Carol Burnett shares the secrets of her long-running TV series
Carol Burnett has been doing live Q&As about her long TV career for years, but two shows coming up at the end of the month in Rancho Mirage will be special to her.
She hasn’t been able to perform live for nearly two years due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m looking forward to getting back and connecting with an audience,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Santa Barbara.
Carol Burnett is honored by the City of Angeles in 2013 with the naming of Carol Burnett Square near Hollywood High School, which she attended. With her is Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge. (Photo by John McCoy, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Carol Burnett demonstrates her Tarzan yell after being announced as Grand Marshal of the 1998 Rose Parade. (1997 photo by Walt Mancini, SCNG)
Carol Burnett on the red carpet during the 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards prior to receiving a lifetime achievement award in 2016. (Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)
President Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Carol Burnett, left, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2005 in Washington. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian award, and recognizes exceptional meritorious service. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Carol Burnett, center, sits with Tim Conway, left, and Vicki Lawrence on the set during taping of her final show of “The Carol Burnett Show” for CBS-TV in Los Angeles, March 17, 1978. (AP Photo/ George Brich)
Carol Burnett, right, laughs with Tim Conway during taping of the final episode of “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1978. (AP Photo/ George Brich, File)
The program, called “Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection,” will take place Friday and Saturday, Jan. 28-29, at The Show at Agua Caliente Casino Rancho Mirage.
It focuses on her variety show, “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran from 1967 to 1978 on CBS, winning 23 Emmy Awards in the process.
The show was a mix of comedy sketches, movie and TV parodies and musical numbers. Even though it ended its run decades ago, it’s never really gone away, thanks to syndication and streaming video on the Shout Factory website, although episodes have been shortened.
Burnett, who is 88, is acknowledged in the closing credits of the movie “Licorice Pizza,” which is currently in theaters. Set in Encino in the 1970s, the film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and features a short clip of Burnett on an analog TV.
“I’ve known Paulie since he was a kid because his father was our announcer at one point, Ernie Anderson,” she said. “So that’s how I know Paul. Ernie gave him an 8-millimeter camera for his birthday or Christmas or something or other, and he started doing home movies when he was just a child.”
Those are the kind of stories she shares in her live show.
“I fly without a net. I don’t want to know what anybody is going to ask, so when I call on somebody, it’s random.”
The Q&A is broken up by video clips of musical guests and movie parodies with her regulars: Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner.
“The Carol Burnett Show” was shaped by her childhood in Hollywood in the 1940s, which she has written about in three memoirs. She was a Texas native, but her mother moved to California to pursue a film career. Both her parents were alcoholics and she was largely raised by her grandmother.
“We would go on the weekends and see maybe four to six movies a week,” she said in the phone interview. “The movies formed me in a funny way. When I’d see Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland putting on a show in their barn and the next week they were on Broadway, it meant nothing was impossible.”
Burnett began to blossom as a UCLA student until an anonymous mentor loaned her enough money to move to New York and pursue a theater career in the 1950s.
She starred in a Broadway hit, “Once Upon a Mattress,” and made it in television, mentored by Garry Moore, who had his own variety shows, and Lucille Ball. After nearly a decade of appearances on sitcoms and specials, she got her own series.
It taped at Television City, a studio next to Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District.
Here are some of Burnett’s thoughts on the show.
The need for speed
With its sets, costumes, custom-made musical numbers and choreography for its own dance troupe, “The Carol Burnett Show” was like pulling together a Broadway show in five days.
“We did a musical comedy revue every single week. We would tape it in front of a live audience twice, once at 5 o’clock, and the second show would be around 8 o’clock with a different audience. We would tape both shows as a safety.”
“I wanted to do it the way you would do a Broadway show. I didn’t want to keep the audience waiting. We did about an hour and 15 minutes, because we’d go over a little bit with some of the sketches or the Q&As, and the audience would be out of there in maybe two hours, a little over two hours, which would be the time an audience would be sitting watching a Broadway show.
“I said to everybody, the crew and everybody on the show, when we have a costume change, do it as if your life depended on it, very quickly. I could do a skin-out change faster than the crew could move a couch across the stage.”
“The Carol Burnett Show” debuted with Korman, Lawrence, and Waggoner, who started as an announced. They were later joined by Conway. Each brought their special talents to the mix.
“I don’t think there’s anybody better as a comedic actor than Harvey Korman. He was brilliant. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He was a consummate professional actor.
“Conway was a genius. We would be rehearsing something that might be four minutes long in rehearsal hall. By the time he would start doing stuff in front of the audience it was 10 minutes or 12 minutes long. But it was always gold and we got to keep it. Plus, he was as nice as he was funny.”
“Vicky was wet behind the ears, 18 years old, but I had faith in her, and look what she turned into being. She absorbed everything. She even says she learned everything in front of 30 million people a week.”
“Lyle Waggoner was a sweetheart. We hired him because he was good-looking and I could make goo-goo eyes over him. After a while that got old. Because I said, wait a minute. I’m a grownup, I’m married, I have children. I shouldn’t be falling all over our handsome announcer. So we deep-sixed that idea, and then Lyle started being in sketches. And he was very, very funny.”
Bob Mackie influence
Perhaps “The Carol Burnett Show’s” most famous moment was in a 1976 parody of “Gone With the Wind” when Burnett entered in a ridiculous dress made out of drapes with a curtain rod over her shoulders.
That outfit was the inspiration of costume designer Bob Mackie.
“He designed everything everybody wore, not just me. He designed 60 to 70 costumes a week. Do the math. Eleven years, 270-odd shows, he designed over 17,000 costumes.”
Burnett said Mackie shaped many of her performances, including recurring characters like the ditsy office worker Mrs. Wiggins.
“Sometimes I didn’t know how I was going to do a character until I went to the costume fitting to see what Bob had come up with for that character.”
“I remember Mrs. Wiggins, for instance. Tim wrote those sketches, and he had originally written Mrs. Wiggins to be this doddering old lady. And I went into the costume fitting and Bob said, “You know, you’ve been doing a lot of old ladies lately. Let’s make her into this blonde bimbo.
“He put me in this blonde wig and push-up bra with floral top and high stiletto heels. Then he gave me this old black skirt. It was wool. It was very tight around the knees, but it bagged in the behind. I said, ‘Bob, you’re going to have to take it in back there.’ He said, ‘No, no. Stick your behind into it.’ I did that, and that gave me what we called the Wiggins walk. And that’s how she was born.”
Burnett said her favorite guest stars came on the show so often they were almost like regulars, including the late Betty White, Bernadette Peters and pop star Steve Lawrence, who played opposite her in a number of movie parodies.
“We would have them on and off, constantly. Steve Lawrence did something like 39 of our shows.”
“Once when he was in an airport with his wife Eydie, our show had been in syndication and they’d cut all the musical numbers, just the sketches. He was in the airport waiting room and these teenage girls ran up to him and said, ‘Oh, you’re that funny guy on the Burnett show.”
Sometimes big stars volunteered to come on the show after being parodied, like silent movie actress Gloria Swanson. Burnett did several sketches based on her character Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.”
“She called and said, ‘Can I come and play in your sandbox?’ I was just astonished.”
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven after I got my show and I could ask people to come on as guests that I grew up watching in the movies: Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Lana Turner.
“I swear my grandmother, if she wasn’t already dead, this would have killed her.”
‘Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection’
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 28-29
Where: The Show at Agua Caliente Casino Rancho Mirage, 32-250 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage
Tickets: $65-$125 plus fees
COVID-19 procedures: Fully vaccinated guests are not required to wear masks.