Making Hash of the Blues

One More Time

by Carol Burnett
Random House, 359 pp., $18.95

Carol Burnett
Carol Burnett; drawing by David Levine

For the eleven-year run of her weekly comedy show, Carol Burnett was the funniest woman on television. Since being obstreperously funny still goes against the grain and social image of most women, there is something both irritating and deeply exhilarating about the unregenerate slob in Burnett. When she browbeats two entire rows of spectators in a television studio into moving over so that she and Harvey Korman can sit together (a goal that could have been accomplished with a simple exchange of seats), then screeches, “That wasn’t such a big deal, was it?” we shudder—with horror, with pleasure. She’s every aggressive, uncivil harpy who ever tried to elbow her way in front of you at the checkout counter, and you want to clobber her, yet you can’t help envying her sang-froid. She’s impervious to what people will think. Here’s a woman—you might say—who never learned to tidy her room as a little girl, and you’d be right. She never even had a room to keep tidy, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Though a quintessential television performer, she brings a non-McLuhanist heat to the cool medium. She’s cerebral and physical, a meeting ground of the hip and the square. A figure of serpentine elegance and sharp repartee when she appears before the audience to open the show, once it starts she becomes déclassée with a vengeance—red fright wig, garish get-ups; the facial expressions as loud as the voice, and the voice—patient-scraping, glass shattering—is as loud as they come. The voice, in fact, is essential. She’s less effective in pantomime—one of the things that separate her from the Show of Shows gang, who were superb mimes.

Burnett is also, perhaps essentially, our reigning genius of parody—parody not as simple mimicry or impersonation, but as a savage love poem, a tribute in the form of a broadside that plunges into the object parodied and comes out the other side, becoming a thing in itself, a miniature narrative, but always rooted in something real. Though they owed a great deal to a sharp and changing stable of writers, The Carol Burnett Show’s best skits come out of an intuitive, even uncanny affinity between performer and subject: Harvey Korman as Nigel Bruce’s harrumphing Dr. Watson, befuddled by love and ratiocination; Burnett as Mildred Fierce or the even more knowing rendering of Joan Crawford in “Torchy Song.”

The best parody relies on an intimacy with the thing burlesqued, perhaps even an incestuous, addictive identification with the subject. Just how true this was in Burnett’s case—and how remarkable under the circumstances—becomes clear in her autobiographical memoir.

Written in the form of a letter to her three daughters, the book takes us from her birth in San Antonio in 1933 to the years in New York leading up to The Carol Burnett Show, but the longest and most interesting section concerns her life as a girl…

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