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date: 22 September 2020

Carol Burnett and the Ends of Variety: Parody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines Hollywood’s great rival, television, in a study of how television adapted the Broadway musical. Rather than looking at conventional stage-to-small-screen adaptations, however, the chapter focuses on how Carol Burnett’s TV show provided adaptations of another kind, that is, parodies of famous musicals. For example, the chapter explains how ‘Hold Me, Hamlet’ can be read as a parody/adaptation of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, even retaining the doubling of the onstage/backstage musical format of the latter. Meanwhile, The Wiz is the clearest referent for ‘Cinderella Gets it On.’ These Burnett shows approach poesis because they take the form of the musical, and they often do comment upon it, but they are also genuine expressions of the form and the creators’ deep love and understanding of it.

Keywords: Carol Burnett, Hold Me, Hamlet, Cinderella Gets It On, Kiss Me, Kate, The Wiz

The television variety show was the last gasp of the vaudeville ticket. It was also arguably the most distinctive genre of television for the first thirty to forty years of the medium. The first huge American television star was made in a variety show: Milton Berle, host of NBC’s Texaco Star Theatre (1948–55). The Ed Sullivan Show (1948–71) reigned for years as a place to be seen and heard for entertainers. Popular culture mostly remembers the singers (Elvis, the Beatles, maybe even Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, or Bobby Darin); but many variety shows also staged scenes from current Broadway shows, or at least hosted the singers to perform the show’s hits, scattered among comedy segments, ballet and jazz dance, classical performance, and the occasional novelty act.

In 1957, initially on The Tonight Show and then in prime time on The Ed Sullivan Show, a young cabaret singer and comedienne named Carol Burnett made her first big splash by singing ‘I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles.’ After starring on Broadway in the fairy-tale parody musical Once upon a Mattress (1959), for which she was nominated for a Tony Award, she became a regular on The Garry Moore Show, garnering an Emmy in her last year, 1962. It would be another five years before Burnett would get her own show, although by the time The Carol Burnett Show premiered, a generational shift in the television—and wider entertainment—industry was under way.

When The Carol Burnett Show premiered in 1967, there were eleven other variety shows on American network television in primetime:1

  • The Ed Sullivan Show (1948–71)
  • The Red Skelton Hour (1951–71)
  • The Lawrence Welk Show (1955–82)
  • The Andy Williams Show (1962–69)
  • (p. 544) The Hollywood Palace (1964–70)
  • The Dean Martin Show (1965–74)
  • The Jackie Gleason Show (1966–70)
  • The Pat Boone Show (1967–68)
  • The Jerry Lewis Show (1967–69)
  • The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967–70)
  • Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1967–73)
  • The Carol Burnett Show (1967–78)

By the time The Carol Burnett Show left the air in 1978, the only other variety show was the youth-oriented Donny & Marie Show, which would end in the next year. Some shows, like The Lawrence Welk Show (originally ABC) and Hee Haw (originally CBS) had moved into syndication, along with the still-running, Dolly-less Porter Wagoner Show and The Muppet Show (1976–79), modelled even more literally on the theatrical roots of vaudeville while also operating as a backstage musical. Saturday Night Live had debuted in 1975, and the cable television revolution was on the horizon, but times were changing even at the beginning of The Carol Burnett Show’s run. A look at the preceding list reveals that many of the variety shows ended in the next few years, most of them by 1971, particularly those fronted by performers from an earlier generation. In the 1966–67 season, the year before the Burnett show premiered, ABC had made a big push to relaunch a Milton Berle variety show, but the gamble failed; the medium’s first star did not reach new audiences. Both of the more youth-oriented shows that debuted in 1967, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (the format of which explicitly recalled vaudeville and burlesque) and especially The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour often ran afoul of censors in an era of changing mores and a generationally charged political atmosphere.2

The success of The Carol Burnett Show is certainly down to the musical, comedic, and acting talents of its star,3 and to the chemistry among her regular players: Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, Vicki Lawrence, and Tim Conway. But the show also negotiated this generational shift through a combination of contemporary reference that was nonpolitical and a nostalgia that was warm but witty. The comedy style of the show relied heavily on parody of other media forms: the annual spoofs of the most memorable television commercials and the soap opera ‘As the Stomach Turns’ were recurring skits, and in later seasons, the family situation comedy was reworked into the surprisingly trenchant, sometimes genuinely melancholic ‘Family’ sketches. The show was also an opportunity for Burnett to do what she had always wanted to do—be in the classic movies she had adored growing up. Burnett and her younger sister, Chrissie, lived with their grandmother in Hollywood from a young age because of their parents’ alcoholism.4 Going to the movies was a way of escaping a life of some deprivation. As a child, Carol Burnett wanted to be Betty Grable. As an adult, Carol Burnett got to be Grable. And Joan Crawford, Vivien Leigh, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and so many others (including a version of herself and her sister Chris, then played by Vicki Lawrence,5 in a recurring sketch about modern life taking unexpected turns). The parodies were sharp, particularly about music and performance, but never mean; there was affection as well (p. 545) as substantial knowingness: Joan Crawford reportedly loved ‘Mildred Fierce,’ though was a little more ambivalent about ‘Torchy Song.’ ‘Went with the Wind’ has widely been considered one of the greatest moments of American television, garnering one of the longest and most sustained studio-audience laughs in history when ‘Starlett’ appears at the top of the ‘Terra’ staircase wearing a dress made out of the curtains, with the still-attached curtain rod balanced across her shoulders. To the astonished exclamation of appreciation from ‘Brat Butler,’ she responds, ‘I saw it in the window, and I just couldn’t resist it.’ The parody itself has become a classic.

The hour-long show’s format by the 1970s had become semistandardized. The ‘bump up the lights’ sequence, during which Burnett answered questions from the audience, opened the show, and a series of shorter comedy sketches and musical numbers featured in the first half. The second half was more likely to feature extended, two-act parodies of films. While most of the film parodies were of individual films like ‘The Little Foxies’ or ‘Rancid Harvest,’ some were tributes to various eras or studios, such as one of the best-remembered skits, a tribute to the 1930s Universal monster cycle (the gypsy fortune teller has two sons, a rock star and a werewolf, and on a full moon, she can’t tell them apart).

Musicals were a good proportion of the full-length parodies, almost all written by Artie Malvin and/or the team of Ken and Mitzie Welch.6 Some were direct parodies of individual films (‘When My Baby Laughs at Me,’ ‘Beach Blanket Boo-Boo’). ‘Babes in Barns’ is primarily a parody of Babes in Arms, but incorporates elements from other Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films, and ‘High Hat’ is a synthesis of the Astaire-Rogers RKO cycle. Other sketches compile the works of individual composers (Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, for instance) and write original musicals around them, not unlike the musicals of MGM’s Freed Unit in the early 1950s (An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon all follow the same format).

These sketches engage with the concept of adaptation in at least two, intersecting ways: the materials (book, songs, design, choreographic style), and medium. We talk, rightly, about film and theatre as divergent media with their own specificity; television, for a variety of historical and disciplinary reasons, has much less definition as a specific medium—arguably, this is not surprising, because television is less a specific medium than a window through which we can see adaptations of other, older media, like film, theatre, and even radio.7 Television shares some traits with theatre (liveness, temporal immediacy, and usually a stage-bound set, either in a theatrical or soundstage setting); it also shares traits with cinema (the ability to record and edit, the framing eye of the camera and its ability for motion, the notional access to location changes). But television also has shortcomings that neither of the older media do: in the context of the United States, the commercial demand for advertising breaks, roughly every fifteen minutes; fewer technological and financial resources for sets, costumes, and writers, composers, and choreographers; and less time for rehearsal and potentially less time for the final product. Thus, a television adaptation is conceptually equidistant from both television (p. 546) and film, and arguably a smaller leap from one or the other than from theatre to film or vice versa. These limitations have historically tended to outweigh any advantages, such as the ability to reach millions at the same instant.

