Image: The Everett Collection
In 1980, Carol Burnett sat down for an interview with Panorama Magazine for a look back at her successful career. The Carol Burnett Show had wrapped up its groundbreaking 11-season run of side-splitting sketches not too long before the chat. The comedy superstar made a startling revelation.
"The only time I'd embraced the idea of stopping [The Carol Burnett Show] was during our fifth season," Burnett confessed. "Our writers weren't coming up with sketches that Harvey Korman and I found challenging to do, and we both felt we were starting to outgrow the show's material… We went through a lot of writers that fifth year, but we never got the combination that we wanted. So I really thought about quitting."
Out of ideas? A lack of quality writing? In 1972? That's shocking when you consider the genius work pumped out by the show in season six and beyond.
"Went with the Wind!" — the skit that skewered Gone with the Wind with a Bob Mackie gown made of green curtains — first aired in 1976. Mrs. Wiggins first wiggled her way across Mr. Tudball's office that same year, in season nine. "The Family," the recurring skit centering around Thelma Harper and her kin, which led to the long-running sitcom spin-off Mama's Family, debuted in season seven.
In fact, most of what you see in reruns would not have existed. Seasons 6–11, now bundled as Carol Burnett and Friends, make up the bulk of syndication.
What changed Carol's mind? What saved the show? In short, she took more risks and challenged herself. That included axing beloved characters.
"The following season we got several new writers, and we developed new characters and new ways of doing things," Burnett explained. "I stopped doing some of the tried-and-true characters I felt safe with. For instance, I dropped Zelda, the nagging housewife, who by then was giving me a headache. I think we got more daring."
The icon even pushed herself to change her physical performance.
"I got more adult about my comedy. I didn't really plan it, but I just became less dependent on mugging or crossing my eyes to get a laugh," the then 47-year-old said. "I started searching for the truth in a sketch, and there is always a truth in every sketch, even if it's one in which you get hit with a pie in the face."
Isn't that what truly sets apart the greats? Those who dare to shake things up? We're glad she did — and gave her show a second chance. She was, too, obviously.
"I got a second wind and changed my mind — and I'm glad I did," she said. "Because I think we all would have really missed not doing the show." You and us, Carol. You and us.