00:00:00 ALICE WINKLER: Hi, and welcome back to What It Takes. I don’t usually talk about myself on this podcast, but last week I kind of had a grim one, and I really needed a laugh, so when I was looking through the Academy of Achievement’s archive of interviews for which one I was going to feature next, my eyes landed on a name, and I knew this week was going to be a whole lot better. I’m Alice Winkler, and on this week’s episode of What It Takes, Carol Burnett.
00:00:30 CAROL BURNETT: (TARZAN CALL)
00:00:37 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.
00:00:43 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.
00:00:49 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.
00:00:54 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.
00:01:02 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”
00:01:09 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.
00:01:14 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.
00:01:28 ALICE WINKLER: The Carol Burnett Show was appointment TV viewing in my childhood. It aired for 11 years, starting in 1967, well before the era of Saturday Night Live, well after the era of Sid Caesar. It was modern American television sketch comedy with the lingering flavor of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. And it was hosted by a woman — groundbreaking in those days — but mostly it was just endearing and hilarious, and still is, as I can attest after many joyful hours of viewing this week.
00:02:03 Exhibit A, Went with the Wind, one of the show’s many Hollywood send-ups, with Burnett as Starlet O’Hara, making her entrance wearing a gown made of curtains, with the curtain rod still attached.
00:02:19 STARLET O'HARA: What brings you to Terra?
00:02:23 CAPTAIN RATT BUTLER: You, you vixen, you. Starlet, I love you. That-that-that gown is gorgeous!
00:02:30 STARLET O'HARA: Thank you. I saw it in the window, and I just couldn't resist it.
00:02:34 ALICE WINKLER: Carol Burnett’s comedy is largely physical. Her face seems elastic, and she can set you off with a single raised eyebrow. So it’s a shame you can’t see the clips I’m going to play, but when you’re done listening to this episode, go right ahead and pull up the Carol Burnett channel on YouTube. Just don’t expect to get any work done for a few hours if you do. Carol Burnett was inducted into the Academy of Achievement in 2014 and sat down with journalist Gail Eichenthal to talk about her TV variety show, her early days on Broadway, and the complicated childhood that preceded it all.
00:03:14 She was born in San Antonio in 1933, and Carol Burnett is her real name, Carol Creighton Burnett.
00:03:22 CAROL BURNETT: Actually, I wanted to change it at one point to Carol Creighton because I thought that sounded good, but then I realized if I ever was successful, I wanted... A boy in school, his name was Tommy Tracy; I was in love with him in junior high school and high school. I thought, "Well, if I am ever successful, I want him to know," so I kept my real name.
00:03:48 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Did he find out?
00:03:49 CAROL BURNETT: Oh, yes.
00:03:51 ALICE WINKLER: Carol Burnett’s mother harbored her own kind of celebrity dreams. She wanted to be a journalist, the kind that interviews movie stars, so when Carol was just a little girl, her parents left Texas for Hollywood, leaving their daughter to be raised by her grandmother.
00:04:08 CAROL BURNETT: She was a hypochondriacal Christian Scientist. She was a character. She loved me more than anything, and she was my rock. And so I found out years later that she had been married six times, but she only told me about three. I was writing a book, and I did some research, and boy, I found out she was quite the swinger. But, she was — we went to the Christian Science church, and I went to the Christian Science Sunday school, but my grandmother was always complaining about her heart skipping beats, and that, you know, she didn’t know if she was going to live another day.
00:04:56 And so if — see, in Christian Science, you are supposed to, what they call, “know the truth.” And the truth is, there is no sickness; there is no death. There is no — you know, but — so I would be talking about, as a kid — you know, she'd be feeling her pulse and everything, and I would be knowing the truth for her, and then if I didn’t know the truth well enough, she would ask me to get the medicine for her.
00:05:24 ALICE WINKLER: So a bit of a character, who survived on government assistance.
