Saturday, January 4, 2014

Celebrating Carol Burnett: The 2013 Mark Twain Prize (PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The main item Charles and I watched last night on TV — our “feature,” as it will — was the “Celebrating Carol Burnett” tribute on PBS, taped at the ceremony at which she was honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American humor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. — a venue Burnett probably summed up best when she quipped, “I can’t believe I’m getting a humor prize from the Kennedy Center. It’s almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington.” It was a pretty typical show for the genre, with a long list of guest artists — some of whom actually appeared as regulars or guests on the Carol Burnett Show (notably Tim Conway and Vicki “Mama” Lawrence) or in other media (like Julie Andrews), some of whom at least had family connections to Burnett (notably Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Burnett’s lifetime friend Lucille Ball) and some of whom seemed to be there just to be there — though Tony Bennett’s shaky-voiced but musical rendition of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” was heartfelt, emotional and one of the evening’s high points.

Not surprisingly, the real high points of the show were the clips of Burnett’s work, mostly from her legendary variety show but also a few earlier bits, including her breakthrough comedy song “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles” (which probably means nothing to most modern TV viewers but in the 1950’s was screamingly funny — John Foster Dulles was President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State and, aside from being a hard-core Cold Warrior and architect of the “Massive Retaliation” doctrine which meant that if the Soviets attacked us anywhere, we would response with an all-out nuclear attack that would basically spell the end of civilization, he was such a supremely boring individual that wags of the time nicknamed him “Dull, Duller, Dulles”) and a parody of TV drama from the Gary Moore Show (Moore was an occasional host on CBS whose show launched the careers of Burnett and previous Mark Twain winner Jonathan Winters) in which a faux show called “Playhouse 90 Seconds” did Jack and Jill as a General Hospital-style medical soap opera. The show included many of Burnett’s parodies of classic films, including Sunset Boulevard and what was probably the all-time audience favorite, “Went with the Wind,” in which Burnett’s Scarlett O’Hara makes herself a dress out of her bedroom curtains and leaves the curtain rod in it. (What I’d forgotten about this clip after not having seen it in decades is how spot-on the late Harvey Korman’s impression of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler is.) The Burnett humor — represented here not only by the movie parodies but one of the “Mama’s Family” skits in which Vicki Lawrence played “Mama” and Burnett her daughter “Eunice” (and it was apparently Burnett’s idea to play the sketch with Southern accents — the writers hadn’t intended that the characters be Southern but, quite frankly, it made all the difference in the world) and one of the “Mrs. O’Wiggins” sketches with Burnett as ditzy secretary Mrs. Wiggins and Conway as her equally ditzy bosses. Most boss-secretary comedy either features a level-headed boss and a ditzy secretary (like George Burns and Gracie Allen in quite a few of their movies together) or a ditzy boss and a level-headed secretary who keeps him functional, but offhand I can’t think of another boss-secretary routine in which they’re both ditzy.

Looking over the list of past recipients of the Mark Twain Prize, it’s an odd combination of genuinely talented performers and/or writers with a long list of accomplishments and flash-in-the-pan artists with current-day TV followings. In the former category I’d put Richard Pryor (the first winner), Jonathan Winters, Carl Reiner (who did a taped tribute as part of this show — and the program included an excruciatingly funny bit between Burnett and Reiner from her show), Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Neil Simon (who quipped that “I am awed, thrilled and delighted to receive The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize ... it makes up for my losing the Samuel Clemens Prize”), Billy Crystal, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby. In the latter — the people who seem to have been given the award either because of their power in the industry (like Lorne Michaels, who as an article in today’s Los Angeles Times put it has practically been put in charge of NBC’s entire late-night schedule) or their current popularity with the young TV demographic (Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Ellen DeGeneres). It’s astonishing to think that Tina Fey got it three years before Carol Burnett — I suspect 20 years from now The Carol Burnett Show will still be available on whatever the cool distribution medium will be then while audience will go, “Tina who?” — and amazing that Robin Williams hasn’t won it while Will Ferrell has. It’s also interesting that two African-Americans (Pryor and Cosby) have won, but no other people of color have; and two Lesbians (Tomlin and DeGeneres) have won but there’ve been no openly Gay men (though Bruce Vilanch made an appearance on the Carol Burnett tribute and, to the extent he has a public persona rather than being just a writer, it’s because of the unlikeliness of his being a Gay male heart-throb given that he’s defiantly overweight and has the most unruly head of hair on a major male celebrity since the death of Kurt Cobain). “Awards show” has long since hardened into a genre of its own, with its own expectations (all too drearily fulfilled in this one), and it’s a real pity Harvey Korman didn’t last long enough to appear (he died in 2008 at age 81) since, next to Burnett himself, he was the major talent on the show’s cast — one of the funniest sketches shown last night was about Tim Conway as an airline passenger who elects to save $40 by taking a “no-frills” section ticket, only to cope with Korman as a first-class passenger lording it over him and Burnett as a flight attendant enforcing the “no-frills” rule with gulag guard-like efficiency and ruthlessness.

