By the end of "Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character," you'll want to give the actress a big fat hug. Not a pity hug, just a well-earned warm embrace. The newest installment of PBS's "American Masters" portrays both a hugely likable and versatile performer and a heroic lady whose personal life has thrown her some nasty punches. The Burnett you'll meet in this 90-minute documentary is an American master, for sure - of comedy, and also of survival.
Naturally, the show, tonight at 9 on Channel 2, is best at celebrating Burnett's brilliant skills as a sketch comic. While there have been many funny sketch ladies on TV, from "Saturday Night Live" types such as Amy Poehler to personae artist Tracey Ullman, Burnett has stood out as that rare comic able to make her characters both broad and poignant - even the abrasive Eunice from "The Carol Burnett Show," who was always at war with her Mama. "Carol wasn't imitating people to be mean about them or to put them down," says Ullman in an interview. "She was celebrating people."
The show offers clips of Burnett in her earliest years onstage and, on both the Ed Sullivan show and "The Jack Paar Tonight Show" in 1957, singing her faux teenybopper lament "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles." You can see that she was a radiant crowd-pleaser from the get-go, as she eagerly stretched her face in all kinds of kooky directions for a laugh. She offered strong support on "The Garry Moore Show" beginning in 1959, but came into her own as one of the first women to head up a comedy-variety series with "The Carol Burnett Show" in 1967. In clip after clip from the series, which ran until 1978, you can see her seamlessly playing to the live audience and yet projecting into the cameras for the viewers at home.
Some of Burnett's most memorable moments were movie takeoffs of such classics as "Mildred Pierce" and "Sunset Boulevard." While "Mad TV" and "Saturday Night Live" continue to spoof pop culture in that tradition, they lack the pure affection toward their targets that Burnett exuded. Her spoof of Scarlett O'Hara, whose dress was made of curtains and the curtain rod, was silly and yet sweet. Apparently, no one on the show knew she'd be coming down the stairs to meet Harvey Korman's Rhett Butler in that dress, but she told Korman in advance so he wouldn't laugh too hard on camera. The players on "The Carol Burnett Show" giggled uncontrollably on a regular basis, which always added to the joy quotient.
Of course, all the stories on this "American Masters" feel a little familiar. As reverential interviewees Korman, Lyle Waggoner, Julie Andrews, and Florence Henderson talk about Burnett, they clearly aren't saying anything particularly new so much as running through the legend once more with feeling. This is the Carol Burnett story as it might appear on "Biography" or any number of tribute-minded cable profile series. "I feel like I got to go to the Harvard School of Comedy in front of America," Vicki Lawrence gushes. The love is infectious, although there is none of the cooler analysis of comedy craft that might have been illuminating. Director Peter Bogdanovich gives a tad of perspective when he calls her show a mix of "vaudeville, burlesque, and satire," as it pivoted between eras of entertainment.
Significantly, Burnett has been most comfortable onstage when she's in character. Simply being herself, or singing as herself, may have brought her too close to pain and vulnerability. The show touches on the difficulties of Burnett's early years as the daughter of two alcoholics as well as her marriage to Joe Hamilton, which brought them three daughters before they parted ways. And we hear about daughter Carrie Hamilton's struggles with addiction, her eventual sobriety, and her death in 2002 from lung cancer.
As director Hal Prince puts it, "She is clearly tempered, the way steel is, by adversity."