Friday, January 29, 2016

Carol Burnett: TV’s Clown Princess of Parody

One of the new movies opening today is a Marlon Wayans flick called Fifty Shades of Black. It’s not hard to guess which mega-sexy erotic romance it’s spoofing. In recognition of this new release, a Los Angeles Times staff writer has devoted a column to the long Hollywood tradition of making fun of movie hits. Funnyman Stan Laurel was sending up well-known dramatic movies back in the silent era. Bugs Bunny did it decades later. Mel Brooks, of course, has made some of the funniest genre parodies around. Who can forget such Seventies comic gems as Blazing Saddles (spoofing old westerns) and Young Frankenstein (spoofing horror films)? In 1980, the Zucker brothers and Jim Abraham scored with an hilarious parody of disaster movies like Airport. Their film was titled  Airplane!  Surely you’ve guffawed at it. (And don’t call me Shirley!)

One of the tricky things about a movie parody is that it needs to be able to sustain its comic tone throughout. A spoof can go limp pretty quickly. One of the joys of The Carol Burnett Show was its almost weekly movie parody. These were short, sweet, and hilarious. Of course they were built around the talents of a matchless comedienne who’s being honored this weekend by the Screen Actors Guild with a lifetime achievement award. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.

Carol Burnett (now 82 and still active) first won public notice in 1959 for her leading role in Once Upon a Mattress, a musical comedy version of “The Princess and the Pea.” As the gawky and not very delicate Princess Winifred, she was wholly endearing. When the show transferred from Off-Broadway to The Great White Way, a star was born. Broadway led to a featured role on the Garry Moore Show (1959-1962), a TV variety program I remember fondly. She also starred, along with good buddy Julie Andrews, in one of the all-time great TV specials, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall

Her movies have ranged from the schmaltzy Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972, opposite Walter Matthau) to Robert Altman’s wacky A Wedding (1978) to the role of the mean Miss Hannigan in Annie (1982).  She copped an Emmy nomination for a rare dramatic role as the grieving mother of a dead soldier in the powerful Friendly Fire (1979).

But of course she’s best known for one of the greatest of all TV variety shows, The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78). As a regular watcher, I loved the blend of music, dance, comic sketches, and the host’s ingratiating personality. In her youth, Burnett had worked as a Hollywood usherette (one who got unceremoniously fired by her boss when she discouraged two movie-goers from entering at the tail-end of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). She has always adored movies, which is why it was only natural for her to parody so many of them on her program. With her stalwart sidekicks (including Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and, often, Tim Conway) pitching in to help, she delivered devastatingly funny take-offs on movies old and new. I still chuckle at Burnett and Korman in a From Here to Eternity spoof, smooching on the beach and then being doused with a bucket of water. I also remember them as Jenny and Oliver in Love Story, so entranced with one another that they can’t bear to part long enough to answer the doorbell. But most Carol Burnett fans agree that the cream of the crop was her two-part Went With the Wind. Thanks to YouTube for allowing it to live on. All hail the princess of parody—and congratulations! 

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