The Carol Burnett show is one of the most beloved comedy variety shows of all time. Its unique style and talented cast helped it stand out amongst its competitors.
Many major names made an appearance, including Carol herself, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway. They all added their own flavor to the sketches they appeared in, but few of them lasted for the show’s entire run.
When Dick Van Dyke joined the cast, it seemed that his talent and comedic chops would make him a lasting fixture. These expectations were shattered when he left after only 10 episodes.
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How The Carol Burnett Show Began
Carol Burnett’s dreams of fame began when she was a poor university student at UCLA. Her mother wanted her to have a more stable career. She told her that she should be a writer instead because the job didn’t depend on how she looked.
Carol never gave up on her dreams and finally found the support she needed one day when she performed at a college party. After she was done, she was approached by a stranger who offered her $1,000 if she agreed to maintain his anonymity, pay him back when she became rich and famous, and return the favor if he ever needed it.
The identity of this heaven-sent stranger is still unknown. Carol kept her promise not to reveal his identity, but it was his help that launched her career.
She eventually signed a 10-year contract with CBS. They agreed to give her a comedy variety show within the first 5 years of this deal.
She brought up this agreement during the final weeks of the 5th year of her contract. By then, it almost seemed as if the network had changed their minds. They said that variety TV was a “man’s game” and offered her a sitcom instead. She insisted on sticking to the original plan, and The Carol Burnett Show we now know and love was born.
The show started out strong and ranked among the top-30 most-watched TV shows throughout its first 4 years. Today, it’s featured on most critics’ best of TV lists. It also earned #16 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time list.
The show also earned 70 Emmy nominations and won 25 of them. The actors earned awards for their efforts. Carol Burnett earned 22 nominations and won 6 times, Havey Korman earned 7 nominations and won 4 times, and Tim Conway earned 10 nominations and won 4 times.
The cast was the key to the show’s success because they brought their own brand of humor to every sketch they appeared in. Both the founding members and those that joined later were equally important, and losing even one felt like a massive blow.
The original cast of the Carol Burnett Show included Harvey Korman, Vicki Larence, and Lyle Waggoner who was replaced in 1974 by Tim Conway of McHale’s Navy fame.
Harvey was the first one to be hired. The network had his image and personality in mind when they first pictured what the show would be, but they never thought they could get such a prominent name.
Everything changed when Carol met Harvey in the CBS parking lot and begged him to join her show. She was so desperate that she nearly pushed him over a car. His current project at the time, The Danny Kane Show, was about to be canceled anyway, so he agreed.
Harvey became a regular member of the cast and participated in several of its regular sketches. He was considered Carol’s right-hand man and became a fan favorite for years. That lasted until his temper and bad attitude led to issues behind the scenes.
Carol wrote about the day she fired Harvey in her 2016 memoir In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox. He was being especially rude to guest stars Tim Conway and Petula Clark that day. Carol refused to stand for it any longer and went into his dressing room to break the news.
She told him that his sour attitude was ruining her ability to perform and that he should leave. She explained to him that he could be rude to her but never to their fellow cast members.
Harvey realized what an opportunity he was on the brink of losing and asked Carol if there was anything he could do when she turned to go. She told him to never be rude to their guests again and remain cheerful on set. She even said she’d love to see him skipping and whistling in the halls of the studio.
That’s exactly what happened the next week when Harvey came out of the elevator. She later put a tongue-in-cheek sign over his dressing room door that said “Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky.”
Harvey admitted that he respected the fact that Carol was willing to be tough on him and speak the truth. He left when he eventually got his own show on ABC.
Like and subscribe for more on the cast members of your favorite variety shows. Keep watching to learn about how and why Dick Van Dyke joined and left the Carol Burnett show and the impact it had on the show’s success.
How Dick Van Dyke Joined the Show (and Why He Left)
Carol needed another actor to fill Harvey Korman’s empty space after he left. TV shows thrive on their characters, even ones that use sketches instead of a linear story. Finding a new actor as soon as possible would keep them from losing the magic of their most popular features.
Carol and Dick Van Dyke worked together for years. Her first memory of their time together was on the game show Pantomime Quiz in the late 50s. They later shared the stage in the play Same Time Next Year and guest-starred on each other’s shows.
Dick had already established a name for himself in films like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang. He even had a sitcom called The Dick Van Dyke Show. Getting him to agree to a regular cast member may have impossible if he and Carol hadn’t become close friends after spending so much time working together.
Dick was her first choice to replace Harvey after he left, and she thrilled when he agreed to join the cast. He began his 3-month, 10-episode run on the 11th season of The Carol Burnett Show in 1977.
Dick hired as a regular cast member. He appeared in several skits where he played various characters including Dan Fogarty, an invisible dog owner, a bumbling woman, a TV announcer, an airport traveler, and a famous pianist.
The scripts for the sketches he appeared in didn’t fully show off his talents. His comedic style was different from Harvey Korman’s, and the writers couldn’t adapt to the change.
Take the sketches where the men asked to dress in drag, for example. Carol admits that “when Harvey put on a wig and a dress, he became a woman; when Dick Van Dyke did it, he was Dick Van Dyke in a wig and a dress.”
Even the best actors can struggle when they aren’t given the right material to work with. Dick tried his best to adapt but felt he needed to move on to a role that was a better fit for him.
Halfway through the 11th season, he spoke to Carol about how he was no longer happy on the show. She agreed, The last episode of The Carol Burnett Show that they filmed together aired around Thanksgiving.
Carol said that while she didn’t blame him for leaving, she was a bit heartbroken to see him go. The comedic pair had no animosity between them after parting ways professionally and managed to stay friends.
How The Carol Burnett Show Ended
The Carol Burnett show isn’t just one of the most beloved comedy variety shows of all time; it was also one of the longest-running. 278 episodes aired over the course of 11 years from September 11, 1967, to March 29, 1978.
Wacky sketches such as Went With the Wind and The Family kept viewers coming back for another laugh. The final episode abandoned the formula and was more of a “best of” clip show that featured highlights from its most memorable moments.
Despite the public and critical acclaim it received, the show never got exceptionally high ratings while it was on the air. The highest spot it ever reached in the Nielsen ratings was #13 during its 1969-1970 season. It stayed in the 20’s for its first 9 seasons.
The Carol Burnett Show lost several of its regular cast members throughout its run. Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence were the only series regulars that stayed with it from beginning to end.
After Harvey Korman left in Season 10, the show’s ratings began to drop. The network still pushed to renew it for a 12th season, but Carol declined their offers. She worried they would run out of ideas and felt the show had run its course, and she arguably made the right decision. Ending it before it got stale helped maintain its positive reputation. It stands today as a nostalgic staple of classic TV.
The Carol Burnett Show lives on in syndication for fans old and new to enjoy. Reunion specials also brought it back to its former glory, if only for a moment.
A 2004 reunion called Carol Burnett: Show Stoppers in 2001 the top rated show for that week and drew in 300 million viewers. Over 15 million viewers watched the 50th Anniversary Special in the fall of 2017.
The Carol Burnett Show is one of many comedy variety shows of the 60s and 70s, but its legacy is greater than any single skit or actor. The impact it made on television as a whole is more than a boisterous young redhead from California could have ever expected in her wildest dreams.
Do you think that Dick Van Dyke’s run on The Carol Burnett Show could have lasted longer if he had better scripts to work with? Let us know in the comments below. Like and subscribe for more on the best comedy variety shows of all time.