Q & A: Carol Burnett
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Forty years on, CAROL BURNETT’s self-titled CBS variety series (which aired from 1967 to 1978) still stands tall as an exemplar of TV sketch comedy. She chatted with us in regard to her traveling show "Laughter and Reflection."
You’ve done this show before.
Uh huh. The show is called “Laughter and Reflection”; I’ve been doing this quite a few years as an extension of the Q&As I did on my TV show as a warm up every week. They were such fun to do, I decided I might go out and do some evenings in theaters, bump up the lights and just wing it, you know? It’s a little nerve-racking at times, but always exciting, and fun because there are no “plants” in the audience, I don’t read any questions that are pre-submitted, and I never know what anyone is going to ask. It’s totally seat of the pants. What it does is keep the adrenaline and the old gray matter ticking.
Each show is different, although over the years I’ve grown to expect certain questions that are always the same. I call on questioners at random, but usually somebody’s gonna ask me how I came about doing the Tarzan yell, or “is Tim Conway really that funny in real life?” I love that expression, “in real life.” And how did I find Vicki [Lawrence] and Harvey [Korman], and what were my most embarrassing moments—things like that. So I can call up some stories that actually have developed out of these evenings over the years.
Can you give me an example of a question that took you by surprise?
Yes [laughs]. This has been quoted, so forgive me, but it’s the one I always talk about. About a year and a half ago I was in Texas, and a lady raised her hand up in the balcony. I called on her and she said, “Carol, if you could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours and then pop back into being yourself again, who would you be and what would you do?” I said, “Oh, my gosh,” and the audience started to giggle because they saw my eyes; I looked like a deer in headlights. And I said this quick little prayer, “God, I don’t know what I’m going to say but I’m going to open my mouth, and whatever comes out is your fault.” What came out was, “I would be Osama Bin Laden and I’d kill myself.” And I said, “Thank you, God.” The audience loved it, and I loved it, too. I thought, “Where did that come from?”
Immediately, my mind went to somebody like Cary Grant, but then what would I do as Cary Grant? I was going the movie star route, but I just opened my mouth and out Osama came.
Are there any questions that someone might pop up with that are off-limits?
Off-limits questions do come up, but they’re very rare. In that case, what I do is just say very nicely, “Let’s go on to something else.” And usually, the audience will be with me, because it’s someone who wants to talk politics or something like that, which this is not about.
How long have you been doing this, then?
About 19 years—but not always that much; there are times when I’ll only do two a year.
But it looks like this spring, you’re doing a little minitour.
I did two in April, and I’m doing four in May.
You have a book coming out soon, too.
My book is also coming out in May. It’s called This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection. I started to write it as an offshoot of doing these evenings. I thought, “All these questions that I get, I think I want to put them in a book of anecdotes”—take a question like “How funny is Tim Conway?” and then write three or four stories about Tim. Or talk about embarrassing moments, like when I first met Cary Grant.
So it started out as those kind of anecdotes, but then it began to morph into a bit of a memoir, too. Some of the stories weren’t that funny, but they resounded with me and I wanted to write them down. So some of it’s kind of serious; I’d say it’s a hybrid.
Do you communicate with your fans?
Sure. Lots of times, especially if I get a letter from younger kids. It’s strange, they weren’t alive when we were doing “The Carol Burnett Show,” but they know me from some of the reruns and now, YouTube. Also from Annie. And our play, the play my daughter [Carrie Hamilton] and I wrote, is being done in certain community theaters around the country, so I might get a letter from a little girl who’s playing the little girl in the play who wants to know how to approach a scene, or needs help interpreting something in the script. So what I will do—and I’ve done this three or four times—is I’ll just phone them. It’s easier than writing a letter, and I can answer the question right then and there. The kids who play that role are really cute; they range in age from 11 to 13. That’s fun. [Ed. note: The play Burnett refers to, Hollywood Arms, is based on her 1986 memoir, One More Time.]
I know that Jim Carrey once sent you a résumé.
Yes, he did, he was 10 years old! Yeah, I wrote him back and thanked him and everything—oh, my goodness, I was just so amazed, after all those years, and here it was Jim!