A variety show will have even tighter constraints than a full, free-standing television production, particularly in terms of time. The sets are built on a proscenium stage and performed live before a studio audience, shot on videotape for later editing.8 Although most of The Carol Burnett Show extended parodies were of films, some of those films were themselves adaptations of theatrical productions, like ‘Hold Me, Hamlet.’ Others are based on vague generic parameters like ‘Italian cinema’—‘La Caperucita Roja’ is based on Mexican folk theatre. Another fairy-tale adaptation, ‘Cinderella Gets It On,’ bears the impressions not just of theatrical rock musicals but also of popular musical performance on contemporary television and the then-current Blaxploitation cycle of films. These various modes of presentation (film, Broadway, folk theatre, vaudeville, rock musicals, variety shows, rock music shows) are in constant flux, flow, and conversation throughout these parody adaptations. But each is surprisingly precise and consistent in its parodic palette, including musical style, acting and musical performance, set and costume design, narrative structure, and even camera work.

On Parody as Adaptation

On the one hand, it seems obvious—in order to function as a parody, a text must contain a structural and/or stylistic replication of the work being parodied. It is thus a sort of adaptation. But it is worth taking a moment before diving into the analyses of the three Carol Burnett ‘musicals’ to more precisely define the terms ‘adaptation’ and ‘parody’ and what forms they may take.

Not surprisingly, one of the most critical theorists of parody, Linda Hutcheon, has also become a theorist of adaptation. Following a line of argument that we also find in Robert Stam’s influential ‘Beyond Fidelity’ essay,9 Hutcheon considers adaptation (whether parodic or not) a process of engagement with an original text, not merely a transcription or even a translation. As Paul Edwards summarizes in his review of Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation,

The distinctiveness of the new artistic product is its invocation, rather than suppression or erasure, of its source: ‘To deal with adaptations as adaptations is to think of them as … inherently “palimpsestuous” works, haunted at all times by their adapted texts.’ … An interpretive and critical activity must precede the creative activity of adaptation. For this reason, Hutcheon invites us to view adaptation as a process as well as a product or formal entity; the process entails questions of an adapter’s motive and intention.10

This conceptualization recognizes a significant overlap in adaptation and parody. It also permits, if not requires, a view of parody as a form of analysis.

(p. 547) Hutcheon’s early work on parody had emerged in the mid-1980s, a few years after the end of The Carol Burnett Show, and although she is dealing primarily with what might be termed ‘high art’ in an earlier era, what she has to say about parody resonates quite strongly with the ethos of The Carol Burnett Show. In response to other postmodernist theorists like Frederic Jameson, Hutcheon takes exception to the concept of ‘blank parody,’ insisting on both an engagement with history and a range of affective response:

What I mean by ‘parody’ here is not the ridiculing imitation of the standard theories and definitions that are rooted in eighteenth-century theories of wit. The collective weight of parodic practice suggests a redefinition of parody as repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signaling of difference at the very heart of similarity.

In historiographic metafiction, in film, in painting, in music, and in architecture, this parody paradoxically enacts both change and cultural continuity: the Greek prefix para can mean both ‘counter’ or ‘against’ AND ‘near’ or ‘beside.’ Jameson argues that in postmodernism ‘parody finds itself without a vocation,’ replaced by pastiche, which he (bound by a definition of parody as ridiculing imitation) sees as more neutral or blank parody. But the looking to both the aesthetic and historical past in postmodernist architecture is anything but what Jameson describes as pastiche, that is, ‘the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion.’ There is absolutely nothing random or ‘without principle’ in the parodic recall and re-examination of the past by architects like Charles Moore or Ricardo Bofill. To include irony and play is never necessarily to exclude seriousness and purpose in postmodernist art. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand the nature of much contemporary aesthetic production—even if it does make for neater theorizing.11 [Emphasis mine]

Hutcheon thus ‘de-flattens’ both history and specificity, a flattening one often finds in postmodern theory, as in Jameson’s ‘blank’-ing.

The past as referent is not bracketed or effaced, as Jameson would like to believe: it is incorporated and modified, given new and different life and meaning.12

The concern with history will almost necessarily bring up the idea of nostalgia, a concept Hutcheon herself had resisted in a couple of decades of theorizing:

I confess to suffering from an utter lack of nostalgia. But clearly there was also an intellectual issue at stake, since many had repeatedly insisted on the power of postmodern nostalgia.13

In other words, despite very strong reservations (based in part on personality limitations), I do know that I should never underestimate the power of nostalgia, especially its visceral physicality and emotional impact. But that power comes in part from its structural doubling-up of two different times, an inadequate present and an idealized past. But this is where I must return to that other obsession of mine—irony—for irony too is doubled: two meanings, the ‘said’ and the ‘unsaid,’ rub together to create irony—and it too packs considerable punch. People do not usually get upset about metaphor or synecdoche, but they certainly do get worked up about irony.14

(p. 548) So Hutcheon proposes that nostalgia and irony have much in common, structurally, including that they are incomplete, or perhaps better, inert, without an audience:

Irony is not something in an object that you either ‘get’ or fail to ‘get’: irony ‘happens’ for you (or, better, you make it ‘happen’) when two meanings, one said and the other unsaid, come together, usually with a certain critical edge. Likewise, nostalgia is not something you ‘perceive’ in an object; it is what you ‘feel’ when two different temporal moments, past and present, come together for you and, often, carry considerable emotional weight. In both cases, it is the element of response—of active participation, both intellectual and affective—that makes for the power.15

What is powerful in this configuration is not just that it recognizes the work of the audience, no longer the passive receptor of an authorial product. The audience activates connections that an author (individual or corporate/collaborative, in the case of any form of film or television) lays into a work, and a good amount of the response one has to the work is the product of one’s own intellectual and emotional participation. This recognition of the emotional aspect is important in Hutcheon’s work; most postmodern theorists have proposed a kind of ‘postmodern cool,’ inherent in the detachment of Jameson’s ‘blank parody.’ And yet the affect of the play can be anything from sentimental nostalgia to exhilaration; the emotional joy—a kind of mental runner’s high—that comes from intellectual processes is often disregarded, to the point that there is no specific name for it, although I think most of us recognize it.

This interplay between nostalgia, parody, and analysis is a key element of the musical sketches produced by The Carol Burnett Show. Yes, they are funny; but they are often funny because of the way in which they know how the models work, what the key points of pressure are in the structure and tone that the writers and performers can prod for humour, or a humorous but still highly aware nostalgia. They replicate the models so well that they can stand alone, working even if one is unfamiliar with the model or if the parodies are largely original works based on old forms. And yet, they are also very specific about those models. They are knowing in a way that invokes nostalgia but rarely, if ever, trade in mere sentimentality, unless they engage sentimentality itself for humour in the framing of the parodies for the television show.

‘Hold Me Hamlet’

Of the three parodies addressed here, ‘Hold Me, Hamlet’16 has the most obvious and particular precedent: the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate, first a Broadway production in 1948 and subsequently made into a (3D) film in 1953. Kiss Me, Kate is itself an adaptation of the Shakespearean comedy The Taming of the Shrew. The Burnett Show parody functions on a number of levels: it is a parody of Shakespeare, but turning one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies into a musical comedy is a more significant transformation than from what is, despite its archaic sexism, a romantic comedy. (p. 549) The parody carries through in the alliterative title, but the sketch eschews the double onstage/backstage narrative; given the time frame of television production, that would be perhaps the easiest feature of Kiss Me, Kate to jettison. However, the sketch is introduced as if it is an episode of Masterpiece Theater (PBS 1971–), a strategy that at least gestures towards the doubling while also emphasizing the ‘classical’ and ‘high art’ connotations of Shakespeare for modern audiences. It also heightens the comedy by lifting up the sketch in preparation for lowering the tone.

The reliance on knowledge of Hamlet, and even its performing traditions, is unusually strong in this sketch: ‘Alistair Cookie’ (Harvey Korman spoofs the Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke17; see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.1) gives the briefest of synopses about Hamlet’s father’s death and Hamlet’s suspicion of Claudius, who has married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, but the narrative of the sketch is telescoped to a significant degree, with most of the run-time taken up in song; some dialogue sequences last barely more than an exchange. The music is wholly original, although with a clear nod toward Cole Porter, and a sideways glance at Noël Coward, stylistically. The performers referenced include at minimum Coward, Al Jolson, Rex Harrison, Judy Garland, Sophie Tucker, and Gene Kelly. Unlike some of the musical sketches, which essentially follow the flow of the storyline for structure, ‘Hold Me, Hamlet’ is structured very much like a ‘real’ musical would be, with a clearly defined first act, then a second act that is truncated by a simple plot resolution, itself a parody of both the convolutions of a Shakespearean drama and the clearing up of misunderstandings/coincidences common in musical comedy. Just as Kiss Me, Kate was Porter’s transition from number-oriented musical comedies to more integrated book musicals, the sketch hovers between the two models. The first act plays out the overlapping Freudian triangles between Hamlet, Sr/Gertrude/Hamlet and Gertrude/Hamlet/Ophelia, and the second act resolves the last little bit of adolescent psychological business with Hamlet before a big ensemble finale (see Table 24.1).

