Carol Burnett is the winner of six Emmy awards and creator of The Carol Burnett Show, one of America’s most beloved TV programs, which aired from 1967-1978. Burnett has also written books and plays, and acted for television and film. She continues to appear in stage productions, most recently a staged reading in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to speak with my childhood cultural hero recently, and found her smart, warm, and funny-just like on TV.
How does it feel to know that millions of people watched your comedy for decades? I think the thing I am most pleased about is when people come up to me, even today, and say, “You know, when you guys were on the air I would watch TV with my parents or grandparents, and we would be together as a family.” I’m always thrilled when people say, “I was having a really rough time,” or, “I was sick, and I watched your show and you made me forget for an hour what I was going through.”
How have you stayed so funny for so long, yet so clean? Comedy today often seems crude. Well, funny is funny. But when you see Tim Conway doing his stuff, it’s timeless. He’s one of the funniest people in the world, and not one on-purpose, off-color thing has ever come out of him. And did you see Ellen DeGeneres’s HBO show? It’s perfectly wholesome, but hysterical-the audience was screaming.
Yet I don’t get the impression you’re a prude. I’m not a prude at all. When Richard Pryor was doing his one-man show, and Whoopi Goldberg, sometimes they’d use language. Usually it was when they were doing a character and that’s how that character talked, so I can buy that. But generally, if somebody just gets up and uses the f-word every other word-there’s not much thought that goes into that, you know?
I suppose it’s not really highly evolved humor. It’s like a little kid who first learns to say “Caca poopoo.” They think it’s the funniest thing in the world.
(Laughs.) See, it is funny! What gave you the gall to pursue your program when the network told you a variety show had to be hosted by a man? Well, I happened to have a contract, that I don’t think could ever exist again, which said that within a certain amount of time, if I pushed the button, they would have to give me an hour-long variety show for 30 hours. So when I picked up the phone and called CBS and said, “I want to exercise that clause in the contract,” they really weren’t excited. They said, “Oh! Well, you know, that’s really kind of a guy’s thing-Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Dean Martin.” And I said, “Well, you know, I love variety, that’s what I know, that’s what I would love to do.” And they said, “We’ve got this sitcom you could do, called Here’s Agnes! It’s about a maid.”
Wow. You can just picture it, right? I said, “I really don’t want to do one character. I want to have music. I want to have guest stars. I want to have a rep company like Sid Caesar has. I want to do movie take-offs. I want to do a musical comedy revue every week-a different one every week, and different characters.” They had to put it on. They didn’t have a choice.
And you were confident that it would work. I just knew I couldn’t do the other, and this was what I wanted to do whether or not it was successful.
Were you funny as a little kid? No, not really. I was kind of quiet. I got good grades; I was sort of a nerd. I had friends, and we would laugh together, but it wasn’t like I was the class clown. It wasn’t until I got to UCLA that I got into performing.
What was your favorite dramatic film role? It was working for Robert Altman in a movie called A Wedding. I’ve never really enjoyed doing movies because I missed the audience feedback. I was always kind of inhibited in front of a movie camera. But working for Bob Altman freed everybody; he had a way of making you feel like you were playing in the sandbox. I think it’s the best film work I’ve done.
Do people recognize you when you walk around downtown? Sometimes. If I looked like Dolly Parton, people would be looking, right? It’s usually when I talk that people recognize me. If I go into a store or something and open my mouth, they look up because it’s a familiar sound.