A CBS Executive Told Carol Burnett that Variety Comedy Is a Man’s Game

And yet, the nearly 90-years-old legend is still shooting variety specials
A CBS Executive Told Carol Burnett that Variety Comedy Is a Man’s Game

Back in 1967, a vice president at CBS told Carol Burnett that variety comedy was the province of men like Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason and Dean Martinnot women. In two weeks, Burnett’s retrospective special, Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love, premieres on NBC. Neither Caesar, Berle, Gleason, Martin nor presumably that vice president will be watching.

Before Saturday Night Live started its half-century reign as broadcast television’s dominant sketch show, the singing, dancing, character-breaking Carol Burnett Show was one of the hottest tickets in live variety television. Over its 11 seasons, Burnett’s variety hour accrued 25 total Emmys despite occasionally shaky ratings as the chaotic show charged forward year after year, powered by its star’s unrelenting engine and endless enthusiasm for fun.

At almost 90 years old, Burnett isn’t done getting her laughs, even though a certain executive thought she never should have stood at center stage in the first place. As Burnett told The Hollywood Reporter, in 1962, CBS put her on a 10-year contract that assigned her regular performance responsibilities on various shows and gave her the option to broadcast 30 hour-long shows whenever she decided she was ready. However, when she tried to cash in, she was told that a woman could never lead her own variety series. Her Mark Twain Prize disagrees.

Fresh off her success on The Garry Moore Show, Burnett was angling toward a lead role when she signed on for a full decade with the broadcast channel. “The big thing in the contract is that if I wanted to push the button, CBS would have to give me 30 one-hour variety shows a year,” Burnett explained, “They’d have to put them on the air whether they wanted to or not.” 

However, when Burnett decided to hold CBS to their word, she was given some pushback. As Burnett recalled, “At the end of the fifth year, during the holidays, I made a phone call to one of the vice presidents at CBS in New York, and I said, ‘I’m calling to push that button.’” Their response was a surprising rejection: “The next day, he called back and said, ‘Carol, comedy variety is a man’s game. It’s Sid Caesar, it’s Milton Berle, it’s Jackie Gleason, it’s Dean Martin. It’s really not for you gals.’” And that’s why we have contracts.

Undeterred, Burnett moved forward with her plans for a series whether CBS liked it or not. In spite of the sexism she faced simply in getting the show off the ground, Burnett never fell into the vindictive trap of trying to shove her success in her doubters’ faces, saying, “I never felt any pressure (to prove them wrong). We had a well-oiled machine from the very beginning. … We knew what we were doing. And I just told everybody to not think about the future. If we had fun, the audience would have fun.”

Almost 60 years later, the fun hasn’t stopped. Now a happily retired legend living in Santa Barbara, California, Burnett recently dusted off her dancing shoes for one last romp, as she shot all two hours of Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love in front of a live audience as an early birthday party for herself, to be aired on her actual birthday this April 26th. But Burnett’s propensity for parody still leaves her wanting more — when asked if she has a dream satire subject whom she would skewer in a sketch if she still had the variety show, she replied, “Cate Blanchett in Tár! Oh my, that would be fun for me.” 

Someone should call NBC to set that up, since apparently the CBS suits can’t be trusted with Burnett’s Tárrific ideas.

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