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    Review: ‘Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love’ is an old-school NBC special for an old-school talent
    • April 26, 2023

    Nina Metz | Chicago Tribune

    NBC’s “Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love” is a throwback to the kind of old-school specials that rarely air on television anymore.

    But it’s fitting. Carol Burnett is old-school herself.

    She’s also one of the executive producers here and her influence on the show’s pacing is evident. In the 11 years that she made “The Carol Burnett Show” from 1967 to 1978, Burnett kept things moving: “I never wanted to reset and retape anything,” she recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “We taped our show in an hour and 15 minutes.”

    Burnett isn’t on stage this time out, she’s in the audience, but the same philosophy has carried over. Even with careful editing, these kinds of things can sag. She didn’t want that to happen: “I want people to feel like they’re seeing a Broadway show, not sitting around waiting for scenery or costume changes.”

    Her showbiz instincts have always been razor sharp and they remain so even at age 90.

    Other details are hazy. Her original show aired on CBS. That the special is airing on NBC hovers as a silent question mark over the proceedings, which feature a list of boldface names who pay tribute: Steve Carell, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Amy Poehler, Billy Porter, Lily Tomlin, Maya Rudolph, Charlize Theron, Bob Odenkirk and more.

    The show’s format is straightforward: A star comes out to share a memory or two — maybe perform a number — and then introduces a segment featuring old clips and a new sit-down interview with Burnett.

    With the theater’s cabaret seating, Burnett is posted up front. Close friend Julie Andrews gets the prime spot by her side. The pair made three variety specials together over the years, filled with moments that brought out Andrews’ willingness to cut up.

    Burnett had a way of pulling that out of stars who weren’t innately comic, as seen in footage of her and the opera diva Beverly Sills singing a duet — a number that’s charmingly recreated on stage by Kristin Chenoweth and Bernadette Peters.

    There’s a segment devoted to the incredible costumes Bob Mackie designed for Burnett’s show — somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 70 new garments each week — including the famous “Gone with the Wind” spoof “Went with the Wind!” featuring Scarlett’s dress made from curtains, complete with curtain rod.

    I wish more time had been spent on the logistics of how Mackie and his team managed to design and create so many vivid costumes on such a tight deadline. It would be fascinating to know more about the inspirations that informed his work, which was always a bit larger-than-life on “The Carol Burnett Show,” serving as an exclamation point on the comedy.

    Like Burnett, Cher understood the power of Mackie’s visuals and takes the stage in a gloriously eye-popping design of his and reveals a bit of trivia: “When ‘Sonny & Cher’ had the summer show, we didn’t have any money. And Carol and I are the same size, so Bob raided your closet so I would have something to wear. Did you know that?” Burnett shakes her head no, stunned.

    Also missing are any of the writers who worked on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Are any of them still around? They labored in obscurity then, and apparently even a special devoted to Burnett all these years later wasn’t going to change that.

    Thirty million people watched her on a weekly basis. She was ubiquitous and embraced Black performers as guests on her show in a way that was unique for the time. She influenced so many who are working today, but the best anecdotes come from those who knew her back when. Tomlin talks about running into Burnett on the CBS lot early in her career, when she was in need of a confidence boost. Burnett was just the person to give it.

    Time and again, what comes through is that Burnett has formed real friendships, not just showbiz friendships.

    Among those longtime friends is Vicki Lawrence, hired by Burnett when she was just 17. “Thanks to Carol, I got to go to the Harvard school of comedy in front of America.” Their most enduring characters remain the embittered Mama and Eunice, who anchored the spinoff “Mama’s Family,” which ran for six seasons. Looking back, Burnett is thoughtful: “Eunice spoke to me. I don’t know, the frustration, the angst, the wanting to be somebody but not quite making it. I just felt for her.”

    The frustration. The angst. Burnett is human and surely she experienced some of that herself. Hollywood is not for the faint of heart. It can be tough on the ego. But Burnett gives no indication of that. If the special flounders, it’s that it doesn’t ask her to talk about some of these aspects of her life in front of, and behind, the camera. Was there ever a time when she lost her confidence? Or felt the glare of celebrity a bit too intensely? She doesn’t say.

    An appearance by Ellen DeGeneres late in the special briefly sours the mood. Despite the “queen of nice” image she cultivated over the years, her talk show ended in 2021 after allegations of sexual misconduct and a toxic workplace environment.

    Burnett’s legacy is the opposite of that. DeGeneres’ inclusion here is really misjudged.

    The trick to Burnett’s approach to comedy is not just that she’s funny, but she’s such a tremendous actor and understands how to imbue so many of her characters with a tragic absurdity. Her performances have always felt human, no matter the chaos happening around her — or the chaos that she gleefully instigates.

    Her public persona remains bright-eyed and down to earth. The special is funny and genuine and even if it’s not especially original, I found myself choked up by the end.

    It got me thinking about who might have the chops to be Burnett’s successor. Keke Palmer would be a natural, assuming she even wanted a variety show and an executive was smart enough to make it happen. She has Burnett’s warmth and talent and creativity and professional instincts for playfulness — but also her innate sense of what it means to play host to an audience and make us feel as if we’ve been invited into something special.

    “I’m so glad we had this time together,” Burnett sings in her signature song. A sentiment that has always felt genuine. And mutual.



    3 stars (out of 4)

    Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

    How to watch: 8 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBC (and streaming Thursday on Peacock)


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