updated 05/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
There's no rational explanation. There's just the fact that for three decades of tooth-loosening hilarity Carol Burnett has been TV's most extravagantly versatile comedian, Fanny Brice in a noisebox, an all-purpose funny girl with sexy legs who could hoof it, belt it, swing the slapstick and then with terrifying tenderness tear the heart out of some chuckleheaded caricature and lay it in your startled hands. Among TV's belles d'esprit, only Lucy was more adored, and not even Ball, who played a single character, could claim the reckless range of Burnett.
Week after week on The Carol Burnett Show, which ran for 11 seasons (1967-78), she displayed a ga-ga gallery of grotesques: vicious blue-haired biddies, female chauvinist pigs, lunch-drunk clubwomen, secretaries obsessed with foot-long fingernails, scrubwomen burdened with the wisdom of the ages. Like a jellyfish, she flowed from one outlandish shape into another. Unlike jellyfish, she never stung. The harder we laughed at her characters, the more we loved them. The crudest were killingly funny, the subtlest wonderfully touching cameos of the human predicament.
Parodies were her shtik-in-trade. She played Shirley Dimple as a world-class brat with a terminal case of cute. She did Cinderellie as an antsy virgin who turned blue torturing her size 9 bog-trotters into size 2 slippers. But her nuttiest knock-off was Went with the Wind, in which Starlet O'Hara, a dried-up Georgia peach, sported her postbellum Sunday best: a full set of velour curtains that hung from a gilded, six-foot-long curtain rod slung across her shoulders.
Some of Burnett's parodies hit a touchy funny-bone. In a skit about Mildred Fierce, a female tycoon, she lampooned Joan Crawford—and women's lib. Machismo affirmed by NFL shoulder pads inside her business suit, Mildred bellowed: "I need a vacation! Buy me an airline and a hotel!" When her 8-year-old daughter arrived, she mewed: "We must spend more time together. On your way out, make an appointment with my secretary." In another skit, Burnett cocked a snook at liberal pieties about race relations. "Why, it's a good-looking young Negro," she burbled, opening her front door. "I'll bet you're a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist or maybe even an astronaut." The young man pulled a gun. Happily, Burnett handed over her purse and twittered: "It certainly is refreshing to meet someone who isn't a credit to his race."
The show's clowning glory was "The Family," an industrial-strength soap that evolved from a mordant premise: Home is where the hurt is. The cast featured three of TV's slickest second bananas. Harvey Korman was Ed, Carol's feckless husband; look-alike Vicki Lawrence was Mama, Carol's monster mother; Tim Conway was Mickey Hart, Ed's oft-kicked sidekick. Carol was Eunice, a muddle-American romantic who once thought Life Can Be Beautiful but wound up with Mama on the sofa and Ed in her bed.
Life in The Family was a madness of three. Mama sniped at Eunice, Eunice ripped Ed, Ed bad-mouthed Mama. For viewers, the backchat was rib cracking ("I'd like to stick my foot in his mouth," Ed grumped about a dinner guest, "but your meat loaf will do a lot more damage"). For Eunice, life traveled the boulevard of broken dreams. In one gloriously ghastly episode, Ed won a free feed at a tony restaurant. Eunice was in seventh heaven—until Mama noisily denounced the pepper mill. Ed sneered at the menu, which was written in French, and demanded a hamburger. Eunice, straining at sophistication, ordered "beef bro-shetty." When the violinist strolled up, Ed hid his head under the table so he wouldn't have to tip. Humiliated, Eunice had a hissy that turned into a family brawl. They were asked to leave. At the door, Eunice took a last, long look at one more dream that hadn't come true. The despair in her face was terrible to see.
The Family, alas, was a tenderized reprise of life in the home where Carol grew up. Her father was a drunk who had wandered off by the time she was 8. Her mother was a drunk who lay in bed for days on end with an alcoholic parakeet sleeping it off in her navel. Carol was raised by an oddball grandmother who gave her the only love she ever knew. The two lived on welfare in one ratty little room in downtown Hollywood and took in six movies a week.
Carol discovered her gift for comedy at UCLA (fees were $42 a semester) and landed in Manhattan at 21. Three years later, thanks to a kooky ditty she introduced ("I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles), she was booked by Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan, and after three years on The Carry Moore Show she got her own program. But not all her luck was good. She twice fell off the marriage-go-round, and 11 years ago she discovered that Carrie, then 14, the eldest of her three daughters, was hooked on pot, pills and psychedelics. After treatment, Carrie's demons were caged, but Carol was still tormented by one of her own. "I'd like to have a chin," she told a surgeon, "but I don't want to look like Kirk Douglas in a muumuu." She doesn't. Yet after an operation to extend her jaw by four millimeters, she also doesn't quite look like that maniac we all know and love: the hellion of the Tarzan yell, our daffy Duse.