00:05:28 CAROL BURNETT: We were poor, and every week somebody would show up and give us a chicken to fry and also hand-me-down clothes for me to wear. And it was fine, but everybody was — it was the Depression, so everyone we knew on our street and in a block in the area, we were all in the same boat, so it wasn’t like I felt deprived. We ate, and I had clothes, and I went to school.
00:05:59 ALICE WINKLER: She did continue to have a relationship with her parents, though a troubled one.
00:06:04 CAROL BURNETT: My dad was an alcoholic from the get-go, from high school on, but he was like a drunk Jimmy Stewart. Sweet. He was — there was never a nasty, mean bone in his — he just had that disease, and was the kindest, most loving man I had ever known. My mother became an alcoholic a few years later, and so — and then my grandmother and I moved out to Hollywood to be with my mother.
00:06:39 And we moved in the same building, and she was down the hall, and Nanny and I had a one-room, pull-down-bed apartment right facing the lobby of the building, so I'd see my mother, and she — her dreams were shattered. She never really made it. She did get to interview a few of the people, so I remember she had an interview with — she freelanced for a while with Bob Hope, with Rita Hayworth, George Montgomery, people like that.
00:07:10 But she never could hold down a job, and she was frustrated, and she started drinking, and so — but when she was sober, she was a lot of fun. She was beautiful, and my dad was handsome, and they made a gorgeous couple, and they were still friendly after the divorce. But I remember Mama coming down the hall, and Nanny and Mama and I would sit in this little kitchen, and Mama would play the ukulele, and we'd sing. And — yeah, and she had a great ear for music, and she could do harmony —
00:07:46 So I would take the lead. Nanny would do the third-part harmony, and Mama would do the intricate stuff.
00:07:53 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Do you think that unusual childhood set-up shaped you as a comedienne?
00:08:01 CAROL BURNETT: I don't know. I don't know because as a kid I was very quiet. I would — at times my grandmother and my mother would argue a lot, and it was usually over money and liquor because we had no money. Again, we were on welfare, what they called — in Hollywood it was called “relief.” And so we really would — we just waited from — not paycheck to paycheck, but when the relief lady would come and give us some money for the next month, I would sit in the corner when Nanny and Mama would be arguing, and I would draw.
00:08:41 I thought maybe I wanted to be a cartoonist and have my own comic strip, and I created a family that I would draw about, and they were called the Josephsons. My dad’s name was Jody. So it featured the mother, who was Josephine; the father, who was Joseph; the teenage daughter, who was Jody; her kid brother, who was Joey; and their dog was JoJo. And I drew this family that was perfect.
00:09:15 And that was my fantasy, to have this — with the picket fence and, you know, but then when I got to junior high and high school, Mama said, "Look, you should write. You know, no matter what you look like, you can always write." And so I got into journalism, and I was editor of my high school paper and also my junior high school paper, and I thought, "Well, I'm going to major in journalism when I go to college," but that fell by the wayside.
00:09:45 So as far as being — I was raised going to the movies with Nanny. We would save our money, and we would see sometimes six to eight movies a week, double features, second run, and we'd go in and beat the prices, as Nanny would say. If we got in before 12:00 noon or 6:00, it would be less, and in the movies I lost all reality. That was my fantasy, that was my — and the good guys made it, and the bad guys didn’t.
00:10:21 And so I grew up never being cynical because the movies were much — they weren’t as edgy as they are now, you know. So, I mean, okay, Mickey and Judy would go put on a show, and they would wind up on Broadway, and it would all be beautiful and wonderful. So — I'm getting ahead of myself, but I wanted to go to college, and I had good grades in high school, and I had enough grades — good grades — to get me into UCLA.
00:10:56 And Nanny said, "We can’t afford it." Our rent was $30 a month. She had a fit when they raised it to a dollar a day, and the tuition at that time, back in the covered-wagon days, was $43. We didn’t have the money. She said, "Well now, you should go to Woodbury College, a secretarial school, so you can become a secretary and then someday nab the boss."
