Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post examines my ten favorite “Family” sketches from one of TV’s greatest variety programs, The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978, CBS).
The “Family” was first introduced in March 1974 near the end of the show’s seventh season. Carol Burnett played Eunice Harper Higgins, the tragically white-trash mother of two, whose dreams of stardom, happiness, and fulfillment, were dashed not only by her mother, the cranky instigative Thelma “Mama” Harper, played by Vicki Lawrence, but also by Ed Higgins, Eunice’s shiftless hardware store owner husband, played by Harvey Korman. Over the next four seasons, the “Family” became one of the show’s most popular bits, and Burnett and company performed 30 “Family” sketches before the show ended in 1978. In those 30 sketches, we met three brothers — Roddy McDowall as successful screenwriter Phillip, Tommy Smothers as salesman Jack, and Alan Alda as Larry, the family’s artistic black sheep. Betty White recurred as Eunice’s stuck-up sister, Ellen, and Tim Conway played Mickey Hart, Ed’s slow and part-deaf employee. After an additional sketch with Burnett and Lawrence on Carol Burnett & Company (1979, ABC), and a 1982 TV-movie entitled Eunice, Lawrence spun-off Mama Harper into the sitcom Mama’s Family, which aired two years on NBC and four years in first-run syndication. Though Burnett recurred a few times in the NBC years, the sitcom bore little resemblance to the “Family” sketches, which were almost unanimously regarded as superior to the half-hour series.
I have selected what I think are ten of the best “Family” sketches, but I have not seen the first four from Season Eleven (which featured Dick Van Dyke as Eunice’s new boyfriend). Otherwise, my collection is complete. Many of the sketches can be found in the Ultimate DVD collection released by Time-Life in 2011. But a handful of episodes appear exclusively on the Columbia House Collector’s Edition sets. I will note those below. Then there are some that have never been released. I will make note of those as well. This is a subjective list, but an excellent place to start for people interested in this supreme example of brilliant sketch comedy.
And after my “Family” picks, stay tuned for an Ethel Merman treat!
01) November 16, 1974
The family plays Sorry!
This might actually be my favorite of all the “Family” sketches. It’s just the three regulars in a room playing Sorry! So many excellent moments. Burnett is unbelievable in her ability to swing between moods in a way that’s so over-the-top but not at all disruptive to the comedy. A truly tragic character, it’s sickeningly funny to watch Lawrence bust poor Eunice’s chops. “Sorry!” (For some reason, the audio is a little low in this particular clip; turn the volume up or plug in your headphones!)
02) January 25, 1975
Mama has a new beau (William Conrad).
Giddy Mama is a hoot! Conrad does a fine job playing her new beau, but he mostly gets to react to the absurd shenanigans surrounding him. Eunice’s rage is, as usual, uproarious. And my favorite moment is her scene with Mama in the kitchen. This episode is only on the Columbia House release.
03) March 15, 1975
The family visits Phillip (Roddy McDowall) in California.
Phillip is the only Harper brother to make more than one appearance on The Carol Burnett Show. In this, the second of three appearances by McDowall, the family comes out to California for one of the most memorable sketches. From Mama’s insistent desire to watch her soap, to Eunice’s “subtle” angling for a role in Phillip’s new movie, this one is insanely funny.
04) September 13, 1975
Ed visits a massage parlor. (Guest starring Jim Nabors)
In this hysterical sketch, Eunice disrupts Mama’s TV time by announcing that she’s leaving Ed, after catching him entering a massage parlor. Nabors is gold as an addled cab driver, desperately trying to collect the fare that Eunice owes him. Conway makes his second appearance as Mickey Hart — already a hit — playing off of Korman’s Ed beautifully. Unfortunately, this episode has not been released on DVD.
05) October 25, 1975
Mickey (Tim Conway) has dinner with the family; they play charades.
In another one of the most memorable “Family” sketches, our favorite foursome engages in an acidly competitive game of charades. Lawrence and Burnett shine during the “Wait Till The Sun Shines Belly” bit. Excellent ensemble work.
06) November 15, 1975
The family has a conference with Bubba’s teacher (Maggie Smith).
Reminiscent of Everybody Loves Raymond‘s “The Angry Family,” this is one of the funniest — and most dramatically rich — of the “Family” sketches. The acrimonious trio visits Bubba’s teacher in a scene that leads to blowouts and revelations. One of Burnett’s most brilliant moments. Smith is amusing as the unfortunate witness to the ugliness.
07) September 25, 1976
The family plays Monopoly.
After the success of Sorry!, the writers again have the family playing a board game. With similar venom, this sketch manages to successfully stand on its own — perfectly capturing the cyclical antagonistic relationship between Eunice, Ed, and Mama . Burnett’s turnaround after her angry rain-soaked tantrum is choice.
08) October 16, 1976
Eunice rehearses for a play. (Guest starring Madeline Kahn)
The hilarious Madeline Kahn plays flighty Mavis Danton in this scene that finds Eunice rehearsing for a bit role in an upcoming play. Her family’s intrusions are priceless, and my favorite stuff is the run-through of the scene with Ed and Mama participating. (Mama drinking her beer while playing the Queen never fails to crack me up!) Kahn is one of the few “Family” guest stars who gets to do more than react. Great sketch.
09) November 06, 1976
The family visits Mickey (Tim Conway) at his apartment for dinner.
These four are magical together and this is Conway’s best “Family” sketch, as Eunice, Ed, and Mama come over to Mickey’s place for dinner. From Mama’s difficulty with the chair to Eunice’s fury over Mickey’s new raise, this sketch is one you won’t forget. (I kind of feel bad for poor Mickey Hart.) A classic. This episode is only on the Columbia House release.
10) December 11, 1976
Eunice, Ed, and Ellen (Betty White) help Mama clean the attic.
Betty White shines as Ellen in this, the second of her three appearances. Probably the funniest of White’s “Family” moments, her episodes always take the sketches in an even nastier — but not totally unwelcome direction. The rivalry between Ellen and Eunice is funny and painfully raw at the same time. Love Ed’s referring to the ladies as “dragons,” and White’s delectable revelation of what happened to Eunice’s beloved Fluffy is hysterical.
Now as a special bonus… Here’s a clip from Ethel Merman’s (never before released) 1969 appearance on The Carol Burnett Show. (This episode also included the infamous dentist sketch with Korman and Conway.) Here are Merman and Burnett in an outstanding duet medley. Please enjoy.
***01/04/14 UPDATE: A YouTube user, Michael Nichols (who commented below in early December) has uploaded two of the missing “Family” sketches from early Season 11 — including the infamous Password skit. The elephant bit is surely the funniest thing about the piece, which actually takes a sharp and (in my opinion) too dramatically dark turn. Van Dyke is an odd fit in “The Family” and aside from the wonderful interactions between Burnett and Conway, this sketch is not above average. The other sketch is much closer to the classic “Family” sketches that we’ve come to know and love. The sound is off in the video, but the three performers (there’s no Van Dyke in this one) shine as Eunice tries to move Mama into a retirement home, but ends up taking Mama in herself. Thanks to Michael for finding and posting these!***
***03/01/15 UPDATE: The Password (a.k.a. “Elephant Story”) sketch has been taken down due to copyright infringement. Perhaps an official release is in the works…
Come back next Wednesday for a whole new Wildcard post! And remember to tune in tomorrow as our best Xena episode countdown brings us to number nine!