Carol Burnett was a groundbreaking female sketch comic who nabbed her own variety show in 1967 and over 11 years brought mirth and joy to tens of millions of Americans.
Nearly four decades after she sang her signature sign-off song on “The Carol Burnett Show” for the last time on CBS, her legacy remains indelibly etched in American television history. Burnett, at age 83, has been touring all over North America doing a stage show that is an effective thank you for her fans, old and new.
She will spend two nights at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre October 24 and 25 recounting stories from her illustrious life in Hollywood. Appropriately, it’s called “Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection.” (Tickets can be had at Ticketmaster.com)
The show includes clips from her past and a lengthy question-and-answer session with the audience. To inspire the crowd, she shows video of great questions from past concerts.
“It’s always fun,” said Burnett in an extensive 45-minute phone interview. “I don’t get thrown for a loop very much. I’m able to deflect if necessary.”
One of her favorite questions came from a woman in the balcony from a show in Texas about eight years ago. She asked: “‘If you could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours and pop back to be yourself, who would you be and what would you do?”
“I said a prayer to myself,” Burnett said. ” ‘I’m going to open my mouth. Whatever comes out, it’ll be your fault, Lord.’ I didn’t know I’d say this but what came out was, “I’d be Osama bin Laden and kill myself.’ ‘Thank you lord. The audience went nuts!’ ”
Burnett has always had a gift at improv, although she never took improv classes when she was young. (They didn’t really exist.) “I kind of developed that skill over the years being on television and writing what was going on,” she said. “I wanted [‘The Carol Burnett Show’] to be as close to a live show as possible. I didn’t want to keep the studio audience waiting. They’re our partners… I always insisted that unless the scenery falls down and conks us out, we keep going.”
Unlike shows such as “Laugh In” and “Saturday Night Live,” her sketch show largely avoided politics and current events, an antidote to the tumultuous times that Walter Cronkite would report every night on the evening news.
“We did a lot of obvious physical humor and stuff,” Burnett said. “There were times we got a little more edgy but we were never given that title. For the most part, we went for belly laughs.”
That played to her strengths. As she described herself: “I was kooky, gangly, loudmouthed.”
One advantage of that approach: many of the sketches hold up even today. She has sold DVD packages of her show and many of the most memorable sketches are on YouTube, where the younger generation that wasn’t around in the 1970s can watch.
“I have my own YouTube channel now,” she said. “Now when I go around the country, my audience ranges from 9 to 109. It’s great. I get fan mail from 10 year olds and teen-agers.”
But that didn’t mean some of the sketches didn’t have depth. Burnett recounted a “Mama’s Family” sketch where guest Maggie Smith played Bubba’s teacher, who wanted to talk to the family about Bubba’s bullying ways. The teacher discovered that he came from this dysfunctional family. “We chose not to do the over-the-top Southern thing,” Burnett said. “We played it totally straight. And you realize there are no jokes in it. It was devastating. It was just a great piece of writing.”
The show’s success was elevated by the chemsitry among her cast members, which over the years included Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway.
They would often crack each other up mid-sketch. Burnett said she never did so on purpose but Conway was the most mischievous, especially opposite Korman. “Harvey was a patsy when it came to Conway,” she said. “Conway would throw new lines at him all the time.”
Conway would play it straight and say his exact lines during dress rehearsal, then go rogue during the real show. “A sketch that went four minutes during the dress would become 10 minutes by the second show,”Burnett said. “Usually, we’d air the craziness from that second show.”
Burnett didn’t get her show on the fly. She was already a known commodity from her three years a regular player on “The Garry Moore Show” and she brought many of her key players from that show to her own. “There were no birthing problems,” she said. “We ran it like a school schedule. That’s how we did it on ‘The Garry Moore Show.’ We’d finish up at every day at 4 except on taping day and be home in time for dinner with the kids.”
Arguably her most famous sketch has a deep Atlanta connection: a spoof on “Gone With the Wind” called “Went With the Wind.”
Burnett said the sight gag is what made it so memorable. She entered the scene wearing a curtain rod dress, which legendary fashion designer Bob Mackie created. “Bob designed 60, 70 costumes a week. That amounts to 17,000 costumes over 11 years. He came up with that curtain rod dress,” she said.
