Several weeks ago, I had the great good fortune of going to Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection. A signature part of The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978) was when she would have the stage people “bump up the lights” and she would warm up the crowd before each taping. This stage show was 90 minutes of that kind of thing.
The stage show began with clips from past sessions, projected on a big screen above the stage. The first clip showed an audience member asking Carol for the way to the ladies’ room. So Carol earnestly invited her up and directed her to the ladies’ room backstage. (When she returned, Carol led the audience in the chant “We know where you’ve been – ! We know where you’ve been – !”)
Then, from house left (stage right), Carol herself came onstage into a spotlight – of course, to the melodious strains of “Carol’s Theme (I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together).”
(I'm going to call her "Carol" throughout this retelling. Journalistic remove would require "Ms. Burnett," but that seems too stuffy, and she is very much as much of an old friend one can have through the airwaves.)
The first thing Carol did was a tribute to dear, departed friends Tim Conway, whom we lost just last May, and Harvey Korman, gone since 2008. She told us that Tim made it his mission to “destroy” Harvey. As proof, she showed a bit of that classic sketch “The Dentist.” Not much, maybe 30 seconds – the bit of business with the hypodermic needle full of novocaine – but that was enough to have the whole house in hysterics.
Consider -- we all were watching it at the remove of time and distance, but poor Harvey was sitting right next to Tim during all this tomfoolery. “Tim said he thought Harvey wet his pants,” Carol told us.
She also told of another Tim moment where he destroyed everyone else that had to wind up on the cutting room floor. They were doing a “Mama’s Family” sketch in which the family was playing Charades, and when it was Tim’s turn, he said “elephant.” Tim proceeded to spin a shaggy dog story that had all of them breaking up, that it was actually Siamese twin elephants conjoined at the trunk, and the one elephant got a cold and sneezed and blew the other elephant’s brains out.
Vicki, as Mama, gave the capper, which landed the bit on the outtake reel. (Find it here on YouTube: "Carol Burnett Show Outtakes -- Tim Conway's Elephant Story")
From there, Carol began to take questions. Ushers were stationed around the hall with microphones and flashlights; when she noticed a light, Carol would invite an audience member to speak up and make their query.
She’s been doing this a long time, so there are some questions that must come up over and over, but she didn’t seem to mind telling those stories again and again.
Like how Vicki Lawrence was discovered. They were working up ideas for skits, and decided they needed someone to play Carol’s kid sister. It so happened that Carol was reading her fan mail one day, and got a letter that read: "I’m Vicki Lawrence and I’m 17, and my family loves your show. Everybody says I look just like you. I’m going to be in the Miss Fireball talent contest." Enclosed was a photo and a newspaper clipping. Burnett looked at the picture and said to herself, “She looks more like me than I did when I was 17.”
She also noticed from the letter that the Miss Fireball talent contest was that night, so she told her husband, “We’re going to the Miss Fireball talent contest.” He suggested that they tell Vicki, so she wouldn’t be thrown off by having Carol Burnett in the audience. With Vicki’s address from the newspaper article (used to be, newspapers would put your address in the article when they wrote about you
to make it easier for stalkers as a matter of record), Carol got her number from directory assistance and called her home, and Vicki’s mother answered.
“Can I talk to Vicki?” Carol asks.
“Who is this?”
“It’s Carol Burnett –”
Carol and her husband go to the contest, and Vicki wins, and Carol invites her to audition for The Carol Burnett Show. They did audition another girl too, but Carol said there was a quality about Vicki that made them choose her.
“So she went from being my kid sister to being my mama.”
Carol also told of Lyle Waggoner’s beginnings. Initially, he was the announcer, and the schtick was that she would go ga-ga, drooling over this handsome, hunky guy. But they stopped doing that, what with her being married and a mother and all, so they started throwing some comedy his way, and he handled it well.
Like the bit she showed from “Lovely Story,” their spoof of Love Story. Carol and Harvey played the star-crossed lovers, and when she strikes ill, a frantic Harvey pledges to do everything he can for her. “I’ll get the best doctor money can buy!”
Suddenly, the door opens and Lyle strides in.
Harvey: “Who are you?”
Lyle: “I’m the best doctor money can buy.”
Harvey: “But how did you know she was sick?”
Lyle: “I heard the music.”
But what makes these evenings fresh are the moments that happen only in that night. One guy in the balcony said he was a fan, always watched her show, and was there with his sister … who was in the front row. Everyone laughed, and Carol did a double take. “You’re – up there? And she’s – down here?”