Table 24.1 Number Breakdown of ‘Hold Me, Hamlet’



‘Something Stinks in the State of Denmark, Something Smells in Elsinore’



‘I Never Had it So Good’



‘Don’t You Love Your Mama Anymore’

Red-hot mama



Sentimental ballad


‘Oh, That This Too, Too Solid Flesh Would Melt’

Torch song

Ghost & Chorus

‘I Never Had It So Good’


Chorus finale



‘Nobody Does It Like a Dane’

Patter song

Hamlet & Ophelia

‘I Never Had It So Good’



‘All Is Well in the State of Denmark,

Nothing’s Rotten Anymore’

Ensemble chorus finale

(p. 550) The prologue introduces guest star Carl Reiner as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father. With his pale makeup and his armour accessorized by floating bits of white chiffon to signify his ghostliness, he recalls Lionel Jeffries’s dithering King Pellinore in the 1967 film of Camelot.

He promptly is joined onstage by ‘the changing of the guard,’ a chorus of female dancers in skimpy ‘armour’ costumes with exaggerated feather-boa horsetail helmets (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.2). They perform a military drill, ornamented by burlesque hip-grinds and a pole-slide along their lance shafts while they sing ‘Something Stinks in the State of Denmark … Something Smells in Elsinore.’ The march-like style recalls Porter’s ‘Another Opening, Another Show’ from Kiss Me, Kate, particularly the opening rhythm on ‘Something stinks’—a slight enough resemblance not to be a copy of ‘’nother op’nin’,’ but to trigger the original in the audience’s knowing ear (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.3).

The Ghost punctuates the end of the short chorus with a rim-shot like ‘Boo!’ and the guards gather around him as he sits on a chair. Two of them sit on his lap as he sings, ‘I Never Had It So Good,’ a jaunty tune (‘Since Gert did me in, I’ve been living in sin …) (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.4). His (bad) Cockney accent recalls Alfred Doolittle singing ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’ from My Fair Lady (1964). The guards provide vocal ‘wah-wah-wah’ responses to his lines, and join him in a chorus line finale from ‘We’ll hey nonny-nonny ’till I’m weak in the knees’ to the end of the chorus when they cluster around him once more. As they leave, the chorus does unison dips and bumps, chanting, ‘Meet you at the rampart in half an hour!’ With his teasing pinches and tickles, and the squeals and titters from the chorus, the whole number is redolent of burlesque. Both chorus and Ghost exit (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.5).

Heralds with long trumpets announce King Claudius (Harvey Korman) and Queen Gertrude (Vicki Lawrence). Claudius dismisses the heralds with a wave of the hand, ‘Trumpets, blow!’ but as Claudius and Gertrude move to embrace and kiss, plangent modernist strings interrupt, cueing them to look across the stage to see that Hamlet (played by guest star Ken Berry) has taken up a ‘thinker’s pose’ in the chair deserted by the Ghost. He is the typical mid-twentieth-century Hamlet, a handsome youth in plain black tights and doublet. The extended tonality of the strings and their starkness recall any number of modern stagings of Shakespeare, although perhaps particularly the National Theatre productions that were sometimes themselves shown on PBS.

Whereas the staging has until this point been profoundly theatrical—characters facing front (even when standing in profile), with the only camera work moving slightly from side to side to keep the chorus’s movements in shot or to cut in for ‘takes’ from the Ghost—the dismissal of the heralds and reduction of forces to Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet introduce a slight change to the camera work. It becomes more fluid; not cinematic by any means, but cutting between the couple and Hamlet on a diagonal, and relying on closer framing that eliminates the full-body shots of the opening. Although not quite shot-reverse shot alternation, it does have the effect of bringing the camera/audience onstage (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.6).

When they notice Hamlet—apparently cued by the strings, a tactic that pierces any cinematic semblance of a nondiegetic state—Gertrude and Claudius quickly agree that (p. 551) Claudius should leave, and Gertrude shoos him offstage, closing the curtained doorway behind him as the camera cuts to Hamlet. He ruminates, ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question,’ as Gertrude crosses to him, putting her hands on his shoulder and arm with concern, commenting, ‘My son, the brooder!’ And beneath her exclamation, ‘Oh, Hamlet,’ the strings change into the introduction for her song, ‘Don’t You Love Your Mama Anymore’ (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.7).

This song plays up the popularity of twentieth-century stagings of Hamlet with deep Freudian interpretations of the relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet. Vicki Lawrence, then twenty-five-years-old, was beginning to find her voice as a comedian, and somewhat ironically, she went from playing Burnett’s kid sister to specializing in older women; she often did it without makeup, as her most famous role as ‘Mama’ in the tragicomic southern ‘Family’ episodes, with just a wig, some padding, and a particular way of holding her face. As Gertrude, she sings, ‘Don’t You Love Your Mama Anymore’ in the musical style of a red-hot mama à la Sophie Tucker, amplified by blaring horns and a simple, but highly syncopated melodic/speech line. Her vocal style, however, is a parody of opera/operetta dame, with a constantly breaking voice reminiscent of (an exaggerated version of) musical comedienne Anna Russell. Ironically, of course, this is much harder to sing than even a straightforward wavering vibrato, but it adds to the sense of Gertrude’s ‘age,’ as does her physical style, which parodies Queen Elizabeth II in her distinctive ways of moving her hands.

The camera primarily maintains a Madonna-like framing of the mother and son (see Figure 24.1a), but at the end, where Gertrude extends the chorus, ‘Don’t you love your mama, why don’t you love your mama … while doing simple sidesteps with jazz hands, the camera moves out to catch her ‘big finish’ (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.8).

Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical

Figure 24.1(a) Gertrude and Hamlet in Madonna and Child pose at the end of Gertrude singing ‘Don’t You Love Your Mama Anymore’; (b) reversal of position as Hamlet sings ‘G-E-R-T-R-U-D-E’ and draws attention to her décolletage

After a beat for applause, Hamlet rises to take her hands and guide her into the chair as the camera returns to frame them from the other direction. He sits in her lap, reversing their previous pose (see Figure 24.1b), singing ‘G-E-R-T-R-U-D-E’ as a parody of the sentimental song ‘M-O-T-H-E-R (A word that means the world to me).’ The 1915 song (p. 552) by Howard Johnson and Theodore F. Morse had been popularized by vaudeville star Eva Tanguay and recorded in 1950 by country star Eddy Arnold, whose smooth Nashville sound aided significant popular crossover over the next two decades. Hamlet performs the song starting in Gertrude’s lap, touching her nose and chin as if in a toddler’s body-part-learning game as he spells her name; as he moves down to her chin, towards her cleavage on ‘U’, she slaps his hand away playfully, but her smile is affectionate and familiar, underlining the sexualized reading of their relationship (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.9).

As did Gertrude, Hamlet gets up for a few dance moves during the bridge of his song, briefly going down on one knee to lay his head in her lap (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.10), then helping lever her up out of the chair with pretended labour for a short tap duet, aided by the pages who come in to handle her train and sweep her upstairs/downstage to watch his little solo that highlights a Jolsonesque ‘Mammy’ gesture on one knee, towards the camera but away from the theatrically front-facing chorus; Gertrude mediates between the two (see Figure 24.2a). Although evoking Jolson and perhaps Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as Gertrude rejoins Hamlet for a brief dance duet, Berry’s slim but muscular build, his balletic dance style, and the white collar and cuffs on his stereotypically (p. 553) all-black Hamlet costume recall Gene Kelly in the final ballet from An American in Paris (1951). During this dance sequence, the intimate setting has been increasingly ‘re-theatricalized,’ with a front-facing staging. Hamlet even stage-whispers his interjection ‘Little Hamlet,’ behind a shielding hand, towards the audience at an angle that breaks the fourth wall with the studio audience, but not the camera (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.11).

Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical

Figure 24.2 The different media modes of presentation in ‘Hold Me, Hamlet.’ (a) A diagonal cinematic angle on Hamlet, while the chorus faces the theatrical front; Gertrude cheats between the two; (b) Ophelia sings as if on a television variety show; (c) the wider shot mimics the set up of a jazz band and torch singer in a nightclub; (d) the entire cast in a square, frontal theatrical mode.

That Gertrude and Hamlet exchange solos at the opening of the act would normally suggest a romantic pairing, and Gertrude is situated between Hamlets Senior and Junior in a symbolic love triangle. The triangles then rotate around Hamlet to introduce Ophelia.

Hamlet melodramatically mopes back to the side of the stage, where he sits at the harpsichord against the splayed wall. As he plays a melancholy introduction, the ‘harpsichord’ sounds remarkably like a reedy regal organ, and the sound appears to summon Ophelia (Burnett) who sneaks in and covers his eyes, asking, ‘Guess who?’

‘Mummy!’ he cries eagerly, and she shrinks back with a hurt, ‘No!’ With a disappointed, ‘Oh, it’s you, Ophelia,’ Hamlet turns back to the keyboard (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.12).

Undeterred, Ophelia continues to try to embrace him from behind and launches into the tumbling phrase, ‘Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt into my arms,’ with an unexpected, large leap down on ‘arms’ that plays with Burnett’s chesty tenor range. She thus co-opts Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which he laments his mother’s marriage to Claudius (‘Frailty, thy name is woman’), into a lament for Hamlet’s self-absorption (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.13).

Ophelia leaves Hamlet’s side as he continues to accompany her, and walks to the curve of the harpsichord. From outside the frame, she is handed a corded microphone and with a snap of her fingers, she changes the lighting to a pale pink spotlight. This completes the classic image of a nightclub torch singer, and as she sings, ‘I’m in love with the boy in black, but the boy in black is blue,’ the ‘harpsichord’ no longer sounds like a regal, but a piano. The camera focuses in on Ophelia, framing her as if she were on a television variety show (see Figure 24.2b). The music falls into a bluesy strut, and a cutaway shows Ophelia, Hamlet, and the heralds who have arrived, from the other direction, with the pages using their hands to provide the ‘wawa’ effect on the extra-long trumpets (see Figure 24.2c). But the ‘tv show’ shot is the predominant mode of framing the number.

The bridge of the song resembles the verse of Porter’s ‘Night and Day,’ with the monotone, syncopated melody over shifting chords; the ‘beat beat beat of the tom-tom’ replaced by the ‘pit pitty pit pitty pitty pat’ of Ophelia’s heart (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.14). As the intensity builds, the song and the performance slide from generic torch song to a parody of ‘The Man Who Got Away’ from A Star Is Born (1954), with Burnett taking on more and more aspects of Judy Garland’s mannered performance,18 from the hand gestures to the emotional shaking of her body, to the vocal vibrato and portamento, particularly the deep drop of range before rising in a belt for the finish. Ophelia slides up seductively to sit onto the piano, but it breaks under her weight at the peak of the phrase. Ophelia merely leans back and relaxes, while Hamlet stands to ‘direct’ the end flourish of the horns like a big band (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.15). As Hamlet turns back to the keyboard, Ophelia stretches out to plead, one more time, ‘Hold me, Hamlet,’ and he merely replies, ‘Get thee to a nunnery,’ and shoves the harpsichord offstage/offscreen.

(p. 554) The Ghost returns to the stage, with the giggling gaggle of guards, and Hamlet is ecstatic to see his father. He asks if he should avenge his death, and the Ghost brushes it off with a bluff, ‘Oh, bug off, my boy, I’ve never had it so good,’ the slightest hint of a reprise before he chases off after his ‘bevy of birdies’ and Hamlet sinks melodramatically into the chair.19 ‘Oh, woe is me, I have no one to avenge. My father is happy.’

‘Then,’ says Claudius, with studied eloquence, as he slips through the curtained door. ‘Let him rest in peace.’ ‘Stepdaddy’ Claudius suggests that Hamlet should fill his time by giving Ophelia a ‘tumble in the hey-nonny-nonny.’ Hamlet admits that he doesn’t know how, which cues Claudius’s surprise (and a string of takes from Korman) and his patter song, ‘There’s No One Who Can Do It Like a Dane,’ which carries numerous echoes of other songs like Porter’s ‘Let’s Do It,’ Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘There Is Nothing Like a Dame,’ Noël Coward’s ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen,’ and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s ‘The Rain in Spain’ and ‘A Hymn to Him’ from My Fair Lady, these latter influences heightened by Korman’s performance of Claudius as Rex Harrison20 (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.16).

Encouraged, Hamlet joins in for the end of the song, then Hamlet turns to a reentering Ophelia with, ‘The boy in black isn’t blue, he’s ready for you!’ and on the ‘wawa’ interjections waggles his hips suggestively, prompting Ophelia to respond, ‘I never had it so good!’ (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.17). They recast the opening Ghost + Chorus number into a duet, redistributing some of the lines between them to subtly reshape the lecherous original into a still-sexual but less predatory version. They are framed in a medium close-up two-shot for most of the number, but the camera moves out to frame the entire stage for the finale.

As Claudius and Gertrude reenter, Gertrude comments, ‘Well, I always say, “All’s well that ends,”’ which launches the ensemble into ‘All Is Well in the State of Denmark, Nothing’s Rotten Anymore,’ a reworking of the opening chorus that features now three couples (Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet and Ophelia, the Ghost and the Captain of the Guards). The theatrical blocking of the number is heightened by Ophelia rhyming ‘mellow’ in the lyrics with ‘Don’t forget, next week, Othello,’ the closest the sketch comes to recognizing internally the onstage/back-stage doubling of the original model Kiss Me, Kate (see Figure 24.2d and Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.18).

It also provides a big ensemble for the finale of the Burnett show (as do many of the musicals) (see Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical video example 24.19). After a commercial break, the short curtain-call ending of the television show always features Burnett singing her signature song, ‘I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together’ and the cast, still in costume, signing Burnett’s autograph book, as the credits roll.

La Caperucita Roja

Fairy tales were a staple of The Carol Burnett Show parodies, like ‘Snow White: 15 Years Later.’ Fairy tales are also a common basis for musicals and for folk theatre, and the three converge in ‘La Caperucita Roja,’21 an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood as if staged (p. 555) by a Mexican folk theatre troupe. In southern California of the 1970s, this folk art would have been somewhat familiar from at least two contexts. The year of the sketch, 1974, marked the closure of an institution: the folk art festival and cultural centre at Padua Hills, about thirty minutes from Los Angeles, had hosted a dinner theatre based in Mexican folk traditions since the 1930s, performing for audiences largely composed of the Angeleno creative and middle classes.22 And El Teatro Campesino, a folk theatre troupe founded in 1969 and born from the agricultural workers’ rights movement led by César Chavez, was swiftly rising in artistic circles as well as popular awareness.23 While this referent may be distinctly local to southern California, it is overlaid with cinematic and vaudevillean stereotypes24 and Burnett’s parody of the then-popular variety star Charo (who is Spanish American, not Mexican, although that elision is an exasperatingly common ethnic blurring). Charo’s enthusiastic sexuality, tempered by an appealing naïveté (whether genuine or carefully constructed), highlights the subtext of sexual awakening in the story which is likewise bolstered by the burlesque touches to the adaptation.

‘La Caperucita Roja’ is arguably the most theatrical adaptation of any sort done by The Carol Burnett Show. The sketch is introduced by Burnett as if the company were a real theatrical troupe: ‘In their first appearance on American television, the world-famous Mexican theatrical troupe, Los Muchachitos and Las Muchachitas de Mexico, with their very spectacular musical version of Little Red Riding Hood, or as they say it, “La Caperucita Roja.”’ The sketch then opens with an unusual full-stage image, including column-like pillars at the sides of the stage; a red curtain opens to an inner curtain announcing the troupe (see Figure 24.3a), and then those curtains open to reveal dancers accompanying a covered wagon rolling onstage, emphasizing the idea of the show as being put on by a travelling theatrical company, so there is the evocation of a stage-within-a-stage inside the show-within-the-show. We get a rare look at the whole stage at several points during the sketch, including the proscenium arch, the curtains, and the apron to the side in front of the wings. At the end of the sketch, we even see the house; as with ‘Hold Me, Hamlet,’ the sketch demonstrates a pull-back to the theatrical after a more intimate cinematic/televisual centre of the playlet, but in this case it goes not just to the whole proscenium arch (as at the beginning), but reaches even into the audience, as cookies are tossed into their midst25 (see Figure 24.3d).

Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical

Figure 24.3 The ostentatious theatricality of ‘La Caperucita Roja.’ (a) The camera frames the entire proscenium, including the side aprons, and a curtain behind the red curtains carries the logo of the ‘traveling theatrical troupe’ mounting the production; (b) Dancers set up tree flats, and a drop with ‘leaves’ descends to set the scene in the forest; (c) the Translator mimics Caperucita’s gestures as she translates; (d) at the end of the internal play and the sketch, the camera returns to show the entire stage and Carol/Charo/Caperucita tossing tortitas to The Carol Burnett Show audience.

Within the play, Vicki Lawrence—dressed as a flamenco dancer and lisping as if with a Castilian Spanish accent— is the narrator and translator of the internal theatrical play. The Translator is always present on stage in the first act, speaking to the audience, or occasionally on the apron in front of the wings, where she can directly address the audience at home via the camera. One of the traits of the dinner theatre at Padua Hills had been an internal translator for the plays,26 and the convention is well played for laughs in the sketch.

The Translator begins by introducing the various characters and the actors who will play them as they emerge from the caravan: the brave matador, Don Gorgioso is played by ‘the handomest actor in all of Mexico, Lylito Corredo’; the part of the grandmother is played by her own papa, Harvelito Kormano, who comes out in male garb; and the bull is played by ‘animal impersonator Carlo Reinero,’ who comes on in an outfit similar to Korman’s, with a colourful serape over his shoulder and a large ring he places (p. 556) ostentatiously in his nose as he paws the ground. The nose ring will be an object of much humorous ‘business’ in the play, as the bull replaces the wolf in this telling of the tale. While all of the actors are introduced with humorously (and badly) Hispanicized versions of their real names, ‘La Caperucita Roja’ is played by ‘Charo,’ thus Burnett is using an intervening impersonation for her role. As costume designer Bob Mackie noted, Burnett never thought of herself as attractive or sexy, but playing a character like Charo allowed her to play it for laughs. Mackie’s costume for ‘Charo’ as La Caperucita Roja includes very low-rise polka-dotted white trousers with flamenco flounces and a white lace push-up bra with a low décolletage under a hip-length red silk cape, a remarkably revealing outfit for 1970s television. Its daring may be a function similar to Burnett’s deflection of sexuality via Charo: if the costume is an exaggeration of a Charo costume, it becomes more parody than ‘sexy.’

The Translator kicks off proceedings with, ‘Our story starts with a fiesta—what else? At the Fiesta, the girls come to see Don Gorgioso fight the bull. But the boys come for a (p. 557) glimpse of La Caperucita Roja, Little Red Riding Hood, because the boys can’t wait to taste Caperucita’s tortitas.’ The opening musical number ‘La Caperucita’s Tortitas’ is in the style of a son jarocho, and as the Translator informs us from the stage apron, ‘Tortitas are small cookies, and Caperucita’s tortitas are the sweetest tortitas in town.’ The alliteration and allusion creates a not-very-subtle—but also not terribly crass—correlation between Caperucita’s tortitas and her breasts.

The Translator’s ostentatiously theatrical presence generates a great deal of the comedy in the sketch. She sutures elisions in the story, but in doing so, draws attention to them: after the opening scene, she declares, ‘And so a change of scenery is necessary to continue our story.’ The caravan is wheeled off to stage left as dancers enter from stage right, carrying flat ‘tree’ set pieces, and a partial painted backdrop scrolls down from above to fill in the ‘leaves’ (see Figure 24.3b). The Translator walks over and stands next to a ‘tree,’ echoing her opening line, ‘This is a forest. What else?’

However, the primary source of comedy is in her function as Translator, even though the simple Spanish is generally correct and comprehensible to an American—especially Californian—audience. Her participation is recognized by the characters in the play, and at times regarded as an intrusion or an upstaging.

At the end of the first song, Don Gorgioso the bullfighter comes in to solicit a tortita from Caperucita’s basket, and she refuses, as she has throughout the number. She says to the bullfighter, ‘Nonononononono, canto … porque,’ and clears her throat, but as she opens her mouth to sing, the Translator mimics her rhythm precisely with, ‘Nonononononono, I sing to you … why,’ and clears her throat. Burnett as ‘Charo,’ the actress playing Caperucita, gives her a long look at the intrusion onto her performance, and a medium close-up two-shot isolates the interaction between the two women from the bullfighter, highlighting the interruption, then the frame returns to the three for the number.

In her song about her Abuelita, Caperucita begins singing to Don Gorgioso in a very low register, which is also mimicked by the Translator when she speaks the translation, and when Caperucita mimes ‘casita’ by drawing a simple house with her finger in the air, the Translator does the same on ‘little house’ (see Figure 24.3c). On the second stanza, the Translator translates, ‘mi Abuelita’ as ‘same grandmother’ while kneeling as Caperucita has, and ‘Necessita mi tortita,’ becomes an overly clinical ‘She requires a cookie.’ The next line is broken into two short phraselets, beginning with Caperucita inexplicably singing, ‘Or else’—of course, this is not really inexplicable; it is a concept probably too difficult to convey in schoolbook Spanish, but creates another moment of tension as the Translator merely repeats the English phrase and the two exchange a slightly challenging look, with the Translator raising an eyebrow and cocking her head in a ‘so what?’ gesture. By this time, the two kneeling women are entirely the focus of the number, with Don Gorgioso only represented by the hand to which Caperucita clings, singing emotively, ‘Se muere’ [‘she will pass away’], ‘se muere’ [‘she will pass away,’ repeats the Translator, bored, with a slight, rolling, ‘get on with it’ gesture of her hand], and on the last repetition of ‘Se muere,’ Caperucita puts her hand over the Translator’s mouth and sings directly out to the audience.

(p. 558) A similar by-play features in the introduction of the bull in the forest, who arrives with a flamenco flourish of his arms. The Translator translates his extended cante hondo melisma as ‘That is a bull.’ He performs another melisma, which she translates as, ‘That is a hungry bull,’ and he burps in the middle of the next melisma, but recovers gracefully, so she walks over to put a familiar hand on his arm and chest, praising him, ‘Very nice!’ The actor/Bull shrugs slightly, ‘’S all right, I’ve done better,’ in a low voice, not quite a stage whisper. The interjection ‘Very nice’ (or ‘bery nice’ in imitation of a Castilian accent) as a compliment from actor to actor, rather than character to character, recurs between Caperucita and the Bull when they execute an extended diminuendo fermata together in their duet, before their cadential last words; and in a later duet, blending his ‘Mi estomaco’ and her ‘Mi abuelita’ songs, they turn toward each other on a similar held note. Her nose goes into his mouth, and she says, ‘Very nice,’ in a nasal voice in the rest before the cadence.

The other main source of comedy, which at times overlaps with the calling out of theatricality, are comedy tropes from vaudeville and burlesque. One could argue that the mixing of Spanish and Mexican, and various regional Mexican styles, is a comic stereotype, although the issue of ethnicity is particularly fraught among Californios,27 and other common gross stereotypes, such as laziness or jokes about food, are evaded. However, two familiar, more problematic tropes about gender and sexuality are engaged, in the characters of Don Gorgioso and Abuelita.

Don Gorgioso, played by the Rock-Hudson-like Lyle Waggoner, is portrayed as the desirable macho bullfighter (his bright pink and purple outfit is not appreciably more garish than any of Bob Mackie’s other 1970s styles). We do not hear his voice until the near the end of the first act, and as a matter of timing to highlight the ‘joke,’ the Translator actually preempts his line: ‘The brave Don Gorgioso asks “Where is the bull?”’ and Don Gorgioso stamps his foot petulantly, asking, ‘Donde esta el toro!’ in a stereotypically sissy accent. He also delivers the words with a distinctly American English accent, which is recalled in the later scene when Caperucita flees the bull.

