March 2007 Ethics Dunces

Carol Burnett

One would think a comedienne who lampooned Vivian Leigh's iconic turn as Scarlet O'Hara in a dress with a curtain rod across the shoulders and Gloria Swanson's demented silent movie queen from "Sunset Boulevard" as a hambone lunatic would have a hearty laugh when her own characters were the object of parody. And in the case of Carol Burnett, one would be wrong. The former TV comedy queen apparently found that Fox's cartoon comedy "The Family Guy" didn't tickle her funny bone sufficiently when it featured her own comic creation, the Charwoman, as a maid in a porno-shop. Absurdly, Burnett has filed a $2 million copyright infringement suit against 20th Century Fox arguing that the character was portrayed without permission.

Such satirical uses of pop culture images are common on "The Family Guy," "The Simpsons," and were, once upon a time, on "The Carol Burnett Show." Remember Tim Conway playing Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy by wearing shoes on his knees? Why didn't Mickey sue the show for playing him as a dwarf? Oh, wait: Mickey Rooney has spent his life making fun of others, so he got the joke! Or maybe he didn't get the joke, but remembers that he's attempted to be funny and failed on many an occasion, and so had sufficient empathy not to go looking for a lawyer when someone else's joke about him rubbed him the wrong way. But what can explain Burnett's conduct? Is she upset that the joke employing her character involved a porno shop? Is she running short on cash and looking for a quick settlement? Has it been so long since she executed a pratfall or a Tarzan yell that she no longer remembers that in comedy the only thing that matters is whether the audience laughed? Is she desperately trying to remind people that she used to play the Charwoman in comedy skits, since even pop culture nerds barely remember it? Or has she just taken leave of her senses?

It doesn't matter. Everyone, including her satirical targets, gave Burnett and her writers wide latitude to be funny on her long-running TV show, and basic Golden Rule ethics would dictate that she do the same now that it's her turn to be kidded. Call it professional courtesy, call it noblesse oblige, call it being a good sport, call it the right thing to do. Call it ethical, and also call it something that Carol Burnett can't seem to see.

"We are surprised that Ms. Burnett, who has made a career of spoofing others on television, would go so far as to sue 'Family Guy' for a simple bit of comedy," said 20th Century Fox Television spokesman Chris Alexander. The Scoreboard is surprised too. It appears that the ear Carol tugged for so long is a tin one for ethics.




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