Korman played Ratt Butler. “That gown is gorgeous,” he proclaimed on stage. Burneett, as Starlet O’Hara responded, “Thank you, I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist it.”
Burnett nabbed Mackie for her show in 1967 after seeing his work in an “Alice in Wonderland” special and a show Mitzi Gaynor was in where he dressed her up in clown and fat suits, “not just the pretty stuff,” Burnett said. She remembers him coming to her home one evening. “I thought he was the paper delivery boy,” she said. “He’s looked like he was 12. He was 26. We had this great talk. We hired him on the spot.”
Burnett loved how he designed costumes that would inspire or inform her characters such as Nora Desmond, a washed-up silent movie actress, or Mrs. Wiggins, the idiot secretary.
Mrs. Wiggins was originally supposed to be a doddering old lady. Mackie told her: “You’ve done a bunch of old ladies. Let’s make this one a bimbo.” “So he came up with this tight black skirt,” she said. “He had me stick my butt out when I walked.” And it worked.
Amazingly, she said she didn’t seriously hurt herself on the run of her show. “I taught myself how to fall,” she said. “I did get bruised occasionally. I never broke anything jumping out of windows, walking into walls, taking pratfalls.”
She also managed to get every guest star she wanted, from Bing Crosby to Sid Caesar to Lucille Ball to Sammy Davis Jr. But Bette Davis, she recalled, asked for too much money.
Although “The Carol Burnett Show” lost ratings in its final years, CBS left Burnett alone. They even wanted a 12th season. But Burnett voluntarily pulled the plug before things got too stale, aware that pop culture was shifting away from her type of humore. She also said she missed Korman, who had left the show after the 10th season.
She did try to resurrect the show 12 years later in 1990. But “it wasn’t any good,” she said. “They were trying to make it every edgy. It didn’t work.”
If she were to do the show today, she’d love to hire Tina Fey, Amy Pohler and Kristen Wiig. And she’d want Kevin Spacey. “He is very funny and he sings,” she said. “He does imitations like you wouldn’t believe. I saw Kevin on an ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio’ with James Lipton doing different celebrities.”
Burnett has not done much TV in recent years, making occasional appearances on talk shows and being feted by organizations such as the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and Kennedy City Honors.
“Did I die?” she cracked. “It’s always an honor. I know it’s a cliche. But it really is.” She especially enjoyed the Mark Twain special, where Julie Andrews replicated the “Went With the Wind” sketch.
Burnett herself did a funny sketch with Jimmy Fallon a couple of years ago, proving she still has it. “I’m a fan,” she said.
Burnett still loves her sign-off song “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” a melancholy signature farewell written by her then-husband and executive produce Joe Hamilton. She was inspired to do one because Garry Moore had one as well. “I just thought it was sweet,” she said.
Given Burnett’s strengths, you’d think she’d be a natural doing stand-up comedy. “I did a little bit when I was starting out but I didn’t enjoy it,” she said. “I really like locking eyeballs with people. I’m a sketch performer. There was this famous vaudevillian Ed Wynn. He was in the “Ziegfeld Follies.’ He was in his 70s when he was on Gary’s show. We got on the subject of comedians vs. comic actors. A comedian says funny things like Bob Hope. A comic actor says things funny like Jack Benny. I realized that’s what I want. I wanted to say things funny.”
Burnett said she sees some great comedy today but there is plenty of lazy writing, too. “I”m not a prude by any sense of the imagination at all,” she said. “But if it’s just shock value, it’s not funny to me. When I think of Norman Lear and ‘All in the Family.’ “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ ‘Bob Newhart.’ Those were clever writers. I haven’t seen too much of that lately. ‘Modern Family’ is good. I did like ‘The Grinder.’ ”
She is very much into Netflix and liked “House of Cards” and “Better Call Saul.” “Saul,” she said, “is very clever. Vince Gilligan is a genius!”
“Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection Where the Audience Asks Questions’
8 p.m. October 24 and 25
$55 to $175
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta