I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together.Posted: November 17, 2007
In my second blog post ever, way back in March, I linked to “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles”—the comedy song by Ken Welch that put a young Carol Burnett on the map. On November 4, American Masters on PBS took a 90-minute look at this musical/comedic star. Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character is that rare example of the TV-bio genre that does justice; within minutes of starting this program you know you are watching something important and new, something that captures the essence of its subject.
Several of those who worked with Burnett through the years are interviewed on the show (as is Burnett), and more than once we hear that the writers could never get Burnett to do a song “as herself.” She had the chops, but apparently felt too naked unless she could sing as a character. Here’s an example of that, in a clip not included in the American Masters program—a Carol Burnett character’s own special take on Rodgers and Hart’s “The Lady is a Tramp”:
The vocal, stripped of the visual, would be a creditable interpretation of the song. But in the context her characterization provides, whole new layers of meaning and subtext come into play. It’s a vivid character sketch–Bob Mackie’s costume certainly helps but it’s Burnett’s gestures, facial mannerisms, and body language that do the real heavy lifting–and it shows that Burnett’s reluctance to do a song “as herself” may not have come from insecurity about her singing as much as from her assessment that she was in a unique position to bring added value. Why not do a song as a character, when your talent allows you to sell the song and turn it into a brand new one-act play?
The American Masters show not only has plenty of clips from The Carol Burnett Show; it also has some kinescopes of The Garry Moore Show from the late 50s and early 60s, the music-variety hour on which Burnett was a regular featured player and which rocketed her to stardom. Now that’s a show I’d like to see reissued on DVD. The program, if my boyhood memories are to be trusted (and I think they are), set a high bar for musical excellence (with guest stars on the order of Ella Fitzgerald) and the comedy sketches were always amiable–and, when Burnett was in them, often brilliant. If you click this link you can download a realvideo of a typical show open, featuring a cute idea for an ensemble dance number (you have to give it a moment or two to get going), the introduction of that week’s musical guests Barbra Streisand and Robert Goulet, and then show regular Carol Burnett–whom you’ll notice gets the loudest applause. The audience, in fact, audibly goes into some kind of ecstatic state at the mention of her name. She was a sensation.
A Carol Burnett fansite says a DVD of the American Masters program won’t be issued, since PBS didn’t secure the rights to the clips and song-snippets for that use. However, the show will be rebroadcast Christmas Day, and possibly other times. I suggest putting your DVR on high alert.
(Thanks to Danny Appel of the Songbirds list for bringing the YouTube video of “The Lady is a Tramp” to my attention.)