Carol Burnett was told ‘comedy variety is a man’s game, it’s not for you, girl’

The Carol Burnett Show ran from 1967-1978. I remember gathering as a family to watch it and have watched it countless times in reruns. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch the sketches that I know will be mentioned in the comments below. The format was pretty standard for variety shows for the time, with musical numbers, dancers, sketches and guest stars. The cast was incredible: Carol, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, the heartthrob Lyle Waggoner and the “new kid” Vicki Lawrence, who was only 18 when they show began. The costumer for the show was Bob Mackie. If you are at all familiar with the show, you know how good it was. If you only know Carol, it was her baby so you can imagine how good it was. Carol recently told Michael Kushner on the Dear Multi-Hyphenate podcast that a CBS vice-president tried to shut the show down when Carol first pitched it. Why? Because he said “comedy variety is a man’s game”, not a woman’s thing. An idiot says what now?

After deciding to leave The Garry Moore Show where she gained enough popularity “to do other things,” Burnett told the podcast host Michael Kushner that “CBS offered me a contract to stay with them for 10 years where I would be obligated to do one special a year — an hour-long special a year and two guest appearances on some of their sitcoms.”

Adding that she had “a great agent” at the time, she explained the contract also included a stipulation, stating “within the first five years if I, Carol, wanted to do a comedy variety show, CBS would have to put it on the air for 30 shows, fair play, that if I ‘push that button’ they would have to put it on whether they wanted to or not.”

When the right time finally came, which was the last week of her fifth year on the agreement, she said she called the CBS vice president in New York and told him she wanted to “push that button” — but the executive did not remember the clause.

“And he said, ‘what button?’ and I said, ‘You know where I get to do 30 comedy variety shows.’ He said, ‘Well, let me get back to you,'” she continued. “He called me back the next day and said, ‘Comedy variety is a man’s game…it’s not for you, girl.'”

Burnett noted that the network vice president listed the names of the men who had done comedy variety shows, such as Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, and Dean Martin, before pitching her a different proposal, saying, “And we got this great little sitcom we would love you to do called Here’s Agnes.”

Reflecting on the moment, the Golden Globe winner said, “Oh, my, God. Could you imagine?”
In response, Burnett told the executive, “I don’t want to be Agnes every week, I want to have an hourlong show… I want to guest stars, I want music, I want dancers, I want singers, I want sketch comedy on and on and on,’ And Michael they had to put us on the air.”

[From Yahoo! Entertainment]

I had the wonderful opportunity to see Carol interview Steve Martin for one of his book signings a few years back. They’re both such amazing story tellers, it was a great evening. I read so much of this article in her voice, with her inflection, because it’s imprinted on my mind. Because she is, and I don’t use this word lightly, iconic. I’m not at all surprised that someone told THE Carol Burnett that comedy variety was a man’s game, because that’s the narrowmindedness that pervaded in television then. I’m sure it’s still lurking around today. What is surprising is the adroitness of Carol’s agent getting a stipulation like that into her contract that was so concrete, the execs couldn’t loophole out of it when Carol exercised the clause. Good for Carol for sticking by her guns on that. You know that VP thought he could intimidate this “girl” with his response. As Carol goes on to say in the podcast, the show ran for 276 episodes. It earned 25 Emmys and consistently makes the All Time Best of Television lists. Thank goodness Carol knew her value even when that “man” didn’t. FYI, Carol has written a few memoirs that are all great. I am partial to her first one, One More Time: A Memoir.

As for the The Carol Burnett Show, I could go on and on. The Went with the Wind sketch is brilliant. The Dentist sketch is classic. The best is when the cast started corpsing, which they actively tried to make each other do, by the way. Especially Tim Conway. Like in my absolute favorite outtake, when Tim started improvising as he often did, and set the cast plus guest star Dick Van Dyke off. But Vicki got the last laugh on this one:

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Photo credit: Avalon Red and Getty Images

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33 Responses to “Carol Burnett was told ‘comedy variety is a man’s game, it’s not for you, girl’”

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  1. Nancy says:

    The Went with the Wind sketch is the funniest bit of physical comedy ever.

    • lanne says:

      Love that sketch, I also love No Frills Airline. I showed that and the dentist to my high school students and had them howling with laughter. RIP Tim Conway.

  2. Lightpurple says:

    Carol Burnett is a national treasure

  3. Snuffles says:

    I had a jerk try to tell me once that women couldn’t be funny. Carol Burnett was one of the names I threw in his face.

    • Bettyrose says:

      Imagine how hard Carol Burnett had it with no precedent to point to about women comedians. My go to for sexist stupidity was always Gilda Radner (with my big frizzy hair I love to do the Rosanadanadana routine). Fortunately we’re well past having to prove anything now. Some men still say sh&t but walking alway is the only reasonable choice now.

  4. Lolo86lf says:

    I have watched many reruns of the Carol Burnett show and all I can say is that they do not make shows like this any more. The talent of Harvey Korman has not been surpassed yet by any actor or comedian. My favorite characters were Eunice and her mom Thelma. I wish Mama’s family would have been less comedy and more drama.

