Carol Burnett Interview: TV Icon Celebrates 50th Anniversary of "The Carol Burnett Show"
Image attributed to Carol Burnett
Carol Burnett’s extraordinary entertainment career spans six decades and encompasses television, film and Broadway. She is best known for her long-running television variety series, The Carol Burnett Show, which originally aired on CBS and premiered September 11, 1967.
In addition to Burnett, The Carol Burnett Show starred Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner and featured celebrity guests each week. In 1975, frequent guest star Tim Conway became a regular after Waggoner left the series, and in 1977, Dick Van Dyke replaced Korman for much of the final season. Over its 11-season run, the show earned 25 Emmy Awards and was ranked number 17 on the list of the “60 Best Series of All Time” by TV Guide in 2013.
“With the ‘Went with the Wind,’ I was knocked down those stairs twice in the sketch. On Friday when we were going to tape, I fell down the stairs six times because we did it in run through twice, dress rehearsal twice and twice in the air show. That’s six times I fell down those stairs, and I didn’t hurt myself a bit. I just realized that you can’t stiffen up. You have to let your body go limp. But nobody ever told me that. Harvey did a lot of physical stuff that he had never done before. I guess we just threw ourselves into it, and the gods were with us (laughs).”
The veteran entertainer returned to Stage 33 on the CBS Television City lot in Los Angeles to tape a special celebrating the 50th anniversary of the show, and The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special, produced by Dick Clark Productions, will air Sunday, December 3, 2017, from 8-10 PM on CBS.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Carol, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today
Carol Burnett: Well, thank you, Melissa.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does it feel like it has been 50 years since The Carol Burnett Show premiered?
Carol Burnett: Are you kidding? No. Twenty-five years ago, we did a reunion, and that feels like it was ten minutes ago. I’m just trying to wrap my head around it. It’s amazing how fast it goes. It’s also a thrill to know that we’re still viable after 50 years. That’s a big thrill for me. I feel very fortunate.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me a little about The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special.
Carol Burnett: Did you get a list of the guests we have?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, and I noticed that Tim Conway was not on the list.
Carol Burnett: No, Tim was under the weather, but he sent us a very cute, funny tweet that I read on the show. The way we envisioned it was to have guests come on who kind of grew up with the show or who were maybe influenced by it at some point, which we’d heard, so we sent out invitations to people, and everybody said, “Yes.” So we had a plethora of goodies.
We have 18 major guest stars on, and we kind of divvied it up a bit. Like for instance, we do a salute to Harvey Korman’s work, so I’m sitting on the couch at that point with Jay Leno and Bill Hader, and they talk about what Harvey meant to them. Then we show some of the genius of Harvey. We do a salute to Tim’s work, and that had Jim Carrey and Martin Short talking about how Tim influenced them and how they felt about Tim. On and on. That’s how we use the guest stars like Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph.
At the beginning, they ask me how I got the show started, and then Vicki (Lawrence) comes on, and we reminisce about her and show a couple of clips, and we do a special salute to Bob Mackie, our costume designer, and we show clips of some of his wonderful creations. I don’t know if you know this, but Bob designed everything everybody wore that you saw on the show. On the average weekly show, we had about 65 costumes a week. You add that up and do the math – with 65 costumes a week and 276 shows over 11 seasons, he designed well over 17,000 costumes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The costume, of course, that comes to my mind first is the curtain dress on “Went with the Wind!,” a parody sketch of the film Gone with the Wind.
Carol Burnett: Of course (laughs). Right. That was Bob’s idea, and that wasn’t written that way. But that was his brilliant idea, and that costume is now in the Smithsonian.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As well it should be.
Carol Burnett: Absolutely. When I went into the costume fitting that week, Bob said, “I have an idea for the curtain dress.” He showed me that, and I said, “That is going to be one of the greatest sight gags in the history of television.” And it is.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): One of the longest laughs ever on television.
Carol Burnett: I know. It was one of the longest laughs. The audience went nuts. It was hard for me. As I’m walking down the stairs, I wanted to laugh. But I kept biting the end of my cheek to keep from breaking up.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ouch!
Carol Burnett: Yeah. I was just biting the end of my cheek like crazy. I didn’t draw blood, but I was biting it pretty hard.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was that very first day like on the set of the first show?
Carol Burnett: I’ve just got great memories. When we started the show, we had a kumbaya moment. Let me put it this way. Just before the curtain was going to go up on the very first taping, Harvey, Vicki, Lyle and I did a group hug, and I said, “You know, we’ve got 30 shows that the network’s going to put on. We don’t know what’s going to happen after that. So why don’t we all just go out there and have fun?” That was our mantra for the whole 11 years.
We were there to have fun, and luckily, the network left us alone. They don’t do that today. They’ve got to nitpick and think they’re creative (laughs). They’re not as creative as some of the artists, you know. Mr. Paley ran CBS back then, and he would hire people and say, “Go do your thing because you’re the artist. If it works, and you get good ratings, you’ll get picked up.” But they did not interfere. Nobody bothered us. We would just do the show, turn it in and go on to the next week.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Not even the censors bothered you?
Carol Burnett: We only had one time in 11 years, and it was so silly (laughs). I was playing a nudist, and I was behind a fence that said, “Keep out.” Harvey was interviewing me, and the line he said was, “What do you nudists do for entertainment?” I said, “We have dances every Saturday night.” He said, “How do you nudists dance?” My line was, “Very carefully.” Well, for some reason, the network thought that was too risqué. I mean, please (laughs). So they said, “Come up with a different line.” What we came up with was what we wanted in the first place, but we didn’t think that they would allow it. So Harvey said, “How do you nudists dance?” I said, “Cheek to cheek.” (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That seems like it was more risqué than the objectionable one!
Carol Burnett: It was risqué for those times, and that’s the line we wanted, but we said, “Oh, they’re not going to let us say that.” But that’s the one they approved, and that’s the only time we ever had any kind of a comment from the network about any of the content.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Vicki Lawrence once told me that comedy was your calling, but didn’t you want to pursue journalism in college?
Carol Burnett: That’s right Yeah. I went to UCLA, and I wanted to major in journalism, but they did not have a major in journalism. So I joined the Daily Bruin newspaper, and I took a course in journalism, but I looked through the catalogue, and there was a major called Theatre Arts English. I loved to write, and it offered playwriting courses, so I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll do that.” So I majored in that, and I was a freshman, and when you were a freshman in Theatre Arts English, no matter if you wanted to direct or write or design, you had to take an acting course. You had to take scenery. You had to take costumes. You had to take lighting along with your other subjects.
I had to take this acting course, and I was nervous. I was 18 years old. So I picked something that was kind of light to do, and I came out and said a couple of lines, and they were funny and people laughed. I thought, “That’s a good feeling.” I started auditioning for some other plays and stuff, and it just kind of happened. I never was in comedy as a kid or anything. I was kind of a quiet student. It’s funny because I remember the first few times I was on The Ed Sullivan Show, and I’d get responses from some of the kids I went to school with. They’d say, “Is that you? Did I go to school with you? That was a surprise!” (laughs) It was a surprise to me, too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where did you learn physical comedy?
Carol Burnett: I taught myself that. On The Garry Moore Show, I remember I had to jump over a couch once. I did it, and I didn’t hurt myself. Sometimes I’d have a little problem with the neck. At one point, I threw my neck out. But I started loving doing physical comedy. All of us on the show did our own stunts, Tim, Harvey, Vicki and me, and none of us ever broke anything. I got a few bruises here and there.
With the “Went with the Wind,” I was knocked down those stairs twice in the sketch. On Friday when we were going to tape, I fell down the stairs six times because we did it in run through twice, dress rehearsal twice and twice in the air show. That’s six times I fell down those stairs, and I didn’t hurt myself a bit. I just realized that you can’t stiffen up. You have to let your body go limp. But nobody ever told me that. Harvey did a lot of physical stuff that he had never done before. I guess we just threw ourselves into it, and the gods were with us (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who makes you laugh, Carol?
Carol Burnett: Oh, gosh, the usual suspects. I love Tina, Amy and Jane Lynch. Lily still makes me laugh as does Steve Martin, and of course, Conway. I mean, please, Bill Hader, Martin Short and Maya Rudolph. It’s so wonderful, too, that there are more women now because in my day, it was Lucy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You and Lucille Ball were pioneers for the women in comedy that came after you, and you’re right. There weren’t many female comedians in the 60s and 70s. Did you ever think that because of the lack of comediennes, it might be an uphill struggle to success?
Carol Burnett: No, not at all because I had a contract that was great. It said that if I wanted to do 30 one-hour shows, the network would have to put it on whether they wanted to or not. It was a very unusual contract. So it never occurred to me, “Oh, gosh. I’m going to be a woman doing this.” It was what I knew because I’d come right from The Garry Moore Show doing comedy/variety and musical. That was just what I loved, so I never felt that at all like, “Oh, we’re breaking ground here.” It was just, that’s what I did.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Over the years, did you ever think about doing another comedy/musical variety show again?
Carol Burnett: Oh, not now because we had the best of times. You couldn’t do what we did today because we had, as I said, over 65 costumes a week, guest stars, a 28-piece orchestra, 12 dancers, a rep company. No network would put that on today.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You also had skits that lasted 12 or 15 minutes, something that’s rare even for Saturday Night Live these days.
Carol Burnett: Some of our sketches would run 20 minutes. The “Went with the Wind” sketch went 20 minutes. A network today would say, “That’s too long. You have to cut it down.” They don’t trust an audience to be patient. It’s got to be instant, and that’s a bugaboo of mine. I said, “Wait a minute. Let something develop. Let it grow. Give the audience credit for maybe having some brains and patience.” But, no, it has to be really fast today.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever wanted to host Saturday Night Live?
Carol Burnett: Not really. I mean, I’ve never been asked, but I understand it’s very hard work right up until the very last minute. They rewrite and do all of that, and I think I’d get too nervous. We had a script, and we rehearsed Monday through Thursday, and then we were ready to go on Friday. We’d make minor changes, but nothing major. It was more like summer stock.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But I have heard that Tim Conway was sometimes unpredictable (laughs).
Carol Burnett: (laughs) He was wonderful, but we never knew what he was going to do. We did two shows on Friday, and we would tape both, and in the first show, he would do it exactly the way we rehearsed it. Then we’d get a new audience in for the second show, and he’d go to our director and say, “Did you get all the shots?” Then he would go crazy on the second show, and it was usually gold. We’d have to wing it, and the director and cameraman were winging it. You’ll see on the special when we salute Tim’s work. It’s just brilliant work that he had not done in rehearsal. He’d just come up with this stuff. He thought about what he was going to do on air, but he never told us. We just had a ball!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have an unscripted comedy coming to Netflix next year that is literally child’s play called A Little Help with Carol Burnett. How did that idea come about?
Carol Burnett: It was an idea that actually my manager had about kids saying the darndest things, so these kids ranging from ages five to nine were perfect because they’re at that age where they aren’t censoring themselves yet. So they just blurt out things. We present adult dilemmas to these kids, and they offer advice, and some of it’s so cute. They just say what they’re thinking. But some of it’s pretty profound, too. I can’t remember the question that was posed to this one little girl, but her advice was, “You just have to follow your heart.” She was six or seven years old saying, “You just have to follow your heart.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Definitely wise beyond her years. I enjoyed your appearances on Hawaii Five-O. Any other projects coming up?
Carol Burnett: Oh, thanks. No. I’ve had quite a busy couple of months just now with Q/A shows and promoting the special. Then it’s Christmas and New Year’s. I’ll be relaxing then.
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