Hosting “The Carol Burnett Show” over 11 seasons from 1967 to 1978, the namesake star took time to answer spontaneous questions from the studio audience in all 279 episodes.
Now Burnett, at 82, is still taking questions from the audience, in a touring show she calls “Laughter and Reflection With Carol Burnett,” which stops at the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday and Saturday.
And fans have plenty of topics to choose from: Burnett’s influential show; its ensemble cast, which included Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner; her many movie and TV roles and books; her Broadway experience; her Emmy-winning work on “The Garry Moore Show”; and the slew of awards she has won in the past decade or so, including the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award last year. In Washington alone, Burnett has received a Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Reached in Los Angeles, Burnett said she needs no award on this trip to Washington. “My award will be if the audience is hot to trot.” To ask questions, that is.
We got the ball rolling.
Q: The entire performance is questions and answers?
A: Yes. I open with some clips of my favorite Q&As when I was doing my show to get the audience involved. Then we just throw it open to the audience for 90 minutes and there are no plants. I don’t want to know in advance what anybody is going to ask. We don’t do that. People raise their hands and I kind of call on them at random. I’m kind of flying without a net. But it’s a fun evening. It’s not just a one-woman show; I guess you could say the audience is my partner.
Q: So you “bump up the lights,” as you say, and have the houselights on all night?
A: Yup. Bump up the lights, and we have ushers in the aisles with microphones. Now that our show’s DVDs have been coming out, and a lot of our sketches are on YouTube, I’m starting to get mail from 10-year-olds and teenagers. And in the audience, too. People are bringing their kids. About a year ago, there was a little boy in the second row I called on. I said, “What’s your name?” And he said, “Andrew.” And I said, “How old are you, Andrew?” He said, “9.” And I said, “And you know who I am?” And he said, “Surprisingly, yes.”
Adorable. You can’t write that stuff. And that’s the fun of it. The surprise.
Q: It seems like a scary proposition. What if they don’t ask any questions? Or any good questions?
A: Well, usually I don’t have that problem — I’m going to knock on wood now. What happens, there are times when the audience is really raring to go, and there are times when they’re not reticent but not as forthcoming as I would like. But what happens usually is that a question would come up that will lead me to a story that I can tell about Tim Conway or Harvey or how I found Vicki — things like that. After all these years of doing this, I have some stories I just ad lib, but they are stories that are in my repertoire.
Q: Has any question that’s thrown you for a loop?
A: Well, I’ve told this story before, but I guess it bears repeating. About eight or nine years ago, I was in Texas and a lady in the balcony asked, “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?”
Hello? The audience started to laugh and certainly they were laughing at the look on my face. It’s funny; I said a prayer. I said, “Lord, I’m going to open my mouth, and whatever comes out is going to be your fault.” And I swear, I didn’t know that I was going to say this, but this is what came out. I said, “I’d be Osama bin Laden, and I’d kill myself.”
Q: It’s a brave thing to do — a one-person improv night.
A: Yes, but that’s the way it used to be when I did my show. There were never any plants in the audience, and at first I was terrified, the first or second show. . . . But then the audience started to get into it after our show had started running two or three weeks. And then they were fun, and then I started having fun with it.
Also, it keeps the old gray matter ticking. You really have to be in the now. You can’t be thinking about yesterday or what you’re going to do tomorrow. It exercises the brain. It needs as much exercise as the rest of you.
Q: Was this part of every episode of “The Carol Burnett Show”?
A: Yes. The producer, when we were planning the show, he said, “You know, Carol, we knew how we were going to end the show with a song and an autograph book and so forth, but instead of having, like most shows on television, a warm-up comedian, you should go out and do the warm-up and you should be yourself.” Because during the hour of the variety show, I’d be wearing a fat suit or blacking out my teeth or [wearing] a fright wig, and be a lot of different characters. He said, “I think it’s very important for the audience to get to know you before you go in and do all these other characters.”
I was reluctant at first. I was kind of scared nobody would ask a question, and I was scared they would and I wouldn’t know how to answer it. But he was right. So it became a staple of our show.
Q: It’s interesting that a lot of more contemporary comedy shows picked up on the format, with Dave Chappelle or Key and Peele stepping out to talk to the audience before the sketches.
A: The idea actually came from “The Garry Moore Show.” Garry would go out and do the warm-up, but they never taped it. I remember I used to sit backstage and listen to him, and he was just wonderful at it — got the audience raring to go.
Q: It must have been hard to produce a show of that quality every week for 11 seasons.
A: Variety is what I loved. A lot of people who worked on Garry’s show took the risk and came out to do my show: our head writer, our choreographer, one of our lead dancers, some of the writers came out. So it was smooth. The transition wasn’t even a transition. It was like an extension of what we used to do on Garry’s show, so there was no breaking-in period or angst or anything.We just knew what we wanted to do. Our schedule was perfect. Today I see shows taping for six hours to get 22 minutes of script. We wanted to do it as if it was a live television show. We had to stop to change scenery, but I was really insistent, and everybody agreed, that we barrel ahead as fast as possible. I could make a quick change faster than the stagehands could move a sofa across the floor.
It was important for me to keep the studio audience entertained, rather than just sitting there and waiting and waiting for the next scene to come up.
