Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Recently, a streaming service has apparently added the Carol Burnett Show, season one that first aired in 1967. Some of you are now thinking, “Oh I loved that show”, and others are thinking “Who’s show?” The show was a “variety show”, with skits and songs, and probably one of the funniest of such shows in history. But the history of the show is truly fascinating.
The late sixties and early seventies were wildly different from today. I am just not quite old enough to recall the start of the show (in 1967 I was four) but since it ran until 1978 when I was 15, I very much remember it. I literally grew up with Carol Burnett.
But watching the show is a fascinating civics lesson. I’ve watched about half of the first season, and I think I have yet to see a minority. It’s one of those inherent racist things. At the time, I never really even thought about it, it’s just the way that it was. I’m sure eventually they had minority guests, but I don’t remember if they ever had a regular cast member that wasn’t white, although Wikipedia mentions Sammy Davis, Jr. as a cast member. I don’t think this is right, though. I remember him being a guest star, but not a cast member. In fact, other sources suggest that he was not on the show until season 9 in 1976.
It’s truly interesting to see how inappropriate their skits are by today’s standards. In all of the skits I’ve seen so far, the women, of course, are all cast in the role of wives and the men are of course the hard-working responsible breadwinners. What’s more, several of the skits deal with verbal and physical abuse of the women. Of course, it’s all done in what is supposed to be a playful and humorous manner, but to have such skits on a comedy show today would be absolutely unacceptable. Of course, back in those days physical and verbal abuse of spouses (and children) was not classified as assault, but rather, the police would report these calls as “domestic disturbances”.
One of the more interesting aspects of this early season is the rather extreme reverse sexism. Sexism in that day was common and accepted as “just the way it is”. Nobody ever even questioned the legitimacy of it, at least the men didn’t. Sexist jokes, inappropriate comments and physical contact like slapping women was just the way of society. This show had all of that, but ironically, it was the women with the “upper hand”, most likely because it was Carol’s show. They had a regular named Lyle Waggoner who apparently was considered to be quite handsome. Their behavior towards him, and their jokes about him are very much in-line with the way many men were treating women. In a way, then, it seems like karmic kickback for them to be treating him that way.
Let’s make this clear. This is not a post to call for a boycott of Carol Burnett. Rather, I want to point out the dangers off judging the past by today’s standards. Watching the show, there are some things seem very clear. It seems very clear that the entire cast, including Lyle Waggoner, were having a lot of fun, and nobody was offended, and they certainly didn’t seem to have a desire to be offensive. Their behaviors, their jokes, even the skit subjects were all perfectly appropriate for the standards of the day.
Watching this show, the choice is to either accept that it was simply a different age and enjoy the humor or to be offended. This is dramatically different from claiming to protect our history by protecting statues. The statues that are under attack are mostly of confederate heroes, heroes who fought for slavery and white supremacy. If somebody decides that they find Carol Burnett offensive can choose to simply not watch the show. I have done this; I’ve avoided watching shows that I find offensive (usually the “reality shows”). It’s really not hard. On the other hand, if somebody put up a statue of, say, Hitler, I would find it personally offensive, and it’s far more difficult to avoid a statue especially if it’s in your hometown. My ancestors immigrated from Germany, probably about the time that Hitler was in power but far before my time. Although I am the second generation of my family born in America, I grew up with a lot of kids trying to bully me by making Hitler references. Hitler took over my Fatherland, twisted it into a nation of hatred and intolerance murdering eleven million innocent men, women and children, not because of the color of their skin, but because of the holy book they followed. If I were to see such a statue erected in his honor, as we both know American neo-Nazis would love to see, trust me; I would do everything I could to tear it down.