An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Alongside Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, Johnny Carson, and a small handful of others, Carol Burnett is one of the most beloved TV stars of all time. In a nutshell, she is TV Royalty. With a career that reaches back into the ’50s and continues to this very day, Burnett has become a legend on the small screen and in the hearts of her fans and critics alike. She may not have created the variety show, but she redefined it by tearing up the instruction manual and creating a new blueprint for the way it should be done. The Carol Burnett Show (TCBS), which ran from 1967-1978, set the standard bar so high that no other variety show came close to duplicating its success. From the opening Q&A that Carol held with the audience, to the musical guests, sketches, movie and commercial parodies and her closing theme song (“I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together”), TCBS was pure entertainment that didn’t aim at the lowest common denominator to get laughs or ratings. It featured just the right balance of humor and heart – never too hokey (but often over the top) and full of absolute joy. The show may have been named after her, but she brought together an amazing cast of actors and comedians to work alongside her. Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner, and Tim Conway played key roles in the success of the show alongside semi-regulars like Steve Lawrence and Betty White. They were a repertory company more than just a star and her sidekicks. While Carol is considered an ‘Icon’, she’ll be the first to tell you that there is no ‘I’ in ‘Icon’… but there is a Carol, Harvey, Vicki, Lyle, and Tim! Burnett’s popularity is not only defined by what she has done as an entertainer, but how she has connected to and enriched the lives of millions of fans, many of whom weren’t even born by the time the show went off the air.
It’s been 36 years since the last episode of The Carol Burnett Show aired. Since that time, the show has been syndicated (although in truncated form), released on VHS and DVD and many of the sketches remain popular on YouTube. In recent years, Time/Life has released a series of DVD sets – Carol’s Favorites, This Time Together and One More Time - that feature many of Carol’s favorite episodes in their entirety (sans commercials). In 2013, they released the glorious 22 DVD box set, The Ultimate Collection, which contains the three previously released titles along with four additional DVDs of exclusive bonus features. And now, Time/Life is releasing a 6 DVD set entitled Carol’s Crack-Ups, another marvelous collection of original episodes from her ground-breaking show. Carol’s Crack-Ups is wall-to-wall funny. Though the hairstyles and some of the fashions may reveal the era that these episodes were filmed in, the humor is absolutely timeless. Whether you saw these shows when they first aired or you watch them for the first time on Carol’s Crack-Ups, they still feel fresh and wildly imaginative. The humor is smart, sharp but never mean-spirited and that is what makes it so special. With TCBS, it was never about pushing the limits, it was about making people laugh and feel good. Imagine that!
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Carol Burnett about these recent DVD sets and so much more…
Stephen SPAZ Schnee: Time Life has released the separate DVD packages, the Ultimate DVD box set, and now you’ve got the Carol’s Crack-Ups just about to come out. How are you feeling about the reaction to everything so far?
CAROL BURNETT: Well, it’s been amazing, absolutely amazing. With the first batch, 4 million people bought them. It’s just amazing. You know, I was of course very pleased and a little surprised because the show was quite a few years ago, but what it has shown to be is that what’s funny is funny.
SPAZ: In revisiting the TV show, have noticed that, although they tend to be rooted to a particular time, the absolute essence of the sketches are timeless. Are you surprised how relevant a lot of these sketches still are 40 years later?
CAROL: Well, I think one of the reasons is that we were never that up on stuff that was happening right then. So that it plays today because what we have is just a timeless thing because we weren’t politically involved, you know. A couple of times we did some takeoffs on what was going on in the White House and stuff, but it was not the main thing that we did. You know, I’m a clown…I started out as a clown and so you know with the cast we had… Harvey was a consummate comedic actor. He could do everything. He prided himself on being a really fine, fine actor. Tim is, you know, on another planet. (laughs) And then Vicki morphed into being able to do all kinds of characters even though we first hired her to play my kid sister in kind of an episode of Carol and Sis that we did for a long time. And then my love, one of my loves was growing up and seeing all the old movies. And so this way, I just wanted to do a lot of takeoffs and send-ups of classic movies. Some of them, people wouldn’t even remember, but they were funny in their own right. You know, what we used to call a mother pleaser - (laughs) Mothers would get it, but then the kids got it too, but not on the same level as the mother because she could refer to growing up with these movies too. But what’s wonderful is that I’m getting fan mail because a lot of our sketches are on YouTube. And so I’m getting mail from 10-year-olds, teenagers, kids in their 20s, you know, saying well gosh, you know, we wish television was like that again today. And I (laughing) got the cutest letter from a 10-year-old just yesterday and I’m going to give her a call because she left her phone number. So, I’m going to give her a call and thank her for her nice letter and stuff, but it’s really amazing so that’s when I said, I guess funny is funny.