And one woman said she had her BFF from high school always watched the show every Saturday, and pledged to go see a taping in person after they graduated … but the show ended when they were juniors. Forty years later, they were they there, just to see Carol.
She was gracious. One guy asked if she was signing autographs. She was a bit confused at the question, because she didn’t have an autograph table, but that wasn’t what he meant; he had brought along a copy of her memoir One More Time, and wanted her to sign that. She said sure, just give it to the ushers and they’ll send it backstage, I’ll sign it, and they’ll get it back to you.
And a kid piped up that she loved watching the shows. Carol asked how old she was, and the answer was 14. Carol marveled at how, thanks to YouTube, her material is reaching a new generation; that clearly made her very happy.
Your humble correspondent couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask a question, and she called on me. I said, “Miss Burnett, you’re revered as a comedy legend, but you’ve also done a fair amount of drama in your career. Could you speak to that? In particular, could you tell us about the time you were on Law & Order?”
(That was “Ballerina” on Season 10, Episode 16 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Here’s a clip: https://www.popsugar.com/entertainment/photo-gallery/46419493/embed/46419672/embed)
She said that’s a great question. She loves playing villains, like Miss Hannigan in Annie, because it’s different, because the villains always think they’re right. “They think they’re right, and everyone else is wrong.”
Asked if there was any guest she wanted on the show but did not get, she couldn’t name anybody; everybody was willing.
Which female comedians does she like the most? All of them. When she was starting out, she said, it was just her and Lucille Ball. But now there are so many, and it makes her very happy.
Who does the animation for the opening credits? “The animation person.”
How hard was it to put together a show? It was easy, she said. “I only worked 25 hours in a week.” After several years, her team had everything down like clockwork.
Not that she didn’t pay her dues. She told of her days doing The Garry Moore Show with him and Durwood Kirby, and at the same time, doing the Broadway play Once Upon a Mattress. She worked for weeks on end without a break, and one night on stage – during the scene where Princess Winifred climbs atop the stack of mattresses – she fell asleep! The stage manager woke her up: “Psst! CAROL!” After that, she got a break.
One thing she learned, however, from working on The Garry Moore Show, was to put the show first. If a joke would get a bigger laugh from one of his co-stars, Moore would gladly pass it off to Carol or Durwood; his ego didn’t demand being the center of attention at every moment. Likewise, that’s how she ran The Carol Burnett Show; she didn’t mind if Harvey or Tim or Vicki or Ken Berry or one of the guest stars got the big moment instead of her.
Carol also showed some clips from the movie spoofs she used to do, like "Sunnyset Boulevard", "Beach Blanket Boo Boo", the kiss from “From Here to Eternity” (with Steve Lawrence in the Burt Lancaster guise, sporting Army first sergeant’s stripes directly on his biceps) – and “Went With the Wind.”
She said she was inspired to do the movie spoofs because, when she was a kid, she spent her days at the movies with her cousin, and they would come home and re-enact them. So with her own show, she had the chance to share her love of films with the world.
Of course, somebody brought up the Tarzan yell, so she showed some clips of her belting it out. And Carol said she only does it now under controlled circumstances. Why?
Well, one time she was in New York, doing a Broadway play, and found she needed pantyhose, so she went across the street to Bergdorf Goodman’s. The saleslady was very accommodating …
... until Carol discovered that, in her rush to get to the store, she brought the wrong wallet and didn’t have any credit cards with her. She asked if she could write a check, and the saleslady said, “I’ll need to see some identification.”
(I know, right?)
Carol pleaded with the saleslady to be allowed to write a check -- she’s not the kind to pull “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” -- so the saleslady called a supervisor, and finally, they concluded they would accept Carol’s check if she did the Tarzan yell. Okay. She let ’er rip …
… and a startled security guard kicked open the door and burst into the room with his gun drawn!
“So I only do it now under very controlled circumstances,” Carol said. (But she did it for us. Yay!)
When asked if she kept any of her outfits, Carol pointed to what she was wearing – a chic little black dress with a beaded bodice and sheer sleeves. This, she said, was designed by Bob Mackie, the Carol Burnett Show costumer.
Carol had lots of praise for Mackie, noting he also designed for Cher and just won a Tony Award for his designs for The Cher Show on Broadway. She estimated that Mackie, who designed all the outfits for the cast and dancers for The Carol Burnett Show, must have made something like 65,000 costumes over the 11 years. (She showed a medley of various gowns over the years.)