The other vaudeville stereotype is less pernicious and a favourite character among The Carol Burnett Show portrayals. ‘Abuelita’ is played by Harvelito Kormano, but she is also Harvey Korman in his pneumatic ‘Mother Marcus’ drag, with an exaggerated comb and mantilla. A Yiddish pantomime dame with an enormous bosom and other rounded attributes, tightly wrapped in an upholstery-like floral dress, Mother Marcus was first introduced as a character in the show’s spoof soap opera, ‘As the Stomach Turns,’ but she became a recurring character for Korman, often (as in both ‘La Caperucita Roja’ and ‘Cinderella Gets It On’) as a double portrayal: as Korman playing Mother Marcus playing another character. As Abuelita, Mother Marcus’s usual floral housedress is embellished by flamenco ruffles in another floral print altogether, making the double portrayal a visual joke as well. ‘Harvelito’ has a Castilian lisp, like his ‘daughter,’ and when he raises his arms, we can also see that what appear to be black tights are just black dress socks, exposing pale skin between sock and skirt ruffle.

Playing into the vaudevillean stereotype of the randy older woman, Abuelita has a suggestive flamenco-style solo, ‘My Castanets,’ which draws attention to the lightness of (p. 559) Korman’s movements in his voluminous padding, but also suggests burlesque when he brings the castanets close to his expansive ‘breasts’ to click them in accentuating the ends of phrases while shimmying his shoulders. Her song is about loneliness and boredom, so she plays her ‘castanets,’ further hinting at a euphemism for masturbation.

When the bull has draped Abuelita’s mantilla over his horns and taken her place in the bed, he sings to Caperucita, with the lisp, ‘I am thick/I have a dithease/I think. … I think I am contagiouth/I don’t even have the strength to play my cathtanets,’ and he makes the castanet gestures near his ‘bosom’ the way Abuelita did. The burlesque sexuality is played out in the dialogue between Caperucita and the Bull, although her innocence is defused and the tables are turned as she discovers his tail as she goes to sit on his bed. With only a slight roll of her eyes, Caperucita begins a seductive, ‘Abuelita what big eyes you have,’ punctuating the end of the phrase by touching his tufted tail to his nose teasingly. ‘The better to taste and see your tortitas!’ The dialogue blunder by Reiner (taste is not appropriate to ‘eyes,’ although it cuts to the sexual innuendo even more directly) is taken into stride with only a slight grin in reaction by Burnett as Reiner mugs in mock horror to the audience at his mistake. Eventually, Caperucita undrapes the mantilla from one of the Bull’s horns and sings, ‘Abuelita, how HORNY you are,’ and the Bull replies, ‘You got it!’ Caperucita snatches her basket from his grip and flees through the door. The bedroom set rolls offstage left as Caperucita ‘wanders’ in the ‘forest’ and is discovered by the townsfolk/dancers, along with Don Gorgioso.

She encounters Don Gorgioso in the ‘forest’ and cries, ‘El toro es en la casa de mi abuelita!’ Don Gorgioso replies, ‘No comprendo.’ Caperucita sighs heavily and says in a flat American accent, ‘The Bull is in the House of my grandmother.’

‘The Bull —’ asks Don Gorgioso incredulously, and Caperucita responds, ‘Si!’

‘Is in there?’


‘Ha ha,’ he laughs theatrically, looking around at the townsfolk before gesturing melodramatically. ‘I will kill him.’ He takes off his cape and adjusts it as the Bull leaps out balletically, demanding, ‘Where are the tortitas?’ Don Gorgioso reacts in terror, fleeing offstage.

Caperucita comes forward, addressing the audience directly, ‘Matador es pollo, fweh!’ The Translator comes in, for the first time in the second act, and translates, ‘The bullfighter is chicken, fooey.’

Caperucita then taunts the Bull with her own little cape. After the first pass to stage left, the Bull comments, ‘Eh, you’re crazy, lady. … [D]don’t fight ladies,’ he protests.

‘I’m no lady,’ she asserts, and she eventually defeats him. Putting her foot on his back, to pose as if a big game hunter with a trophy, she asks the encircling dancers/townsfolk. ‘Should I kill him or let him live?’

‘Kill him,’ they chant, until Abuelita breaks the ring.

‘No!’ she protests, with the punctuation of the castanets. ‘Let him live.’ She pauses, then shimmies her shoulders as she adds, ‘With me!’ As they embrace, the Translator steps back in to join Caperucita, for a reprise of the Abuelita song, and in the language of the theatrical musical, this finale suggests subversion of musical/romantic comedy (p. 560) narrative resolution. The leading man has fled (and is portrayed as homosexual), leaving only the comic second leads as a couple: The Bull/Abuelita. It would be a stretch to read the other pairing, Caperucita/Translator, in any homoerotic fashion; they are almost antagonists throughout most of the performance, but they are also the two most important characters in the sketch, one the protagonist of the story and one the primary discursive agent.

Although, as noted with ‘Hold Me, Hamlet,’ it is standard for the ‘curtain call’ segment of The Carol Burnett Show to include the performers in the costumes of the previous segment, this sketch shows unusual theatrical bleed-through: Burnett sings the first two lines of ‘I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,’ in literal and rhythmically awkward Spanish, translated by Lawrence, and then the entire company sings the signature farewell song. As the music plays out the credit sequence, the autograph book signing is accompanied by a further extension of the ‘curtain call’ of the Mexican troupe: Lawrence takes the basket and tosses more cookies to the audience (see Figure 24.3d), and Burnett plays ‘bull’ to Waggoner’s bullfighter.

Cinderella Gets It On

The Wiz, an all–African American, urban revisioning of The Wizard of Oz debuted to great success, critically and commercially, on Broadway in January 1975. It is the clearest referent for ‘Cinderella Gets It On,’28 but not the only one. American popular culture was gradually and belatedly mainstreaming African American performers and culture. The Carol Burnett Show’s CBS network introduced two highly popular sitcoms featuring predominantly African-American casts within a year of each other, Good Times (1974–79) and The Jeffersons (1975–85).29 Cinematically, the Blaxploitation cycle was beginning a decline from a peak of production in 1973 and 1974, although it was probably not yet visible (the biggest drop off was between 1974, when about ten films in the genre/cycle were released, and 1975, when it was about five). In music, the early 1970s saw a late burst of creativity from Motown and Stax, and 1975 was the year that an underground musical style called disco, gestated in the black and Latino gay dance subculture, would burst into the mainstream with Van McCoy’s hit, ‘The Hustle.’ The Pointer Sisters, a wildly eclectic singing group of ‘preacher’s kids’30 from Oakland, had had their first hit in 1973. They sang gospel, were backup singers for Grace Slick, Boz Scaggs, and other Bay Area rock musicians, recorded the ‘Pinball Number Count’ segments for Sesame Street, and performed in classic blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, and swing styles while being the first African American group to perform at the Grand Ol’ Opry and to score a country music Grammy. This was all before their guest-starring stint on The Carol Burnett Show in November of 1975 (and long before their greatest success in the early to mid-1980s as a techno-pop group with hits like ‘Automatic,’ ‘Jump (For My Love),’ and ‘I’m So Excited’).

With three guest stars who are primarily known as a group, fitting them into an extended sketch is not necessarily easy, but making three sisters into the stepsisters of (p. 561) Cinderella is easy math, especially since fairy tales were a popular source for several extended sketches. Burnett introduces the segment with reference to earlier adaptations of Cinderella, including the opera by Rossini and the television musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein31 but what follows is primarily a television show—a situation comedy in act 1 and a musical performance/dance show like Soul Train in act 2.

The opening of the sketch blurs medium specificity, with a mix of the theatrical—the image is of a Playbill—and the cinematic. Like many fairy-tale films, westerns, and future Disney musicals, the opening of the storybook—in this case, the Playbill—eases us into the mythical world. The voiceover announcer (Waggoner) introduces us to scene 1 ‘The Pad’—the mother figure (Lawrence, again in a matronly but more sexualized role), and her ‘three funky daughters from her first stud.’ The Stepmother is filing her nails and the three daughters are painting their toenails, listening to a transistor radio, and playing bongos, respectively, as they sing, ‘Life is a super gig,’ with the Stepmother chiming in, ‘I can dig it, I can dig it’ (see Figure 24.4a). The living room set-up has the outwardly skewed dimensions of a typical sit-com set (to present more ouwardly to the studio audience and provide more space in which the cameras may move), although it is unclear how much of the contemporaneous audience would catch the resemblance to Shelley Winters’s role as ‘Mommy,’ the white drug kingpin in the hit Blaxploitation film (p. 562) Cleopatra Jones (1973). It may be only a knowing wink, even a complete coincidence (I doubt it), as the announcer passes quickly to the introduction of the lead, played by Burnett. ‘The Mother also had a stepdaughter who came with the second dude. This chick’s name was Cinderella. The Stepmother and the Stepsisters were all cool, with-it chicks, but Cinderella was the flip side. She was square.’