SPAZ: What I find interesting is you said that you hired Vicki to play your kid sister…
CAROL: (Chuckling) And she became my mother….
SPAZ: I remember distinctly, probably when I was about 8 or 9, asking my parents if Vicki Lawrence was your little sister. When I found out that she wasn’t, it was like wow! (Carol laughs). You have a lot of episodes to choose from. What were the criteria that you put into choosing which episodes got released in these sets.
CAROL: Well, you know I don’t have a field trap of a memory, but there are certain ones that did stand out for me. And then I have what we call a Bible that has a list of all the shows, and I have all the shows too in the collection. So, if something was niggling at me – like, there was a sketch I did with Roddy McDowell that was about such and such and I can look it up in the Bible and then go and get that number of show and play it to see if it held up the way I thought it did. I did a lot of that and then some of it is about how funny Tim was, and some of the guests, I mean Steve Martin and Betty White – those really stood out for me.
SPAZ: I think it is just fantastic that you had these musical guests that that you integrated into the sketches. It’s not like a Saturday Night Live thing where they’re just sort of in the background.
CAROL: Right. In fact, one of my favorite guests was Steve Lawrence because he was so funny. Aside from having a great set of pipes (laughing), he was just a great comedic actor and so, some of my favorite movie takeoffs were with Steve. We did The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, African Queen… and Steve was in all of those. Funny, when we went into syndication they cut the show down to just the sketches, none of the musical stuff was in it, so it was only a half hour in syndication and Steve and Eydie (Gorme) were at an airport one time, and we were in re-runs, and these teenagers ran up to him and they said, “Oh, you’re that funny guy on the Burnett show.” They had no idea he was a singer.
SPAZ: I think that the ‘60s and ‘70s, in my opinion, were really responsive to people from the previous generation – like Steve and Eydie obviously were from the 60s and I think they went back to the 50s, right?
CAROL: They went back to the late 50s when they both started on the old Steve Allen Tonight Show.
SPAZ: I always found that it was great – even into the 70s - because TCBS would get Steve Lawrence involved…an artist from a seemingly different generation. Elsewhere, you’d see Fred Astaire in The Towering Inferno, Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure, Roddy McDowell in all the Planet Of The Apes movies… You’d see these veteran performers and they were still going strong yet, when the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s rolled around, it didn’t seem that Hollywood was so kind to performers from previous decades… Even somebody from the ‘80s or the ‘90s really can’t get a lot of work in today – 2014.
CAROL: Well, they get it on Broadway you know, but, it isn’t that youth-oriented, so to speak. Look at Angela Lansbury – she is in
at the moment doing Driving Miss Daisy. She
is 86, 87-years-old, and still a viable star.
Thank God for Betty White. She is
a phenomenon. But, I don’t know…back in
the day (chuckles)…I’m an old codger… back in the day when we had our show on
Saturday night, we had a lineup like you couldn’t believe. It started with All in the Family, M*A*S*H,
Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and us. And that was the lineup on Saturday night. Australia
SPAZ: Best night on television….ever.
CAROL: And the thing is – the writing was so good. And the writing now, it’s so rare when its that good. It just doesn’t happen anymore. I’ve been quoted as saying, and I’ll say it again, that some of these sitcoms, they make me think some teenagers in a locker room sat down and wrote them. What’s funny about all the scatological humor and all of the …..it’s so easy and cheap.
SPAZ: A lot of the sketches run longer than 5 minutes. Now, in my opinion, the magic behind that is the fact that they are slow burners that just sort of continue to build and build and build instead of the other way around.
CAROL: Right. Well, when we, at one point, back in the day, there were nine variety shows. There was us and Flip Wilson, and Laugh-In… Dean Martin and down the hall was, across from us was the Smothers Brothers, Sonny and Cher and on and on…and lots of times the writers of all of these shows, they would leave say our show, which we wrote a lot of stuff in long form….and they would go over and work on Laugh-In, but then a lot of the Laugh-In writers would want to come over and work with us so that they could flex their writing muscles…..without doing jokes. I remember years ago I was at a Kennedy Center Honors at the State Department dinner and I was sitting next to Larry Gelbart, who was one of the top comedy writers at the time – He’s right up there with Neil Simon…and even then I said, Larry, what is it with the sitcoms now-a-days? It’s like setup, setup, joke, laugh track. And he said, “Carol, the reason is that a lot of these writers, comedy writers, never played stickball in the street.” They’re writing about life once removed. They were raised on television. So it’s not like they’re writing about what they really know, it’s what they’ve saw on the tube. But, you look at like what Norman Lear created – he played stickball in the street. You know, he created wonderful characters without having to stoop an easy joke.
SPAZ: It’s like the TV shows really don’t build a solid foundation for the humor to work. It’s kind of like instead of the shows being Carol Burnett-like, they’re more Laugh-In-like. Just the quick joke and move on…
CAROL: Yeah, but I mean, Laugh-In, for what it was - was brilliant and that worked. And, also again, it didn’t stoop to any kind of base humor. And I’m not a prude, believe me. I just find that it’s just too easy. I’m so sick of penis jokes, you know? Oh, come off it!
SPAZ: Now, I believe that the show is remembered because it was very obvious that everyone in the cast found such joy and happiness in what they were doing, and that really came across. And still all these years later you watch it and that joy just jumps out of the screen along with the joke. Do you think that that sort of connection with the audience and the audience being able to relate to that has helped the show last this long?
CAROL: Definitely. You know, the camera doesn’t lie. But what I would like to stress is we did a lot of things where we cracked up. We never did it on purpose… never! I mean,
used to get so mad
at himself because again, he was a consummate comedic actor. But, Tim was just out to get him all the
time… And Tim would throw stuff at him that had never been said in
rehearsal. But that was not our entire
show. That was a part of it at the time but
if you look at the whole body of work and everything, the crackups weren’t that
often. I was looking at a sketch - because I’m going to write about our show
and what we did and how we did it - and I was looking at sketch called The Kidnapping, and the first, I would
say, five minutes of the sketch it’s very serious. You have no idea where it’s going and there
were no laughs, and that was on purpose, and then it builds and builds and
builds until it got hysterical. It’s about a woman who is asked to talk to the
news camera about the fact that her husband has been kidnapped so she’s very,
very torn at the beginning and Harvey is interviewing her, and then she
finishes with a plea to the kidnappers to please bring her husband home and so
he said that’s very good Mrs. So-and-so and then the guy says the sound wasn’t
good so she has to do it again. And then it wasn’t as good and so Harvey says cut, cut…you
know Mrs. So-and-so, before when you were talking about it, you really felt it,
and this time it was just kind of, you were just trying to remember what you
had said. Could we try it again? Well, she winds up being this ham actress and
over the top and not too many shows, I don’t think, would take that time. Harvey
SPAZ: Several times in various interviews, a lot was said about the work schedule - the Monday script read-through up to the Friday taping. How long from the taping to the time it aired?
CAROL: A week. We would tape on Friday… we’d tape two shows – a dress rehearsal and an air. We’d tape it with audiences and then we would edit it over the weekend and then it would air the following Saturday.
SPAZ: I know syndication was obviously an option back then, but did you ever think that 35 years later you’d still be talking about the show?
CAROL: (Laughing) Nooo! I mean, I would be talking about it if I went out to dinner with Tim Conway. You know, reminiscing or whatever, saying wasn’t that funny when… Well, I go out on the road a lot and I do 90 minutes of questions and answers. I go to theaters and venues around the country and I get a cross section now, as I say, I’m getting kids in the audience. Not just people with blue hair and I think it’s because of YouTube.
SPAZ: I know whenever I’m feeling down, I go to YouTube and type in Carol Burnett Show or Don Rickles.
CAROL: (chuckling) Right, right! A couple of months ago I was doing a Q & A in
this little boy in the second row waved his hand. It’s all impromptu. I have no idea who is going to ask what. I just say raise your hand and I’ll call on
you. And so this little boy raised his
hand and I said, “Hi there.” And I said,
“First, what’s your name?” And he said,
“Andrew.” I said, “Well, how old are you Andrew?” And he said, “I’m 9.” And I said, “And you know who I am?” And he said, “Surprisingly, yes.” (laughs). Texas
CAROL: (chuckling) Right, right! A couple of months ago I was doing a Q & A in
SPAZ: Well, you know, I guess Carol Burnett is just one of those traditions. You pass it down generation to generation.
CAROL: Well, I’m grateful for that.
SPAZ: But do you feel that the fact that all of you worked together attributed to the strength and the longevity?
CAROL: I definitely feel that because there were times when Harvey and I would just be supporting Tim. And there would be times when we’d be supporting Harvey or Vicki and then there were times when they’d be supporting me. And that’s a true rep company. It did have my name on it, but there were lots of times in a sketch where I played the straight man.
SPAZ: Now, the show remains one of the most loved TV series in history, variety or otherwise. Are you proud of not only your legacy, but the legacy of the show itself?
CAROL: Absolutely! Absolutely! I think it was one of the most unusual shows and I’m not saying because it was my show. But when you look at what went into it….when you look at the fact that we had a 28 piece orchestra, which is unheard of today except for Dancing With the Stars, but no variety show has that anymore…the costumes – Bob Mackie did ALL the costumes. Everything you saw on any of us…he designed upwards of 60 costumes a week. Beautifully executed…but that, the orchestra, the guest stars, you know – 12 dancers, and we had singers, and it was like doing a Broadway musical comedy revue a week. And to have an audience there. We also did it as much like a live show as we could in that studio. The writers used to laugh about it because they’d say there were very few times they had to drive home with the headlights on. It was so organized and we would tape maybe an hour and 15 minute show…it would go over because of Q&A, and we’d do all of that, including the numbers and costume changes, and we’d be out of there in a little over two hours. That’s very unusual, but we all came from live television and so sometimes some of our shows you see a boom mike come in by accident (laughs), but we never stopped.
SPAZ: If they were going to put on a Carol Burnett-type variety show today, do you think there is anybody out there that might be able to pull this off?
CAROL: Yes! I thought way back when Bette Midler was given a sitcom by CBS, I thought she should do a variety show. Martin Short could do it. Kristen Chenoweth. who has this beautiful voice and is very funny. The talent is there. The networks can’t put that kind of money into it anymore. It is just prohibitive. You couldn’t do our show today.
SPAZ: On a personal note, from day one, you always reminded me of my mom and my aunts.
CAROL: Oh, that’s lovely.
CAROL: Oh, that’s lovely.
SPAZ: And it’s really funny that even nowadays, it’s like when something you do on TV, I almost see one of my aunts in what you do. Of if they do something, it might remind me of a Carol Burnett-type thing
CAROL: Oh my gosh. That’s very flattering.
SPAZ: I kept on thinking, now that I’m going to have the opportunity, what could I say to Carol Burnett and basically it whittles down to two words and that’s “Thank You.”
CAROL: Oh, wow Steve. Well, let me whittle mine down – thank you! That’s so nice.
SPAZ: I just appreciate the joy you’ve brought to my life, my family’s life, and everybody around me. You have done that for so many people.
CAROL: Oh thank you darling.
SPAZ: And please remember that.
CAROL: I will, and you give my love to your folks, okay?
SPAZ: I definitely will. Thank you for your time and I look forward to coming over this weekend and going swimming.
CAROL: (Laughs.) Great! Take care.
Thanks to Carol Burnett
Special thanks to Jeff Peisch, Thomas Hemesath, Julia Lake, Angie Horejsi, and Dana House