00:11:29 Yeah, she always said, "You’re only as good as the guy you marry," you know. So that’s why she did six times. Anyway, I said, "No, I really — I know I am going to go to UCLA." I knew it. I saw myself on campus. It wasn’t that I was hoping for it, or wishing or praying. I said, "No, it’s going to happen. I just don't know how." Well, this one morning — it was my chore when I got up in the morning to look out into the lobby. Our room faced the lobby, and there were these pigeonhole mailboxes.
00:12:07 And I could tell if we had a letter in one of those, and I'd run out in my robe, and okay, this one morning there was a letter in our slot. I got it. It had my name typewritten on it, and address, and it even had a stamp, but it hadn’t been mailed. It hadn’t been canceled. Somebody had just stamped it and put it in the mailbox. I opened it up, and out came a 50-dollar bill. I swear, to this day, I don't know who gave it to me.
00:12:44 Nobody we knew had that kind of money. My grandmother didn’t, or she would have said, "Look what I'm doing for you." Nobody in our building — everybody was on relief. That was my tuition, so I got to go to UCLA.
00:12:59 ALICE WINKLER: Burnett wanted to major in journalism, at least in part to fulfill her mother’s dreams, but they had no such major at the time, so she joined the school paper, and to take playwriting courses, decided to major in theater arts English.
00:13:15 CAROL BURNETT: If you majored in theater arts English, or anything, you had to take an acting course, 1-A. You had to take scenery. You had to take costumes. You had to take lighting. You had to take sound and all the English courses and everything else. So I had to take this acting course, and I got into it, and I was terrified, so I picked a scene to do with one of my classmates that I thought would be easy.
00:13:45 It was a scene from Noël Coward's Red Peppers, and I had to have a cockney accent, and so I pretended I was Betty Grable with a cockney accent. And we did it, and I heard the laughs, and I thought, "This is it. I want to, the rest of my life, make people laugh." It was such a good feeling that — I was always quiet in high school, junior high, everything like that. I was kind of a nerd. I had friends, but I was not somebody the football player wanted to date, or I wasn’t that popular gal, you know.
00:14:31 And — but then when they laughed, I felt approval, and I got more confidence, and so some of the seniors at UCLA approached me after they had seen me do a couple of shows and said, "Come sit on the quad and have lunch with us and stuff." So I — all of a sudden I became popular, and it just — it was like food, you know. But the laughter is what did it. Also you're in the now.
00:15:04 You're in the present when that happens. It’s a — it's a total high, a total high when it lands. When it lands and they laugh. Oh!
00:15:16 ALICE WINKLER: Carol Burnett was certainly funny, but she also had a good singing voice, she knew, from those kitchen sessions with her grandmother and mother, but it was at UCLA again that she honed it and learned how to use it to brilliant comic effect.
00:15:32 CAROL BURNETT: Lotfi Mansouri, who was the — you know, the brilliant director of opera, he was a student. He was ahead of me, and he was in the music department, and he said, "You know, there's a musical comedy segment that we do," and he said, "Can you sing?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Would you be one of the nurses in a scene we are doing from South Pacific, ‘I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair’"? I said, "Yeah, I'd like to try that."
00:16:07 So we started rehearsing, and I was so loud they got rid of me, and he said, "No, we don't want you in there. Why don't you do a scene with me from Guys and Dolls where you’re Adelaide, Miss Adelaide?" And I said, "Oh, sing a solo? I don't think so." And he said, "No, it — really, it would be great because it's a comedy song, and she has a cold when she's singing it, so you don't have to sound really great. You can be sniffling and, you know, all of that." She sings, "A person can develop a bad, bad cold," and sneezing and all of that, so if I hit a clam, a bad note, I would chalk it up to the fact that she had a cold.
00:16:49 MUSIC: ADELAIDE’S LAMENT
00:16:49 In other words
Just from waiting around
For that plain little band of gold
A person can develop a cold
You can spray her wherever you figure
The streptococci lurk
You can give her a shot
For whatever's she's got
But it just won't work
If she's tired of getting that fish-eye
From the hotel clerk
A person can develop a cold
00:17:20 ALICE WINKLER: The version you're hearing is not from her college production but from an album Carol Burnett recorded in the '70s of Broadway musical comedy numbers. It was on Broadway, after all, that she first made a splash starring in Once Upon a Mattress. Back at UCLA, Broadway wasn’t just a dream. It was, in her mind, a forgone conclusion.
00:17:42 CAROL BURNETT: I remember saying to Nanny, "I want to go to New York. I want to go to New York. I want to be on Broadway like Mary Martin or Ethel Merman." So I'm in the musical comedy workshop, and our professor would grade us on doing scenes, and I was working on a scene from Annie Get Your Gun.
00:18:08 And we were invited — there were nine of us in the class — to a party in San Diego. Our professor said — and it was in his honor, and his wife. They were going off on a trip to Europe or something, so it was a black tie affair in San Diego, very posh, and he said, "All of you kids come down. Do your scenes as entertainment for the party." So we did, and I’m at the hors d'oeuvres table after we did our scenes, and I'm stealing hors d'oeuvres to put in my purse to take home to Nanny.
00:18:47 And there's a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around, and there's this gentleman and his wife, black tie. She's in a gorgeous grown and everything. He said, "We really enjoyed you." You know, I said, "Well, thank you so much." I thought I was getting busted for, you know, swiping the hors d'oeuvres. So — and he said, "We really enjoyed you," and so forth. He said, "Well, what are your plans? What do you want to do with your life?"
00:19:09 And — oh, and this was what I told Nanny before this. I said, "I see myself in New York. I don't know how, but I know I’m going to..." So this gentleman says, "Well, what do you want to do?" And I said, "Well, someday I want to go to New York and be in musical comedy,” you know. And he said, "Well, why aren’t you doing that?" I said, "Well, you know, I’ve got to save up." He said, "I'll lend you the money."
00:19:38 And I thought it was the champagne talking, you know, and all — and he said, "Now be in my office" — gave me his business card — "a week from Monday, and I'll lend you the money to go to New York." Got down there. He was, at the time, a millionaire — which would be a billionaire today — in the shipping business, and somebody had given him a start, so he's paying it forward, and he wrote out a check for $1,000.
00:20:18 Now, as I say, we could barely afford the $30-a-month rent, so that’s like — he said, "The stipulations are: You use this money to go to New York. If you are successful, you pay it back to me, no interest, in five years. You never reveal my name. And if you are successful, you must promise to help others out."
00:20:47 So evidently someone had staked him to a claim, and I found out later that he had helped some young man open a restaurant, or a filling station, or something, you know. It wasn’t just theater. So I went home, and Nanny saw all that money because I cashed it in the bank, and she's all, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God." She was feeling her pulse and everything, you know. She said, "Well, what we can do with — " I said, "I have to go to New York."
00:21:18 So I quit school after my sophomore year, and my buddies, my school chums, gave me a party, a going away party. And they said, "What are you going to do, Carol?" I said, "Well,” and here again, I said, "Well, okay, my first show will be a Broadway show directed by George Abbott," who was the director of musical comedy at that time and for years before.
00:21:50 GAIL EICHENTHAL: And years after.
00:21:51 CAROL BURNETT: And years after. And that’s what happened. My first show was directed by George Abbott, Once Upon a Mattress.
00:21:59 WINNIFRED: And so, young Prince Valdair, after having slain the dragon Fafner, rescued the princess Griga, and together they mounted his horse, Triga, and rode off to the castle Vunderbar, where they were married and lived happily ever after.
00:22:21 Well, I'm glad.
00:22:25 MUSIC: HAPPILY EVER AFTER
00:22:25 They all lived happily, happily, happily,
The couple is happily leaving
The chapel eternally tied
As the curtain descends
There is nothing but loving and laughter
When the fairytale ends
The heroine's always a bride
00:22:48 ALICE WINKLER: Carol Burnett’s rise to fame wasn’t quite that easy, though. She first spent a couple of summers doing summer stock theater in New York State. One of those was a place called Tamiment in the Poconos, where Once Upon A Mattress was developed. The other was Green Mansions in the Adirondacks. There, Carol Burnett would work with Sheldon Harnick, who wrote Fiddler on the Roof; Larry Kert, who played Tony in the original West Side Story; Lee Adams and Charlie Strouse, who wrote Bye Bye Birdie; so an amazing pool of talent and a crucible for any aspiring actor.
00:23:25 CAROL BURNETT: Green Mansions was the toughest because we did — Sunday night was a variety show. We were off Monday, but we were rehearsing for Tuesday night, which would be play night, Wednesday night was opera night, Thursday night we were off rehearsing for Friday and Saturday, which were original musical revues. We never really had a full day off for ten weeks, but we got paid $500 for the whole summer.
00:23:53 ALICE WINKLER: A lot of money in 1955, but getting that major role back in New York City still took a lot of work and perseverance. And then...
00:24:03 CAROL BURNETT: I had been auditioning for Rodgers and Hammerstein at the time, who were going to take a show down to Florida, Babes in Arms, and I had many callbacks about it. And it looked like I was going to get the part, and then they were going to break it in in Florida and bring it back to Broadway. And the director wanted me, but they thought they needed to go with a name, so I didn’t get the part. And I — oh, I was devastated because I thought I had it.
00:24:41 And I was raising my kid sister at the time. We were in New York, and I was kind of crying, you know, and she said, "Sissy, we always say, the old cliché, ‘One door closes, another opens.’" After that sentence, the phone rang. I picked it up, and it was Bill and Jean Eckart, who were producing this little show called Once Upon a Mattress. And she said, "Could you come down and audition for us?"
00:25:09 I got on the subway, went down that same day, auditioned, got home. The phone was ringing. I got the part, and it was George Abbott. You know, it was Off-Broadway, so I was getting a big break, you know. I had auditioned a lot before I got my break. And I guess I had a good attitude, because sometimes it would be between me and another girl, and she would get it, and I would say, "Well, you know, it’s her turn. Wasn't my turn. My turn will come."
00:25:54 So I was — the only time I was really disappointed was when it really was so close with Babes in Arms. Otherwise, if I didn’t make it, I said, "Well, it’s not my turn yet." So Mattress was my turn.
00:26:07 ALICE WINKLER: And then it moved to Broadway, and then it was Carol Burnett’s turn to try television. TV star Garry Moore and his producers had seen her in Mattress.
00:26:17 CAROL BURNETT: But what happened was Garry was — he had a successful variety show on Tuesday nights, live, and Martha Raye had been scheduled to be a guest — wonderful comedienne — but she got sick. And it was a live show, and she had bronchitis, and Garry — they called me on Sunday, and they said, "Could you come and learn the show for Tuesday night?" "You bet." So I was over there like Roadrunner.
00:26:45 And I learned the show, and I brought a sketch with me that I had done at Green Mansions with Bernie West, so we had a sketch that we could perform, but I learned all of her musical numbers and everything. And Garry explained to the audience afterwards that I had just come in, you know, and the audience was so terrific, the studio audience, and I was just crying, I was so happy.
00:27:10 And then backstage I got a phone call from Martha Raye, who was so sweet, and she was croaking, her voice was croaking. And she sent me roses, and we became good friends, and she was on my show several times, you know. And so after I did that, they then thought, "Well, maybe we could — " So the following September they offered me the part of being a regular performer on Garry’s show, and I leapt at it. And I preferred it, actually, to Broadway.
00:27:43 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Why?
00:27:44 CAROL BURNETT: Because it was like doing a little Broadway show every week but changing it, so that you would have new challenges, and you weren’t doing the same thing eight times a week the way you do on Broadway.
00:27:57 ALICE WINKLER: Here she is on The Garry Moore Show in 1962, playing Supergirl, who by day is a nerdy, sniffling gal name Clara Clean who works at the newspaper.
00:28:10 SCOOP SCANLON: Supergirl! Supergirl! Oh, Supergirl, you saved my life. I'll do anything to repay you. Anything!
00:28:18 SUPERGIRL: Anything?
00:28:20 SCOOP SCANLON: Anything.
00:28:20 SUPERGIRL: Good.
00:28:23 SCOOP SCANLON: What do you want me to do?
00:28:23 SUPERGIRL: Well, there's a little girl who works here in your office. I think her name is Clara Clean?
00:28:29 SCOOP SCANLON: Yeah.
00:28:29 SUPERGIRL: Well, I think it would be a wonderful idea if you'd take Clara Clean out to dinner and then for a little friendly smoochy.
00:28:37 SCOOP SCANLON: That drip?
00:28:39 SUPERGIRL: Then you won't do it?
00:28:40 SCOOP SCANLON: I should say not.
00:28:42 SUPERGIRL: I'm sorry to hear you say that, Scanlon. (PUNCHES SCANLON)
00:28:43 SCOOP SCANLON: Ohh!
00:28:49 (TARZAN YELL)
00:28:52 ALICE WINKLER: Who knew that Carol Burnett started doing her famous Tarzan yell years before she got her own show? But anyway, the point is, Carol Burnett was smitten by television. Her successful run on The Garry Moore Show led not only to her first marriage, to one of the producers, but it also led to an Emmy Award-winning TV special she did with her good friend Julie Andrews, taped at Carnegie Hall. And then when fortune once again cracked open a window, she heaved it open and jumped on through.
00:29:22 CAROL BURNETT: It was a fluke. After I was leaving The Garry Moore Show, I signed a contract with CBS for ten years, and there was a clause in the contract that has never been before and certainly won’t be afterwards, that if within the first five years of the show, if I wanted — if I wanted — to do 30 one-hour shows on television, variety shows, they had to put it on whether they wanted to or not.
00:30:00 Well, I said, "I'll never want to do that. I can’t be a host of a variety — " I never thought it. So five years were coming up, you know, and it was the last week that that clause could work, the fifth year, and my husband and I had just put a down payment on a house in Beverly Hills, and I had a baby, two babies, and we said, "Maybe we ought to push that button."
00:30:28 So I picked up the phone and called New York, and I got one of the vice presidents of CBS on the phone, and he said, "Merry Christmas, Carol” or “Happy New Year," and it was that week. I said, "Well, I'm calling because I want to push that button." And he had no — he said, "What? What button?" And I said, "Well, you know, where I can do — " And he said, "Oh. Well, let me get back to you."
00:30:51 So I am sure he got a lot of lawyers out of Christmas parties that night, called me back the next day, and he said, "Oh yeah, I see, Carol, you know, well, variety, it’s a man’s game. It’s Gleason. It’s Milton Berle. It's Sid Caesar. It’s Dean Martin." He says, "You gals, I mean, it’s not for — you know, we’ve got this great sitcom we'd love you to do called Here’s Agnes." Can you just picture it? "Here’s Agnes!" I can just see it now.
00:31:29 And I said, "No, variety's what I love. Music. I want a rep company, like Sid Caesar had. I want dancers. I want singers. I want guest stars. I want to do sketches. I want to do different characters." And they had to put it on, and they didn’t want to.
00:31:48 And they thought we would bomb. I didn’t know what — if we — but all I knew is we had 30 shows, pay or play, you know. And then it was 11 years.
00:32:04 ALICE WINKLER: Eleven years of one of the greatest shows in the history of television, one that influenced a couple of generations of comics, women in particular, who revered her. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, women who grew up watching and who, like their comic hero, learned that a woman could be host, could have her own show, could be her authentic self, could be boss, and at the same time be a generous ensemble member. That ensemble!
00:32:36 For most of the show’s run, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, and Vicki Lawrence. They genuinely looked like they were having the time of their lives.
00:32:45 CAROL BURNETT: I don't like the term “second banana.” That’s a term used as someone who supports the, quote, star. Ours was a true rep company. There were no second bananas. There were sketches that we did where Harvey would shine, where Tim would shine, where I would shine, where Vicki would shine, so it was a rep company.
00:33:09 ALICE WINKLER: And another member of that rep company was the live studio audience. One of the signature features of The Carol Burnett Show was the Q&A she would do, without the blacked-out teeth, the wigs, or the kooky Bob Mackie costumes with sewn-in sagging boobs and voluminous butt pads. She never knew what she’d be asked during the Q&A, so it was improv.
00:33:31 If she ended up with egg on her face, so be it, and that let viewers watching at home, as well as in the studio, connect with her and fall in love with her. But when the show started in 1967, that Q&A was risky.
00:33:46 CAROL BURNETT: So, the first show, I went out and I said, "Uh, any questions?" You know — and first of all, I was afraid nobody would ask anything, and then I was afraid they would. But it started to catch on after we were on for about three or four weeks, and people came ready, you know, to ask questions and do things.
00:34:08 So it became a lot of fun because it was total improv, but the audience was my partner.
00:34:15 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Did you study improv?
00:34:17 CAROL BURNETT: No. I didn’t study anything. It was just doing it.
00:34:26 What sets me off laughing when I look back in that direction? If you'd all turn around back there, see those glass partitions?
00:34:35 That's the booth, and what makes me laugh —
00:34:42 They're all drunk!
00:34:43 They're back there going, “Yoo-hoo!”
00:34:46 So I laugh.
00:34:46 MALE VOICE: Would you come get us some more ice, please?
00:34:50 ALICE WINKLER: Another regular feature of The Carol Burnett Show was the guest star. The most famous actors, musicians, and comedians of the day came on and joined the ensemble for one night of ridiculousness. Robin Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Andrews, Burt Reynolds, Betty White, Charo, the Jackson Five, the list goes on and on. Sometimes they joined Carol for a song.
00:35:11 Here she is with Maggie Smith. You know, The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, Dowager Countess Violet Crawley on Downton Abbey. Yes, that Maggie Smith, circa 1974.
00:35:23 MUSIC: YOU’RE SO LONDON
00:35:23 You're so Dinah
You're so Gloria Steinem
And I'm so Margaret Mead
You're so tie-dye
You're so Dacron and denim
And I'm so English tweed
Wherever you go you belong
No, you're wrong, wrong, wrong
You're so Scrabble
You're so chess
You're so checkers
And I'm so hide-and-seek
You're so hoedown
You're so Charleston, so Lindy
And I'm so cheek-to-cheek
And prairie dogs
And I'm so birds-and-bees
You're so ruffles, so petticoats
And I'm so BVDs!
Face it, Maggie!
00:36:17 ALICE WINKLER: The sketches on The Carol Burnett Show were mostly scripted and rehearsed, but Burnett wanted to keep the feeling and pace of live theater, so once they started taping, she told interviewer Gail Eichenthal, it was “game on.”
00:36:30 CAROL BURNETT: I didn’t want to keep them waiting because, again, they're our partner, and they feed us with their laughter. So if they're bored, sitting there, waiting for costume changes and scenery changes, we're going to lose them. So I used to have a bet with the stagehands that I could do a skin-out change —
00:36:51 GAIL EICHENTHAL: What is that?