Mackie also came up with some comic ideas. It was Mackie, she said, who had the insanely brilliant idea to have Scarlett O’Hara wear the curtain rod in the dress she made from drapes in "Went With the Wind".
He also fixed the look of Mrs. Wiggins. The original idea was to make Mrs. Wiggins an old lady, but instead, they decided to make her a bimbo. So Mackie gave Carol a Farrah Fawcett wig and a black wool pencil skirt that was tight around the knees, but really large in the seat. Carol told him he would have to take it in, but Mackie had a better idea: “Back into it.” And thus was born the “Wiggins walk,” which Carol proceeded to demonstrate.
Speaking of Annie, Carol related a story about working on the movie. One number, “Easy Street,” featured Miss Hannigan, her crooked brother Rooster, played by Tim Curry, and his girlfriend Lily, played by Bernadette Peters. She said for the movie, it became an elaborate production number, shot on location, with extras and 400 dancers and it was just too much.
Around that time, Carol said, she had the desire to "get a chin." She spoke to a plastic surgeon who told her they could add three millimeters to her jawline, and she said fine. “I don’t want to look like Kirk Douglas,” I just want a little chin.
So they did the big “Easy Street” production number and wrapped the movie, and Carol went home to Hawaii and Tim Curry went home to England and Bernadette Peters went back to New York. Since the movie had wrapped, Carol had the procedure done…
… and about five weeks later, they all got called back to the set to do reshoots. It was decided to redo “Easy Street” like it was in the play, just Miss Hannigan, Rooster and Lily. But Carol piped up, “I have a chin.” She was told not to worry; they were going to plop the redone number in, so there wasn’t going to be a continuity issue.
But then, the director, John Huston, decided to place the scene in a specific point in the movie, during a scene in which Miss Hannigan enters a closet. Miss Hannigan was to emerge from the closet and launch into the song. Again wary of looking different than she did in the previously shot footage, Carol told Huston, “I have a chin.”
Huston told her, in “the greatest piece of direction I’ve ever got: 'Sing it with confidence!'”
Carol mentioned that she loved All My Children (although she did not mention that she acted on the show a few times as Verla Grubbs, long-lost daughter of Langley Wallingford). She tried never to miss it, but necessarily had to one year when she and her husband and daughters went on a four-week vacation to Europe – a week in London, a week in Italy, a week in France, a week somewhere else.
This being the days before Tivo and Hulu, Carol entrusted a friend to watch the shows for her, gave the friend her itinerary, and instructed her to send a telegram each Friday to her hotel with a recap of the week. So one Friday, when they were in Italy visiting friends in a villa, Carol and her husband were roused at 2:30 a.m. by the hotel manager, delivering an urgent telegram from the States:
“ERICA STILL IN COMA. PALMER FINDS OUT NINA IS SLEEPING WITH CLIFF. MONA ON TRIAL FOR MURDER.”
Carol said she started laughing – which her friends and the hotel manager took as hysteria – until her husband blurted, “For God’s sake, it’s a soap opera!”
Another clip Carol showed was of a woman who piped up during the pre-show question-and-answer bit – someone who she described as looking like Bea Arthur from Maude, which she does. The woman demanded to come on stage and sing “You Made Me Love You.” So, Carol invited her up, and they did the duet, and they both really hammed it up. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPkWWh9R49s) Carol said our Maude lookalike lived to 100, and after she died, the clip was played at her funeral.
One audience member pleaded with Carol to bring her show back, saying “We need you, Carol!” Carol answered that she was glad she did her show when she did, that it was the right time and the right place. But it couldn’t be done again, she said. We don’t have Harvey and Tim, and the budget for the kind of show she did with dancers and costumes and an orchestra and weekly production numbers and movie spoofs would never fly today.
Also … Carol said when she was a kid, going to the movies with her cousin and acting them out at home, those movies were positive. Like those movies with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, the whole “Hey, gang, let’s put on a show!” spirit – that was something she brought to her show, and it was the right time and the right place, but it couldn’t happen again.
Alas, the evening had to come to a close. Carol showed a montage of her with various guest stars over the years – Ray Charles, Ethel Merman, Steve Lawrence, Edye Gorme, Jimmy Stewart, Rita Hayworth, and others. Of course, she sang “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together.” And yes, she did tug her left earlobe at the end.
That's Carol Burnett; class all the way.