We would take maybe an hour and 15 minutes because we’d go over sometimes with the questions and answers, and we’d edit out due to time later, but we would be out of there in maybe two hours, like a Broadway show. And time to go to dinner.
We taped in Television City on Friday nights, and there were several shows taping at the same time. Across the hall was the Smothers Brothers, and right next door to us was Sonny and Cher, and down the hall was Glen Campbell. We’d be leaving and all their red [“On the Air”] lights were on in their studios. Sometimes they’d go until 1 or 2 in the morning.
That’s not the way I was trained. I’m from live theater. All of us, we knew our stuff, and I think in 11 years we may have done 12 pick-ups [shots or scenes re-recorded to correct a problem]. Sometimes you see the mistakes on the show — you’d see a mic coming in, a boom coming in, or you’d see something wrong with the scenery that wasn’t working — we’d just keep on going.
Q: You had some of the cast breaking up while taping, too, and you left that in.
A: Oh, yes. I wanted it to be spontaneous, and I wanted the danger of it, too. So the people would know that’s what was happening at that time. We weren’t making it perfect. But we never, ever cracked up on purpose. I think that was why it was so delicious for people to watch because they could relate to maybe when they were in Sunday school or at the library or whatever, when you couldn’t contain it.
People think we broke up all the time, but we did not. It’s just that those times stand out in your mind.
Q: The decision to end the show after 11 years was yours?
A: Yes. Harvey left us in the 10th year. He went over to do a sitcom, “The Harvey Korman Show” for ABC, so I certainly didn’t blame him. It was a big break for him. But in the 11th season I missed him. I missed him. We did some good shows in the 11th season, I must say. Some very good sketches and stuff. But there were other times when I felt we were repeating ourselves — Didn’t we do this before? Haven’t we tried this idea before? And I just felt it was time to leave before the network flicked the lights on and off.
Q: Were you wanting to do a lot of other things by then, too?
A: Yes. Afterwards, I did some television, [the 1979 TV movie] “Friendly Fire,” and some other stuff and some motion pictures and all. So I kept working, but naturally this show looms for me as the most fun time of my career.
Q: Were you ever credited as a writer for that show?
A: No. I don’t know why I didn’t say, “Yeah, put me on the list,” but I never did. I would come up with stuff and talk to the writers about what I wanted to do. Then when we would get a sketch and we’d be putting it on its feet in rehearsal, I didn’t hesitate to suggest a line change here or there or rework some stuff. We’d have the writers come down, and they were always terrific about it, much more so than today. Today, most of the writers don’t want you to change a “the.” But our writers would say, “Hey, if it makes it funnier, go for it.”
Q: You have become a role model for women writers and performers over the years. People like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been effusive about your influence on them.
A: I’ve heard that, and I’m really flattered. I love those gals. They’re really terrific. My response is: If I’d never been born, they’d still be doing what they’re doing.
Q: The variety-show concept doesn’t exist on TV much anymore.
A: I don’t think it can. Not the way that we did it, because the costs would be insane today. We had a 28-piece orchestra, 12 dancers, two guest stars a week, a rep company. And our costume designer, Bob Mackie, designed 60 to 70 costumes a week — not just what I wore but what everybody wore. Every stitch of clothing, and then the wigs for every cast member and guest stars and everything, Bob designed. I just turned in my fourth book, coming out in September, and it’s about our years on the show. And I calculated how many costumes Bob Mackie designed in the 11 years. It comes to over 17,000.
So today, you couldn’t do that. It would have to be a different, a hybrid or whatever — just not all the production values that we had. The networks are just not going to fork over that kind of money.
Q: What do you make of the comedy explosion on TV now?
A: I’m really a nut for cable shows. I’m into the dramatic stuff to watch. I haven’t watched too many sitcoms, because when I have seen them, and I won’t name them, they’re too easy. They sink to a level that to me is not that funny — scatological and all. Some of them make me think they’re written by teenage boys in a locker room. They’re not clever like “All in the Family” or “Dick Van Dyke” or “Mary Tyler Moore” or “Bob Newhart.”
Although I have been watching “Life in Pieces.” I think that’s very well written. And Rachel Bloom’s show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” And “The Grinder” I think is well written. I love Rob Lowe and Fred Savage’s connection as brothers, and I think they’re very funny. But that’s about it that I have seen. I’m sure there are more. I just haven’t tuned in. But I really get hooked on “Better Call Saul” and “House of Cards,” that kind of thing.
Q: When you do appear on TV these days it’s frequently on dramas like “Hawaii Five-0.” Do comedians do well in dramas because it’s unexpected or because you already have those skills through comedy?
A: We’re the whole ball of wax as performers and actors, and comedy is kind of a serious thing. You have to have timing and so forth. I think it’s probably easier for comedians to do drama then for dramatic actors to cross over and do comedy.
Q: Are there shows you’d like to be on?
A: Oh, gosh. I’m such a fan of Vince Gilligan [“Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”]. I just think he’s a genius. I think if he would give me a scene in any of his shows, I would jump at it, because he’s such a brilliant writer and his mind is like a steel trap.
Q: What compels you to still go out and work?
Well, what’s the alternative? I don’t work all the time. I do it when I want to, which is a nice position to be. As I say, it keeps the old gray matter ticking and it keeps the old gray mare on her feet.
Laughter and Reflection With Carol Burnett Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md. Tickets: $65-$175. 301-581-5100 or strathmore.org.