By JOHN J. O'CONNOR
Published: February 10, 1987
ONCE upon a time, variety shows were a television staple. Hardly a night passed without some performer or personality being host of an hour or so of comedy and music. "The Ed Sullivan Show" led the way on Sunday evenings for years. And then, suddenly, there were none. Perhaps the public had heard all the jokes and seen all the production numbers. Ratings plummeted, and programmers turned almost exclusively to sitcoms and action-adventures. A measure of what was lost can be glimpsed, tonight at 10 on ABC, in "A Carol Burnett Special . . . Carol, Carl, Whoopi & Robin." The executive producers are Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner from "The Cosby Show."
Ms. Burnett was, of course, one of television's most outstanding variety stars. Her show ran for 11 years, with a little help from such talented comics as Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. On this evening's special, after an opening musical number, she steps out before the audience to the sounds of her familiar theme music. In fact, she's appearing in the same studio where her old show was taped. She takes questions from the audience, and she even gives her left ear the familiar tug for luck before walking off to resume the show. In the past few years, Ms. Burnett has been acclaimed elsewhere - from dramatic roles on television and in films to a concert version of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" - but she still shines most comfortably in the old variety format.
For this occasion, the star shares most of the show with her guests. Carl Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams join her for the curtain raiser, a clever musical lecture on laughing, on titters and cackles, on chuckles and chortles, and especially on guffaws. The rest of the show - directed by Mr. Korman and Roger Beatty - is largely monopolized by sketches Ms. Burnett does separately with Mr. Williams and Ms. Goldberg. (Mr. Reiner is limited to a brief skit with Mr. Williams on the perils of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter.) The Burnett routine with Mr. Williams is hilarious as he, a touch deranged and garishly dressed, visits her in a funeral home. He has come to pay his respects to her departed husband, the only person who was ever nice to him on the commuter train. "Do you want to keen?" asks the looney mourner, "or how about singing a Negro spiritual?" In an unusual gambit, the entire sketch is then repeated with, we are told, Mr. Williams doing a complete and unrehearsed improvisation. "Death," he observes, "is nature's way of saying, 'The check, please.' "
The material featuring Ms. Goldberg is far too predictable and runs on too long. With Ms. Burnett playing the mother and Ms. Goldberg the daughter, the performers trace a relationship from cradle to old age. It's the kind of turn that Marcel Marceau used to do better and faster without words. But disappointment is part of the variety experience. It didn't work this time, but it would be fun to see the two stars try something else next time. Not long ago, that next time would have been next week. Now, who knows? Meanwhile, this "Carol Burnett Special" adds up to an affecting reminder of how one departed television format used to be surprisingly entertaining.
Carol, Carl, Whoopi and Robin (1987) (TV)
Cast: Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams