This past Friday night Blairlee and I had the rare gift (thanks to a very kindly aunt) of seeing Carol Burnett in person at the Strathmore Music Center. We had center-stage second row seats, too! I don’t think I’ve ever had concert seats like that.
When Carol took the stage, she electrified and captivated the entire audience for a full hour-and-a-half. Not bad for an 82-year-old comedienne. And Carol did something which only a seasoned, veteran entertainer would ever do. She took the stage with no script. Only a handful of video clips anchored her show. Everything else was live Q&A with her audience. Audience members could ask anything they wanted, and she called on people from all over the theater. As a public speaker, believe me, that takes guts… and a wealth of talent.
I can’t remember going to a show and laughing so hard. In all the years I’ve known Blairlee, I’ve never heard her laugh that hard, either. From the moment Carol took the stage until her final bow, we were both non-stop smiles.
A friend of mine commented that Carol Burnett is a comedic genius. That she is. I think it’s a combination of her charm, her wit, the way she uses her body and face, her timing, voice inflection, and this uncanny sense that she’s the everyday woman next door. You can relate to her and deeply appreciate her, too.
And then another thing struck me. Carol Burnett put on a full show without using one vulgarity or profane word. It never occurred to me while she was performing. It was so natural. But once I realized how “clean” her show was, it left me longing for more comedians and comediennes like Carol Burnett- women and men who can make us laugh without dragging us through the basest part of our nature. She could wink at it while not taking us all the way there, and to me, that made it all the more funny. It was like telling a clever joke without having to explain it.
For example, Carol told a story about a skit she performed on The Carol Burnett Show which featured her as a character who lived in a nudist colony. That concept could go in a number of directions! Carol’s character was being interviewed while standing behind a fence, and the interviewer asked her what she and her fellow colonists do for evening entertainment. (The eyebrows just got a little higher.)
Without missing a beat, Carol’s character said, “We go dancing.” [Lots of laughter.] The interviewer then asked how a bunch of nudists dance. Carol’s original line said, “Very carefully.”
Well, that line got scrutinized by the TV execs. So at the last minute she changed it to, “We like to dance cheek to cheek.” Apparently, the TV execs were fine with that. Now that’s hilarious!
And notice: no profanity, no vulgar descriptions. Either you got the joke, or you didn’t.
I’m not one to long for the good ol’ days or to wish we could go back to the happier times. Longing for the past is always through rose-colored glasses. We tend to over-inflate the pleasant things while sanitizing or forgetting the less pleasant things. For example, while television was freer from profanity, violence, and nudity, there was certainly lots more racism and sexism. Smoking was widespread and socially acceptable. Would we want to go back to all of that?
You could convincingly argue that Carol Burnett’s humor was shaped and controlled by much stronger censorship and different viewer sensibilities. Very true. Without those restrictions, maybe her humor would have been quite different. Perhaps. But Carol and her co-actors managed to be hilariously funny in that (controlled) environment. In 2016, it’s still just as funny.
Carol Burnett demonstrated that masterfully last Friday night.
Carol Burnett proves that we don’t have to gaze in the rear-view mirror to find and create good comedy. She and her kind of humor still have a place in American entertainment. Her comedy uses wit, physicality, charm, and off-the-wall antics to make people laugh. Much has changed in the nearly 50 years since her show took the airwaves. But some forms of comedy, like Carol Burnett’s, are timeless.
I’d like a lot more of that. I’m not asking for her kind of humor to supplant and replace what’s out there now. I don’t want to see Carol Burnett-style humor attempt to prove a point or stake a moral high ground. That’s simply not funny. True humor has a selfless simplicity to it that doesn’t preach or demean. It just brings joy.
Yet there is a sizable audience including people like me who would thoroughly enjoy humor that isn’t demeaning, overtly profane, violent, or pornographic. For me, it’s not moral snobbery. I laugh at all kinds of things. Funny is funny. At the same time, there’s something refreshing and fun about Carol’s humor that would offer alternatives to some of the other modes of comedy out there.
And while comedy is never culturally universal, Carol Burnett’s brand of comedy can unite multiple generations and multiple moral sensibilities to laugh together. Very few things in life can bring people together like laughter. Thank you, Carol, for 50 years of laughter. May others follow in your stead to bring us joy, happiness… and Tarzan yells.