  5. Lolalola says:

    “Jowls” as a spoof of Jaws still cracks me up….Carol is brilliant. Full stop.

  6. Nlopez says:

    She’s still my favorite Miss Hannigan too!

    • Granger says:

      YES! She is amazing in that film. And some of my best childhood memories involve watching the Carol Burnett show. The cast always looked like they were having the most incredible, hilarious, ridiculously fun time.

    • Kristen820 says:

      She was BRILLIANT as Hannigan! And the “Hannigan is a drunk” bit was all her. When MTI sends out the books for companies doing the stage production, they specifically say Hannigan is NOT a drunk (just mean). WAY funnier how Carol played it! (Source: I’ve done the show twice)

  7. Concern Fae says:

    It was on Saturday night, so I usually watched it when babysitting. The kids these days don’t know the pre-VCR days. To watch a TV show, you had to be in front of the TV when it aired. Otherwise you missed it.

    The one at the nudist camp sticks in my head. Carol is being interviewed, standing behind a fence presumably hiding her nakedness. When they ask how they dance – the answer is “Cheek to cheek.” Can’t heat the song without thinking of that.

    She was giving an interview where she said that she had in her contract that she could leave every day to pick up her kids. So, she basically worked 9:30 to 3 on that show. The best ever. She said everyone else pretty much went home at the end of the day too. All this working endless hours is about bosses being control freaks on a power trip and purposely understaffing. People are so much more productive when they work 40 hours. It sucks when your boss demands you come in early and stay late and people just slack off and do maybe 25 hours of real work in a 50 hour week. Carol is our sensible, productive work week Queen.

  8. LightPurple says:

    She did several specials with Julie Andrews that my great aunt thinks are the funniest things every. They are available on YouTube. What often gets overlooked about Burnett is that she was multi-talented and was a really good singer who could hold her own with the likes of julie Andrews

    • lanne says:

      Have you seen them sing One of Your Own Kind from West Side Story. Carol holds her own with Julie freaking Andrews as a singer. It starts out as a funny bit, but it soon turns into a serious duet. For the first time, I really paid attention to the Maria and Anita lyrics (as a musical lover, I’d just belt along with them, not really thinking about what I was (attempting to) sing). So, so poignant. It’s a song about love and forgiveness, and I didn’t know that until I heard it sung by Julie Andrews and Caroll Burnett.

  9. Tessa says:

    Her send ups of classic films were hilarious. She played Mildred fierce and harvey k or man played Monty slick. Joan crawford called Carol to say she loved the parody of the film.

  10. Tessa says:

    Her parody of gone with the wind was hysterical especially the curtain dress

    • MissMarirose says:

      That’s one of the amazing things about the Carol Burnett show. It not only produced iconic comedy scenes; it also produced an iconic fashion moment. Even millennials who weren’t born when the show aired know about the curtain dress.

  11. BW says:

    I still remember her swinging Norma Desmond boobs. MAX!!!!!!!

  12. Muggs says:

    She has an amazing memoir, This Time Together. After reading it I respected and appreciated her even more & she was already so high on my list!

  13. Louise177 says:

    I didn’t realize it was on the air for so long. I remember watching it on reruns as a kid. I was so mad when out of the blue a different show was on.

  14. Bettyrose says:

    Where are my Better Call Saul fans? She absolutely ruled the final season. It was such an unexpected treat.

  15. lucy2 says:

    I think I read one of her memoirs a while back, and it was a delight. It’s hard to imagine her brilliant show only exists due to a clause in a contract. And f that guy who told her comedy was only a man’s game. I bet he never admitted he was wrong about it either.

  16. SpankyB says:

    I loved watching Carol Burnett growing up. I loved TV back then, lots of variety shows. I miss Dean Martin.

    I watched a rerun of one of Carol’s shows recently I didn’t think it aged well at all. It was about a restaurant being secretly ran by Nazi’s. It was awkward.

  17. Chantal says:

    This was a favorite show of mine growing up. I recently started rewatching episodes on YouTube and saw one with Diahann Carroll! I’d forgotten that she was also a singer. Carol was truly ahead of her time and proved she could go toe to toe with any man as well as completely out do them. The comedic brilliance of her co stars remain unparalleled. I love how she stood up to that exec and new (and proved her worth. Kudos to the agent who put that clause in her contract and made it loophole free! 30 episodes. It had to be unprecedented, esp for a woman. I’ll bet they never thought she would enforce it!

  18. JK35 says:

    I’ll be different – I never found Carol Burnett funny. Nice person – yes, groundbreaker – yes – funny – no.

  19. jferber says:

    Well, she is a legend. The Tarzan yell and the take-off on Gone with the Wind with Carol wearing the green velvet drapes with the curtain holder across the shoulders? GENIUS.

  20. J. Ferber says:

    Sorry, curtain rod

  21. Casey says:

    Carol Burnett is a national treasure! Her show was before my time but thanks to YouTube I watch it all the time 😊