Carol Burnett

An Audience with Carol Burnett

Richard Burnett
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Carol Burnett

All my life when people have asked me how to spell my family name, I reply, “Burnett, like Carol.”

All my life when people have asked me how to spell my family name, I reply, “Burnett, like Carol.”
 
Recently, when I told the comedy legend that story, Ms. Burnett (no relation to me) replied, “From now on, when people ask me that question, I’ll tell them ‘Burnett, like Richard!’” It was a thrill, of course, to blab with Ms. Burnett (“Call me Carol”), the LGBTQ and pop icon, who has been famously supportive of her bisexual daughter, the musician Erin Hamilton, and inspired countless drag queens such as RuPaul who has called her show Drag Race a new generation’s Carol Burnett Show. “I’m very flattered!” a clearly-happy Carol said when I told her about RuPaul. We also spoke about Carol’s tireless support for the LGBTQ communities, her legendary career, and her upcoming concerts in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
 
You have long supported LGBTQ causes and appeared at LGBTQ events.
We’re all human, we’re all loving people, everybody has the right to their own beliefs and be who they want to be, who they are. We are all the same. We are all under the same – if you want to call it – higher power. That’s what I believe. It doesn’t matter, the colour of your skin or who you love. 
 
You have been famously supportive of your daughter Erin.
Parents should support their LGBT children because they are our children! We are all the same inside.
 
In the early 1970s, one of your guests was legendary female impersonator Jim Bailey. What was also great was you embraced him like a serious artist.
He was. I loved Jim! I first got to know him when I saw him in Las Vegas and he just blew me away. You see a lot of female impersonators who lip-sync and they’re very good, but he blew me away because he was actually singing Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. His pipes were incredible. I just looked at him as a fantastic entertainer and as somebody I would love to have as a guest on my show.
 
Do you still keep in touch with your friends and colleagues from The Carol Burnett Show?
Yup, Tim (Conway), Vicki (Lawrence) and Lyle (Waggoner). In fact, (in October) we finished taping a two-hour special that will air on CBS on December 3, celebrating – get this, I can’t believe it – the 50th anniversary of the start of the show! It was unbelievable. We show a lot of clips showcasing the whole cast, including Harvey (Korman, who died in 2008 at age 81). Some of the guests include Kevin Spacey, Jim Carrey, Bernadette Peters, Kristin Chenoweth, Steve Lawrence, Amy Poehler, Martin Short, the list goes on and on. They joined us to talk about some of their favourite moments on the show. We still need to edit it down another 30 minutes, but we’re getting there.
 
What do you think of television these days?
I know I’m going to sound like an old fogey, but I think the great era has kind of passed, with few exceptions. When you look back at our era, when you think of that Saturday night line-up that we had – All In The Family, MASH, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and us – not to mention all the variety shows from that era,  like Laugh-In, Flip Wilson, The Smothers Brothers, on and on. You could do what no network will do today. We had a 28-piece orchestra, we had 12 dancers, two guest stars per week, and on average Bob Mackie designed 65 costumes per week. You do the math over 11 years – 276 shows – he designed over 17,000 costumes. The costs today would be prohibitive, the business has changed so much. I wish variety (shows) would come back. It would have to be in a different form. But the talent is there. There are people who can do variety and sketches. I have to say reality shows do not interest me that much. 
 
Was it tougher for you to survive the showbiz trenches as a woman?
I never had a problem because I had it in my contract at CBS that if I wanted to push the button, they would have to put it on the air whether they wanted to or not. It was a wild contract. I don’t think anybody had it before and certainly not since. I had no problem. I learned and studied very hard when I was on The Garry Moore Show, so that gave me a bit of a leg up.
 
The only thing was, being a woman, if a sketch wasn’t working – if you were Jackie Gleason or Sid Caesar, you’d say to the writers, “Hey guys, this really stinks, get it together.” But as a woman, if a sketch wasn’t working, I’d call the writers down to the rehearsal hall and very gently say, “Gosh guys, this isn’t working for me, can you help me out here?” If I talked the way Sid or Gleason talked, I would be a bitch. That’s how they would call me. But if it’s a boy, well, he really knows what he’s talking about. He authoritative. Fortunately, I think a lot of that has gone the way of the Dodo bird. 
 
What did your Mom think of your success?
She was thrilled, but she didn’t live to see me get my own show. But my parents saw me when I was getting started on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Garry Moore Show. They were proud of me.
 
You are bringing to Canada your show “Carol Burnett – An Evening of Laughter and Reflection” where the audience asks the questions. What is it like to do this tour?
I’ve done it for some 20-odd years. I do no more than about six concerts a year, and it’s just what I did at the top of the (TV) show. I throw it open to the audience and I have no idea who is going to ask what. It’s 90 minutes of falling without a net! I enjoy it because it keeps the old gray matter ticking. You really have to be on your toes, in the moment. There are frequent questions, like why did you pull your ear? Would you do the Tarzan call? Is Tim Conway as funny in real life as he is on television? So I have stories about all of these things.
 
You must get asked about your Gone With the Wind outfit all the time.
That was Bob Mackie! The writers had me wearing the draperies just kind of hanging on me, and Bob thought that wasn’t as funny as it could be and he got the brilliant idea of doing the curtain rod. I think that is hands-down one of the longest laughs we ever got on our show!
 
How do feel about being called a comedy legend and TV icon?
If you hang around and live long enough! It’s very flattering, but what can I say? I don’t feel that way. As I say, I’m still working and having fun.  
 
 
Carol Burnett – An Evening of Laughter and Reflection,
 in Toronto (Oct. 30), Ottawa (Nov. 2) and Montreal (Nov. 4). 
Visit www.hahaha.com/carolburnett for tickets.