The queen of TV sketch comedy — and SAG Life Achievement Award honoree — drew 30 million viewers a week for 11 seasons on CBS; now, she reflects on what made her variety series in a "man's genre" succeed.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
If Carol Burnett had listened to CBS back in 1967, she would have ended up the star of a sitcom titled Here's Agnes — and that's the last the world might have heard from her. Instead she insisted on doing a variety program, The Carol Burnett Show, which became one of the longest-running (11 years, 278 episodes) and most beloved (25 Emmys, 70 nominations) musical-comedy hours in television history, bringing in an average of 30 million viewers a week. On the eve of becoming the 52nd recipient of the SAG Life Achievement Award (during a ceremony set to air Jan. 30 on TNT and TBS), the 82-year-old grandmother of two took time away from her home in Montecito, Calif., to sit down with THR and talk about how her iconic show came together, why it could never be made today and when exactly she learned to yodel like Tarzan.
When did you first get the bug to perform?
My grandmother and I, we lived a block north of Hollywood Boulevard, and we would save our pennies to go to the movies. In those days, there would be double features at some of the smaller theaters down Hollywood Boulevard. We would go to three or four of those a week, which meant I saw as many as six to eight movies a week growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. Then I would come home and act out the movies with the neighborhood kids.
When you say "act out," you were doing scenes from the movies?
We would act them out, literally. Like, we would come back home and do Tarzan and Jane with my best girlfriend — naturally, I was Tarzan. Or I would be Betty Grable, and she would be June Haver. We would be singing and doing some of the stuff they did in those 20th Century Fox movies.
With Jane Lynch in a 2010 episode of Glee.
Is that how you learned to do impersonations?
I'm not a good impersonator, but I'm good at getting the essence of the person. When we did "Mildred Fierce" [a Mildred Pierce spoof on the show], I got Joan Crawford's essence, not her voice. I sort of walked like her, and we had the shoulder pads and all that. Once I got into [costume designer] Bob Mackie's drag — he even made false eyebrows out of real hair because Crawford had these wonderful heavy eyebrows — I felt like I looked like her. It's funny: When I put on the stuff, that always gave me my character. It's like when you see a little kid on Halloween and they are going to be a cowboy, a pirate, whatever — they're the best actors. They act out the way they are dressed.
Has comedy changed through the years?
Funny is funny. I dare anyone to look at Tim Conway and Harvey Korman doing the dentist sketch, which is more than 40 years old, and not scream with laughter. But I am kind of bored of producers saying, "It's got to be edgy." Edgy is fine — I'm not a prude by any stretch of the imagination — but what's wrong with a good ol' belly laugh? I miss that. A lot of comedy today is so fast — it's like: "Boom! Boom! Boom!" — because they think people can't pay enough attention. Barry Levinson [who wrote for The Carol Burnett Show before becoming a director] and Rudy De Luca wrote one of my favorite sketches. It was called "The Pail," and in it, Harvey is my psychiatrist and I'm having a session with him. It takes about five or six minutes into the sketch until we got our first laugh, but it built and built and built, and the punch line was great. It's about a girl who was traumatized by a bully in the sandbox when she was 6 years old, and he stole her little pail — and it turns out the psychiatrist was the bully. It is absolutely hysterical, but it took all that time to build. Today the suits say, "It's got to be fast." So I think some of the writing isn't good anymore. Now sitcoms sound like they've been written by teenage boys in a locker room.
Burnett danced with Jim Nabors (left) and Korman in a 1970 episode of The Carol Burnett Show.
There's an old story about a CBS executive who told you that you couldn't do variety because it was a man's genre. Do you remember that conversation?
Very clearly. When I left The Garry Moore Show, I signed a 10-year contract with CBS. My agent was brilliant: For the first five years of the contract, if I wanted to do a variety show, all I had to do was push the button and CBS would have to put us on for 31 hourlong pay-or-play variety shows. At the time I was like: "Oh, I'll never be a host of a variety show. I can't do that." But it was the last week of the fifth year, and I was not in demand — to put it that way — and my husband [Joe Hamilton, a TV producer] and I looked at each other and I said, "Maybe we ought to push that button." So we made the call from California to New York. I called the executive, and he said, "You know, Carol, variety is Sid Caesar, it's Jackie Gleason, it's Dean Martin — it's a man's game." And I said, "But this is what I know." And he said, "We've got this great sitcom we want you to do — it's called Here's Agnes. Can you picture it?" And I said: "I don't want to do the same people every week. I want to be different people, different characters, different outfits, different music. I want guest stars; I want a rep company."
How quickly did you recognize the alchemy of that core group of performers?
From the very beginning it was fun and games in the sandbox. Everything fell into place. Harvey was on The Danny Kaye Show, but that show went off the air so we got Harvey. Tim had had two or three shows of his own, but they only ran for 13 weeks. He had this license plate that said: "13 Weeks." Carl Reiner said, "You should get yourself a hunky announcer that you can fawn over," and that's how we found Lyle Waggoner.
Burnett wore drapes in a 1976 spoof of Gone With the Wind.
Then there was Vicki Lawrence …
Vicki wrote me a fan letter when she was 17, and for some reason it spoke to me. I went to see her at a contest she told me she was in, and we were looking for someone to play my kid sister in a couple of sketches, and boom! We hired Vicki. She trained in front of 30 million people a week.
Is there another Carol Burnett on the comedy landscape today?
I do think there are some great female comics: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph. They're the whole ball of wax. But I don't think they could do what we did because we did a musical-comedy extravaganza every week with a 28-piece orchestra, 12 dancers and two guest stars a week, plus we had a studio audience. We'd do it in one hour and 15 minutes, and we'd be out in time to go have dinner. Also, the cost: You couldn't do what we did today because the cost would be astronomical.