something and just use their initials because people wouldn’t want to read it if it was written by a woman.”
While Burnett is thankful for more women breaking comedic barriers, there are still many aspects of classic television that she prefers over some shows on TV today.
“A lot of television today is more on the mean side than the fun side, so I don’t watch many sitcoms,” she said. “A lot of them get cheap laughs by talking about bodily functions. I’m not a prude, I like a good blue joke every once in a while, but it’s just too much. It’s just not classy like Mary Tyler Moore or Bob Newhart or Dick Van Dyke, who got great laughs without going low.”
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