It’s nice to see Carol Burnett is still alive, still funny (her main gig these days is a touring retrospective show with audience Q&A) and reasonably happy about her career and her life (despite wrenching tragedies that would probably have psychologically destroyed anyone else: the loss of one daughter to a drug overdose and another to cancer). Charles noted the bits of “first-itis” in the scripting of this tribute — the maddening tendency of biographers generally to assert that their subject was the first to do something that others did before them — he pointed out that while Burnet may have been the first woman to host a TV comedy variety show, there were plenty of other women before her who got laughs on TV and became major stars doing so, not only the obvious ones like Gracie Allen and Lucille Ball but even Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers on the early-1950’s TV series Beulah (reworked in the 1960’s as Hazel with the all-knowing Black maid replaced by an all-knowing white one, Shirley Booth) and, even before that, Gertrude Berg on the late-1940’s series The Goldbergs. As for Carol Burnett, she was one of those people (like ZaSu Pitts) whose brilliance as a comedienne overshadowed her talent as a serious actress; much the way Pitts’ greatest director, Erich von Stroheim, regarded her as the greatest tragic actress of the screen and generally cast his films with comedians on the ground that if you could do comedy, you could do anything, so Burnett reacted to a TV Guide interviewer who questioned her casting in the 1979 TV-movie Friendly Fire (playing the mother of a dead Viet Nam veteran who learns her son was killed accidentally by U.S. troops) by saying that playing comedy was actually harder than playing drama and therefore if you could do comedy, you could do anything.

By chance, the night before the Carol Burnett Mark Twain Prize show aired I’d watched a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit rerun from the season 10 boxed set that featured her in an absolutely chilling performance; “Ballerina,” a Sunset Boulevard-like tale which begins with the murder of a young couple in a sleazy hotel room. The woman worked as a “dancer” in a strip club and the killer, the cops soon realize, was Marv Sulloway (Vincent Curatola), who opened the strip club in a former ballet school he got control of when he married Birdie Sulloway (Carol Burnett), a long-retired entertainer and star who fills her days by watching videos of her old movies and TV appearances. Birdie trained at this school when she was coming up as an aspiring performer, and wanted it kept that way; but Marv was into all sorts of sordid things, including porn (his Internet connection was on virtual speed-dial to porn sites), gambling, and harassing strippers at his clubs for private performances. Only Marv falls out of his apartment window and dies just as the cops are coming to question him, and they find Birdie alone with Dwight Stannich (Robert Klein), her neurotically attached and servile nerd of a “nephew” — a passing line in Daniel Truly’s script establishes that they’re not biologically related but leaves it pretty ambiguous exactly how they hooked up — who’s been not only at her side but in her bed (and her pants) for decades even though she’s been married to five husbands during that time, all of whom have died under mysterious circumstances.

Through a nasty interrogation by Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), whose appearance here as a female version of Dirty Harry gives her a lot more meat than the schoolmarm-ish mien she’s assumed on the show since her co-star Christopher Meloni’s departure, Dwight ultimately confesses that he set up Marv to be murdered and for it to look like self-defense — only instead of copping to the crime himself (which is what the cops were expecting), he says Birdie did it and killed all her other husbands as well, making it look like accidents, drug overdoses, etc. Birdie gets arrested for the crimes and her attorney offers a mental-illness defense, which gets bolstered when police psychiatrist Dr. George Huang (B. D. Wong) examines her and says she’s suffering from a rare form of cancer that has crossed the blood-brain barrier, made her a neurological basket case and, incidentally, will kill her in four months anyway, making prosecuting her pretty pointless. Eventually the cops realize that Birdie and Dwight were both in on the killings, and Birdie agrees to have Dwight visit her in the hospital, where she extracts a confession from him and the police arrest him — and in the final frames Birdie chillingly informs Dwight and us that this is her revenge against him for having implicated her back at the police station. Though Burnett’s career doesn’t really have the sense of unfulfilled promise that hangs over Pitts’ (I still think that if the Rex Ingram three-hour cut of Stroheim’s Greed had been released and given the promotion and acclaim it deserved, Pitts’ career would have been transformed by it the way Sally Field’s was by Sybil and Norma Rae a half-century later), this performance underscores the memory I have of Friendly Fire (which I haven’t seen since it first aired on TV in 1979) that Carol Burnett was a first-rate dramatic actress and the world lost as much as it gained when she was “typecast” as a comedienne.