In 1967, Carol Creighton Burnett stepped onto CBS Television City’s Stage 33, chatted up the audience, performed sidesplitting skits, tugged her left ear and made history.
The 34-year-old stage and TV actress honed her knack for physical comedy as a regular on The Garry Moore Show, parlaying her popularity into a variety show of her own. Surrounded by a crack ensemble of laugh-getters — Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman and Lyle Waggoner, plus frequent guest star Tim Conway — Burnett made The Carol Burnett Show must-watch, feel-good TV that earned the weekly series 25 Emmy awards.
Fifty years later, it lives on in reruns and DVD box sets. To honor the show’s timeless good humor, CBS presents The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special, returning Burnett (84), Lawrence (68) and Waggoner (82) to Stage 33 alongside a host of actors, singers and comedians who share what the show meant to them.
“We have 18 guest stars on the show! Eighteen!” Burnett exclaims. “It was just a plethora of goodies. Martin Short and Jim Carrey, they’re in the salute to Tim Conway, so they talk about some of the sketches that Tim did that made them laugh and we show those clips. We have a salute to Harvey that Jay Leno and Bill Hader are a part of. We have a little musical segment around the piano with Bernadette Peters, Kristin Chenoweth, me — and then a surprise entrance!”
The comedy icon shares more about her 50 years of funny.
What were your hopes and expectations on Day 1?
Carol Burnett: We were backstage, and we had this kumbaya moment. I got with Harvey and Lyle and Vicki — Tim wasn’t a regular at that time — and we did a group hug. We were going to do 30 one-hour shows. CBS had a contract that we could do that, and I said, “OK, we’ve got 30 shows. We don’t know what’s going to happen after that. Let’s just go out and have fun.” And that’s what we did.
How quickly did you know the cast was something special?
I never thought we were anything particularly special. [Laughs] I thought we were good, but I guess when I realized we were doing something right was when we got picked up for another season. After the 11th season, they wanted us for a 12th, but I missed Harvey — he left us after the 10th season to do a show of his own — and I felt it was time to move on to other things. I wanted to go out before CBS flicked the lights on and off and said, “Leave.” [Laughs]
What did Bob Mackie mean to you and the show?
Do the math: 276 shows over 11 years — that’s a little over 17,000 costumes he designed. Nobody can claim that record. Sometimes I didn’t know how I was going to do a character until I knew what he was going to dress me in. It was like where a little boy puts on a pirate outfit or a cowboy outfit, and they become that. That’s what Bob did for me.
Was cracking each other up — a fan favorite — part of the fun?
We didn’t break up as often as people think; it’s just that they remember it so much! I averaged out how much we broke up and it comes to 7 percent of the time. Usually it was Conway that caused it — and Tim wasn’t a regular on our show until the ninth season!
Give me your thoughts on the show’s lasting appeal.
My answer is “Funny is funny.” I dare anybody to look at the dentist sketch with Harvey and Tim and not double over with laughter — and it’s 45 years old! What happened, and it wasn’t on purpose, is we were never topical, so what was funny then is holding up now.
Whatever happened to the singing Bea Arthur lookalike from the audience?
I got a letter a few months ago from someone who knew her! She died recently at age 100, and they played that clip at her memorial. … I’d never seen her before in my life. We just happened to know the same song!
Tell me about the upcoming Netflix series A Little Help With Carol Burnett.
I am the host and we present adult dilemmas to children ages 5 to 9 and they come up with solutions. It’s so cute, because at that age, they don’t censor themselves. They just blurt it out, and it’s just total honesty … and sometimes very profound!
Rumor is you’re a big Vince Gilligan fan. You and Bob Odenkirk together on Better Call Saul is a bigger dream than even I can dream. Would you?
I would love it! … Vince came to our show. We have the same driver — his name is Jason, he’s a great guy, and he drives Vince to events — so, I said, “Oh, please tell him how much I just so admire him.” Next time I saw Jason, he said, “He’s crazy about you, too!” I got his email from Jason, emailed Vince and said, “Can you come to our 50th?” I got to meet him at the party afterward. I’m going to try to figure out when we can have dinner.
The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special > CBS > Dec. 3
Carol On Her Favorite Characters
“I loved doing Eunice [in “The Family” sketches]. She just spoke to me, because she was such a pitiful character.”
“Tim was always trying to crack me up with a line that he hadn’t had in rehearsal, and I realized that I can’t laugh as Mrs. Wiggins, because she’s just so stupid and people who are that dumb don’t have a sense of humor.”
“I was raised in the ’40s and early ’50s going to movies with my grandmother. It was a given when we got the show I would want to do a takeoff on Double Indemnity, or The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
“It was like a cartoon with the physical comedy. I got beat up all the time doing this poor old lady, but I loved physical comedy so I enjoyed her.”