00:36:51 CAROL BURNETT: That's strip down, get changed, put a wig on, change makeup, everything, you know, before they could change the scenery and move it, so that we really — so we did it, like, as if it were a live show. So if something would go crazy, we kept it in. You know, unless the scenery fell down and knocked one of us out, you know.
00:37:14 But that’s why sometimes, you know, Tim would go off on a roll, and poor Harvey, we didn’t know what Tim was going to do, so we just rolled with it.
00:37:28 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Sometimes you cracked up.
00:37:29 CAROL BURNETT: Oh, yeah, and it was honest. It was never on purpose. See, so many of us who did our show came from live theater, so it was like, okay, you’ve got to really be thinking on your feet. So — and just go with it. The audience loves it when something like that happens. You know, although Harvey — and all of us — we prided ourselves on being trained theatrically, but there were times you just couldn't — it was like giggling in church or the library.
00:38:02 TIM CONWAY: I was at this freak show one time, and I saw these Siamese elephants.
00:38:13 They were joined at the end —
00:38:21 They were joined at the end of their trunks, like that.
00:38:26 And this trainer would make them stand up on their back feet, like that, and they had their trunk stretched, like that.
00:38:32 Then this little monkey would come out —
00:38:35 Walk out there and dance the merengue right out there.
00:38:40 Kind of felt sorry for them. They couldn’t go like the other elephants when they go...
00:38:46 All they could do is just blow and go...
00:38:51 ALICE WINKLER: You can’t usually hear the giggling when Tim Conway goes off script and sends them over the edge, but trust me if you’ve never seen the show, you can see the others shaking, suddenly turning heads to the side or coughing into a hand, trying to stifle a guffaw. These were some of the show's most memorable moments, the mistakes that made the whole thing more perfect. Carol Burnett has always been willing to let the seams show, and that is one of the reasons she's so close to so many people’s hearts.
00:39:23 She allowed us, her fans, to see her real self, on-screen and sometimes off, in good times and in very, very bad.
00:39:32 CAROL BURNETT: The lowest of lows, of course, was when I lost my daughter Carrie. You never get over that, but you learn to cope, and she was terrific, and she had a mantra. She was very talented, and when she was ill in the hospital for the last time, I was going to see her, and the nurse — one of the nurses stopped me in the hall. She said, "I have to talk to you about your daughter." I said, "What?"
00:40:04 She said, "I can’t — I went into the room the other day." She said, "She is always smiling. She is always up," you know, and so forth. And I said, "Carrie, how can you always be so cheerful lying there like that?" You know? And she said, "Every day, I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life." “Decide” is the key word. “Today I am going to love my life.” Oh, Sachi?
00:40:33 SACHI: Yeah?
00:40:34 Could you get me my purse? I have another thing I want to read. It's over here on the couch. I am never without this. Thanks, sweetheart. This is a quote from Carrie about art.
00:40:54 CAROL BURNETT: "The legacy is really the lives we touch, the inspiration we give, altering someone’s plan if even for a moment and getting them to think, rage, or cry, laugh, argue, walk around the block dazed. I do a lot of that after seeing powerful theater, but more than anything, we are remembered for our smiles, the ones we share with our closest and dearest, and the ones we bestow on a total stranger who needed it right then, and God put you there to deliver." That was my girl.
00:41:36 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Does laughter help get you through that?
00:41:37 CAROL BURNETT: Oh, sure, sure, and I know that's what she would want.
00:41:42 ALICE WINKLER: Carol Burnett, still laughing and still making other people laugh. In 2013, she won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and as of the recording of this podcast, Carol Burnett is just shy of 83 and is touring the country with her one-woman show. It includes plenty of audience Q&A. I’m Alice Winkler, and this is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. Follow us on Twitter. Our hashtag is #WhatItTakesNow. And do us a favor — go to iTunes or wherever it is you get this podcast, and give us your feedback.
00:42:20 Funding for What It Takes comes from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation. Thanks for listening.
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