Carol Burnett and the Ends of VarietyParody, Nostalgia, and Analysis of the American Musical

Figure 24.4 Blaxploitation, Disney, and Soul Train: The Many References of ‘Cinderella Gets It On.’ (a) Vicki Lawrence and The Pointer Sisters as the ‘steps’; (b) Mother Marcus appears as the Fairy Godmother; (c) Elfin John plays the disco; (d) the set of the disco with the contemporary popular music television show Soul Train.

In comparison to the neon-coloured fashions of the Stepmother and Stepsisters, Cinderella is dressed in a floral blouse, a red checked gingham apron, green anklets, and saddle oxfords. She has an unflattering red bob, and her light green jumper is nearly the same shade as the walls, making her almost literally fade into the background. Her vocal delivery resembles Shirley Temple’s, making her seem even more juvenile compared to the others, who had ‘laid bread’ on her to go down to the disco to get tickets for the rock concert that night. She got the four last tickets, and the Stepmother takes the fourth, leaving Cinderella to pout. She, too, had wanted to see ‘Elfin John.’

When they leave, she cries and taunts herself as a ‘drip’ and a ‘square,’ drawing the shape in the air with her forefingers. Her ‘I wish’ song is comically literal: ‘I wish!’ she trills operatically, à la Disney’s Snow White. The paradoxically overtrained little girl voice sinks in a long portamento down to a waltz, her precise, slightly English-accented delivery reminiscent of Burnett’s longtime friend Julie Andrews, who was both Mary Poppins and the first television musical Cinderella (1957): ‘I wish I were foxy, I wish I were slick, I wish I were some kind of superchick, a chick who would blow your mind—Tina Turner and Cher combined.’ On the last phrase, her voice deepens bluesily. She sings another stanza, then walks away from the camera, hands behind her back, then turns back to Snow White: she twists to sing, ‘I wish … and a flute trill and nasal voice echo from offstage left. She puts her hand to her ear, it repeats, they exchange and finally perform the figure in harmony.

A flash bomb goes off in the doorway, and a vision in baby blue sparkles with fairy wings appears. It is Harvey Korman as Mother Marcus as the Fairy Godmother (see Figure 24.4b).

Cinderella does several takes, ‘What are you … I mean, who are you?’

‘You’re expecting maybe Tinklebell?’ responds the Fairy Godmother in a thick Yiddish accent. ‘But first, let me sit, my wings are killing me.’ She’s performed three miracles already today: ‘What miracles I’ve wrought! I got a doctor to make a housecall. I got mein Sohn to visit me. And I saved NYC from bankrupture.’ Korman’s delivery does the near-impossible in this sketch: he almost breaks up Burnett, but she makes her laugh into a high-pitched Snow White titter, and Korman pinches her cheek, which seems to be an anticipation of a bit of business from a couple of lines later.

‘Could you make me into a hip chick?’ asks Cinderella.

‘You want me to make you into a Lipschitz?’ The Fairy Godmother seems taken aback.

Cinderella titters, and the Fairy Godmother pinches her cheek again, but this time Burnett responds, ‘Ooh,’ as if her cheek is sore from repeated tweaks.

A burst of klezmer dance music accompanies the Fairy Godmother as she declares, ‘You are what you wish!’ Two 45-rpm records (Lawrence Welk and Guy Lombardo) and a pumpernickel become a chopper motorcycle with a sidecar. Cinderella is turned into a (p. 563) foxy strawberry blonde in a white jumpsuit with a revealing white wrap top, and the Fairy Godmother warns her to return by the stroke of 12. ‘12 midnight?’ asks Cinderella, and the Fairy Godmother responds, ‘Are you meshugena? Rock functions don’t begin until 12 midnight, you must leave by 12 noon.’ And they are off to the disco, with the Fairy Godmother driving ‘one of these Japanese motorcycles—a Yarmulke!’

Act 2 takes place at the ‘rock concert,’ where Tim Conway plays Elfin John in Pinball Wizard platform boots, sequined jumpsuit, exaggerated top hat, and glasses. He plays a piano with his name in rhinestones on the side (see Figure 24.4c).

The plain cyclorama with strips of lights, the orange-tinged studio lights, and broad, empty stage for dancing is strongly reminiscent of the set for the classic American dance show Soul Train (1971–2006) (see Figure 24.4d), the perfect setting for the act in which Cinderella makes up a dance that becomes an immediate hit. The ‘Schlump’ melodically parodies Bill Haley and the Comets’ ‘Rock around the Clock,’ which was experiencing a bump of popularity from serving as the theme song of the then-new and wildly popular 1950s-nostalgia sitcom Happy Days (1974–84). ‘Schlump around the Clock Tonight’ draws the attention of Elfin John and passes the hours until the stroke of 12:00. Cinderella tosses him one of her silver platform shoes as she leaves, which in turns becomes a bit of comedy when he comes to their sitcom living room (‘the last pad’ in his search for his lost chick) and Cinderella is wearing her green-and-gingham outfit, with one saddle oxford and one silver platform shoe. He is, however, unimpressed by her as a ‘square,’ and leaves, with a vague, ‘Glad you got your shoe back.’

Cinderella is heartbroken, but the Fairy Godmother tells her warmly, ‘There’s other gefilte fish in the sea.’ Cinderella responds with a distinctly Templesque ‘But I want him!’ (Burnett will sing ‘I’m So Glad …’ with a medley of the different voices she has used in the sketch.) The Fairy Godmother agrees, ‘You were meant for each other,’ and magics Elfin John back as a dweeby household product salesman for a happily ever after.

This last-minute subversion is striking because even the name ‘Cinderella’ immediately conjures a rise of class (socially and aesthetically). It is a simple inversion— a common trait of many parodies—but does not simply flip gender or position; it undermines the essential desire for status in exchange for a more realistic relationship. At the risk of claiming too much, I am reminded of the work of Anna E. Altman on parody in feminist fairy tales. She makes a distinction between parody (inversion) and poesis, even though she recognizes that it is not a stark opposition:

Poesis, in contrast, looks forward, creates new meaning. The term poesis is not a tidy or commonly recognized antithesis to the term parody. It does not identify a genre, and the two terms are not mutually exclusive. But I need a word to set against ‘parody,’ to stand for what is not parody. The first meaning of the Greek word poesis is ‘a making: a forming, creating,’ and in that sense I juxtapose it to the critical nature of parody. Feminist fairy tales that are poesis rather than parody use the form of the fairy tale without commenting on it. Or, at least, commentary is not the main point.32

The end of Cinderella is inverted, but it does not ridicule like classic parody; it achieves the goal of the original (an implied marriage) without the trappings of acquisitiveness (p. 564) and social climbing demonstrated by the Stepsisters and the Stepmother, who attempts to suck up to Cinderella when she thinks her stepdaughter will be hooking up with Elfin John. Nor is the skit about nostalgia, as much as it traffics in nostalgia. It does not even poke fun at disco, the excesses of which offer several opportunities. ‘Cinderella Gets It On,’ like the composite Astaire-Rogers musical ‘High Hat’ and some of the original musicals that The Carol Burnett Show composed from preexisting songs, approaches poesis. They take the form of the musical, and they often do comment on it, but they are also genuine expressions of the form and the creators’ deep love and understanding of it.

