If you are a certain age, I don’t have to tell you much about "The Carol Burnett Show," one of the most memorable variety-themed television shows in history. So, when I heard the news that Carol was returning to the small screen next year in a still untitled ABC multi-camera sitcom from Amy Poehler, my emotions ranged from excitement to trepidation. I remember all too well what happened when another famous redhead, Lucille Ball, attempted a comeback.
In 1988, Lucy made an ill-fated attempt to recreate the success of her seminal sitcom "I Love Lucy" and her two other hit shows, "The Lucy Show" and "Here’s Lucy," with ABC’s "Life with Lucy." Aaron Spelling, who produced "Life with Lucy," once told me he remembered the deafening silence in the studio audience during the filming of a scene where Lucy was having some comical misadventures on a ladder. "They would have laughed in the past; this was typical Lucy," he said. "But Lucy at 75 doing physical comedy had the audience worried she would fall."
Introduced at a time when viewers were enjoying "The Golden Girls," with Betty White, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty comically dealing with the real issues of the senior female population, Lucy’s brand of comedy seemed stilted and stale. She couldn’t evolve past her popular persona. The scatterbrained antics that had served her well just seemed out of date.
But Carol does not have to make the same mistake that Lucy did.
What immediately impresses me about Carol’s return to primetime is her connection to Amy Poehler. With roots to NBC’s "Saturday Night Live," Poehler is like a modern-day Carol. She is another favorite amongst the masses and you only have to look at her critically-acclaimed sitcom "Parks and Recreation" to see she understands what works in comedy today. Carol is in good hands. Plus, the multi-camera setup planned for her new show could be of benefit, playing off the energy of the live studio audience, something Carol truly excelled at and leveraged in her sketch comedy when she addressed her fans at the beginning of each episode.
Since the sitcom will feature Carol as an elderly actress who is suddenly rooming with a young family that buys her house, one concern I do have is the premise itself. Every ABC comedy seems to feature a trio of kids—the jock, the brain and the nerd—a construct that is just plain tired. I would hate to see Carol smack in the middle of another generic alphabet net chuckler. And the cynic in me wishes Carol, at age 83, would leave well enough alone and not risk tarnishing her reputation as one of the pioneers in television comedy.
Obviously, the challenge Poehler and the writers face is coming up with a character for Carol that will accentuate her talents, while also offering us something new, not just a rehash of her greatest hits. Still, if two of those "Golden Girls," Betty White and Bea Arthur, can succeed in new roles after being strongly identified with their characters from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Maude," I think Carol can make a strong comeback as well. White even managed to strike sitcom gold a third time in TV Land’s "Hot in Cleveland."
Of course, much of today’s millennial audience may not even know of Carol Burnett, which itself could be quite a challenge. So, I would take a page from White’s comeback story. She got her first hosting job on "SNL" thanks to Facebook, and I would lobby the same for Carol. Then a commercial can also get people talking. Maybe Snickers could use another good pitch person? And appearances on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," "The Tonight Show" and the countless other talkers would further build anticipation.
Once these young viewers get to know our beloved Carol, I am sure they too will realize White is not the only classic comedy star worth watching on TV today. Welcome back, Carol. Amy Poehler ... I am putting my faith in you!