Q & A: Carol Burnett
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What do you think about the current state of TV comedy?
You know, I don’t want to sound snobbish, but I don’t watch television comedies that much. I do like “30 Rock.” I love those characters and the way it’s written. But there’s very seldom anything on any more that gives you a big belly laugh. You might laugh or chuckle to yourself, or just watch and think, “That’s very clever.” But just an out-and-out belly laugh—I don’t know of any shows that give you that. Sitcom writing is so formulaic: set up, set up, joke, laugh track; you always know what’s coming.
I remember I was in Washington, D.C., a few years ago at a State Department dinner, and I was sitting next to the wonderful—God rest his soul—Larry Gelbart. I’d known Larry for years, and we just got to talking about the state of the sitcom, that since “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “All in the Family,” there just hadn’t been that many good writers. So I asked him, “What do you think it is?” Larry said, “Carol, the writers today never played stickball in the street. They’re writing about life once-removed because they grew up watching ‘Father Knows Best,’ watching television. Their writing is second-hand, because they never grew up on their own and learned how to play.”
I was reading a piece in The New York Times that said much the same thing, about the mental value of recess and just letting kids go out and play, rather than signing them up for organized sports. If you let them run around and use their imaginations, rather than making them stand in line and get uniforms, they grow up much freer.
Yes, when you look at TV today, there’s a certain artificiality about it.
I enjoy the late-night shows, like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” . . .
I love him. I’m kind of a news junkie anyway, and he and Colbert are clever, witty, edgy—all of that. But I’m talking more about the real belly laugh. . . . Somebody asked me about Tim recently. If you watched today some of the things he did on our show, you’d have to invest in Depends. He’d make it up. We’d do two shows on Friday with different audiences, one at 5 p.m.—the dress rehearsal—and then the nighttime one we taped, where we might have made some changes in the script. We’d get both shows on tape, for backup. Tim would always do the first show as it was written, to the ink, then he’d go to our director Dave and ask him, “Did you get all the shots?” Then he’d say something like “Okay, in the hotel sketch when I go over to the window, instead of being on a waist-to-head shot, be on a head-to-toe shot of me.” ’Cause he was going to come up with some bit of business none of us had ever seen . . . but that’s all he would tell the director. So it was like a free-for-all among the crew: “Now, follow him here! Get him over there!” [laughs] And it would always make it to the show because it was funnier than what was written.
So that’s what I mean: Funny is funny, and those were good belly laughs. The nicest compliment that our show gets—and a lot of people say this when I do these evenings—is “I grew up watching your show with my family. It was really appointment television.” And it’s not just our show, it was that era. It’s really the loveliest compliment I think any show could get.
I think of all the classic movie parodies you did, and the classic actresses whose roles you spoofed. What about the actresses today? Is there anyone who you think would be as much fun to do?
Not really. We did the movie more than anything, and the genre, and everything is so different now. There were the women’s pictures back then, and film noir. I did Lana Turner and Barbara Stanwyck with Steve Lawrence, who was one of the best sketch players I’ve ever worked with. He was so funny—when we went into syndication we had to cut the show into half-hours because we couldn’t include music; the cost for licensing is too prohibitive. So Steve and [his wife] Eydie [Gormé] were at an airport one time, and some kids came up to him for autographs saying, “Hey, you’re that funny guy from the Burnett show.” They had no idea he could carry a tune because they’d never heard him sing.
Soupy Sales was very funny as the male secretary in “Mildred Fierce.” You spoofed Mildred Pierce more than once.
Soupy Sales was darling. That sketch was kind of a takeoff, where she was in an office. The other one we did was the movie itself, with Vicki in the Ann Blyth role as the little bitch, and Harvey being the slimy Zachary Scott character.
Another variety show of the time, the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” had many struggles with the CBS censors. Did you have any problems?
We had it good; the network left us alone. Bill Paley, who was the head of CBS, just said, “Okay, go ahead and do the show, and if the ratings are good, bless you.” We never had anybody from CBS come in and try to rewrite the script. They just let us go.
There was this one guy who was a censor, but we loved him—his name was Charlie Petitjean—and he was terrific. He was very funny and very seldom gave us a note to change something. One time we had a sketch where I was pictured behind a fence with bare shoulders and bare legs and gym shoes. The fence had a sign saying “Keep out”; I was in a nudist colony. And Harvey was interviewing me for a documentary, and he asked, “So what do you nudists do for entertainment?” And I said, “We have dances every Saturday night.” He said, “How do you nudists dance?” and the line I had written for me was, “Very carefully.” Unfortunately, Charlie came up to us and said, “You know, kids, the network won’t accept that; you have to come up with something else.” So we said, “Okay,” and we got on air and Harvey said, “How do you nudists dance?” and I said, “Cheek to cheek”—and they let that go by!” After that I said, “Charlie—give us some more notes!” [laughs]
You’re often called “a national treasure.” How does that make you feel?
Now, that’s an impossible question to answer, except to say I’m glad they feel that way! I don’t agree, but it’s a lovely compliment. I feel a little like, “Aw, gosh.”
When you look at your career, is there anything you’d like to have done differently?
No, not at all. If I’d done something differently, I wouldn’t be as happy with what I did do. Who knows what would have happened, and I’m happy with the way everything turned out. So I’m afraid to go that route and say, “What if I’d opened that door instead of this door?” Would I be sitting here right now talking to you now the way I am? I don’t know.
What’s next? Any plans?
No. I’ve been writing my book for a year and a half. That was my first love—writing.
That reminds me of the quote you’ve attributed to your mom . . .
Exactly; my mother said, “Don’t worry about your looks if you can write”—she didn’t know what kind of message that was sending! [laughs] But she was beautiful. She was a writer; she loved to write interviews with movie stars. She’d had a couple that were pretty good, then it all went south.
So I wanted to major in journalism at UCLA, then I took the playwriting courses. I wrote every so often and then wrote my memoir 20 years ago for my daughters. This one is an update, but it doesn’t go very deeply into a lot of personal stuff. And yet, there are a couple of stories that do.