Parody as Time Capsule

But there is a rather obvious contradiction here: nostalgia requires the availability of evidence of the past, and it is precisely the electronic and mechanical reproduction of images of the past that plays such an important role in the structuring of the nostalgic imagination today, furnishing it with the possibility of ‘compelling vitality.’ …

[A]s Andreas Huyssen33 has convincingly argued …: ‘The more memory we store on data banks, the more the past is sucked into the orbit of the present, ready to be called up on the screen,’ making the past simultaneous with the present in a new way.34

For a generation, perhaps two, of Americans with only the three major broadcast networks and sometimes PBS, in a time before home video, Carol Burnett’s parodies were familiar before the originals were. We learned about old movies ‘backwards’ through the lens of Burnett—I know I saw ‘Mildred Fierce,’ ‘Rebecky,’ ‘Rancid Harvest,’ and ‘The Little Foxies’ before I ever saw the sources for the parodies. But the sketches ruined none of my enjoyment; if anything, they heightened my awareness of certain plot points or performances. This effect is not even exclusive to audiences: cast member Vicki Lawrence was eighteen when the show started, and in an era without VHS tape or Turner Classic Movies, she was often unaware of the movies, characters, and actors she was called upon to parody; Korman became her tutor. This collegial and even familial chemistry of the show’s performers was part of the appeal: over time, a feature of the show that became an attraction unto itself was Tim Conway attempting to break up Harvey Korman. In later years, they even made a nightclub act of that dynamic.

The parodies worked at numerous levels, as individual texts, genres, and media/venue: another recurrent skit was the adventures of ‘Funt & Mundane,’ a theatrical supercouple based on Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and in one episode their intimate drawing room drama was staged at an outdoor amphitheatre, with the comedy coming from the scale of the large stage and the foibles of outdoor performance, including airplane flyovers and insects. Other aspects cut cross-sections, like Korman’s affinity for Colman or Burnett’s for Garland carrying through sketches where they might not be obvious insertions. Mother Marcus’s various incarnations as Fairy Godmother, (p. 565) Caperucita’s Abuelita, and numerous other figures is an obvious case, layered onto her historical mash-up of Yiddish (grand)mother and pantomime dame types.

The Carol Burnett Show was a time capsule of sorts. It revived, adapted, and reencapsulated earlier entertainment forms with nostalgia that did not temper its wit. But the parody that evokes nostalgia also becomes something more specific and coherent. Costume designer Bob Mackie has pointed out that there are no Carol drag artists; she is, in essence, already one of them, a chameleon, but also inimitable. Comedian Jerry Lewis compares Burnett to his old partner Dean Martin as a classic entertainer: ‘We want them as pure as we can get them.’ Burnett is thus arguably a figure of poesis, not parody.


(1.) This does not count afternoon or late-night talk shows like The Mike Douglas Show or The Tonight Show, which often featured musical performances. It also does not count syndication: in 1968, the most popular variety show in syndication was The Porter Wagoner Show (1960–81), which would launch the career of Dolly Parton (1967–75), much as her three years on The Garry Moore Show had launched Burnett.

(2.) In an October 1968 New York Times article, creator George Schlatter commented about the critics’ and censors’ accusations of ‘tastelessness’: ‘Tasteless? The picture of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head ran in every newspaper in the world, and nobody reviewed them for a lack of taste. If that is good taste and a joke about the Pill is bad taste, then I will take our particular brand of bad taste any day. I find every hatchet murder being gone into in great detail, which is not only bad taste but lacking in humour. When we’re in bad taste, at least we’re funny’ (cited in, accessed 10 July 2017).

(3.) Burnett would go on to win Emmy Awards for dramatic roles in Friendly Fire (1979) and an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2009), to add to her four awards for musical, comedy, and variety performances.

(4.) Throughout the chapter, unless otherwise specified, production and biographical information, as well as interview quotes, comes from the DVD extras of the Time-Life compilation of The Carol Burnett Show.

(5.) Lawrence, in fact, legendarily got the job because people thought she looked like Burnett, and the multiple references to the then-seventeen-year-old Lawrence piqued Burnett’s curiosity.

(6.) The Welches are the parents of Americana alt-folk singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, which hints at a similarity of musical specificity and authenticity, if to completely different repertoires.

(7.) I explore this argument in more detail in a forthcoming book about television, space, and sound.

(8.) The show traditionally would run two performances on a Friday night—a show recorded at 9:00 pm as the broadcast version, but also a 6:00 pm version that was essentially a dress rehearsal but recorded for ‘safety,’ a source of editing materials should anything go wrong with the main performance.

(9.) Robert Stam, ‘Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation,’ James Naremore, Film Adaptation (2000): 54–76.

(10.) Paul Edwards, ‘Adaptation: Two Theories,’ Text and Performance Quarterly 27, no. 4 (2007): 5–6.

(12.) Hutcheon, ‘The Politics of Postmodernism,’ 181.

(14.) Hutcheon, and Valdés, ‘Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern,’ 21.

(15.) Hutcheon, and Valdés, ‘Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern, 22.

(16.) Episode 812; aired 14 December 1974.

(17.) The Cookie Monster similarly plays ‘Alistair Cookie,’ on Sesame Street, although Korman’s portrayal appears to predate that more famous one by several years,, accessed 18 July 2017.

(18.) Berry and Burnett also star as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes in Barns, and a similar duet draws attention to the ‘audio dissolve’ that Rick Altman describes as typical of a film musical: diegetic sound, such as the piano, is superimposed onto nondiegetic sound as a transition to a full-blown performance. As Berry as ‘Rooney’ accompanies Burnett as ‘Garland’ on the piano, conveniently set up on the verandah, she comments, ‘I love it when you play, it sounds like a whole orchestra!’

Burnett seems to have a particular affinity for Garland, in part because their voice range and style is not dissimilar, but it seems that the vulnerability in Garland’s persona resonates with a similar vulnerability in Burnett’s that she used comedy to deflect.

(19.) Normally, these full-length musicals are divided into acts, with advertising intermissions, but ‘Hold Me, Hamlet’ clocks in at a brisk 14:25.

(20.) The song even has a gay ‘in-joke’ not likely to ping broad audiences (or censors) in 1974, but recognizable by musical theatre aficionados and those keyed into the subculture: Claudius strings out adverbs about how Danes ‘do it,’ and Hamlet interrupts to echo, ‘Daily? Gaily?’ Claudius takes a beat and replies, ‘Some,’ before launching back into the song.

(21.) Episode 716; aired 19 January 1974.

(22.) For more details, see Kenneth H. Marcus, ‘Mexican Folk Music and Theater in Early Twentieth-Century Southern California: The Ramona Pageant and the Mexican Players,’ Journal of the Society for American Music 9, no. 1 (2015), and Pauline B. Deuel, ‘The Commedia Dell’Arte in a Mexican Folk Theatre,’ Hispania 47, no. 3 (1964).

(23.) The first widely known El Teatro Campesino play, Zoot Suit, written by founder Luis Valdez, premiered in 1978 and launched the career of Mexican American actor Edward James Olmos. A movie of Zoot Suit followed in 1981, with Valdez’s treatment of the life of early rock ’n’ roll star Ritchie Valens, the hit film La Bamba, following in 1987.

(24.) Pauline Deuel argues that the Mexican Players created an analogue to the commedia dell’arte in Renaissance Italy by relying on character stereotypes, which are, of course, often found in fairy tales (Deuel, ‘The Commedia Dell’Arte in a Mexican Folk Theatre’).

(25.) This effect is not unlike the typical ‘stagebound’ Busby Berkeley number, where the surrealistic and expansive nondiegetic space of the number is anchored into a theatrical stage at the beginning and end.

(26.) See Deuel, ‘The Commedia Dell’Arte in a Mexican Folk Theatre.’

(27.) For more legal and historical details, see Marcus, ‘Mexican Folk Music and Theater in Early Twentieth-Century Southern California.’

(28.) Episode 914, aired 29 November 1975.

(29.) The NBC show Julia (1968–71) featured a black single mother, but most of the other characters were white and the stories were more conventional sit-com stories with less of a political charge.

(30.) ‘PKs,’ or ‘preacher’s kids’ are familiar expressions in southern American culture, in particular, and have a certain air about them (Tori Amos and Amy Lee of Evanescence are also PKs).

(31.) ABC would air an original, all–African American version, known as Cindy or Cinderella in Harlem, a few years later in 1978.

(32.) Anna E. Altman, ‘Parody and Poesis in Feminist Fairy Tales,’ Canadian Children’s Literature/Littérature canadienne pour la jeunesse 20, no. 1 (2007): 23.

(33.) Huyssen, Twilight Memories, 253.

(34.) Hutcheon and Valdés, ‘Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern: A Dialogue,’ 20.