Ask Carol Burnett

A comedy legend shares memories, laughs and answers to your questions

Cover | by Stephen Whitworth

Back in the day, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey played a couple of basement-dwelling headbangers on Saturday Night Live and, later, in a couple of movies. You might be familiar with Wayne and Garth — besides being funny, they’re the utterers of the catchphrase “we’re not worthy!”, spoken to celebrities and rock legends like Alice Cooper.

When I got a call last Friday from Carol Burnett — THE Carol Burnett —I knew how those fictional characters felt.

Back in a slightly earlier day, The Carol Burnett Show was essential comedy. The cast featured Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Lyle Waggoner, plus a who’s-who of A-List guests. The Carol Burnett Show combined skits, parodies and music, made memorable by the cast’s willingness to let their efforts be derailed by giggles and laughing fits — always genuine, if not altogether unplanned.

The Carol Burnett Show ran 11 years from 1967 to 1978. Every episode was memorably opened by the charismatic and quick-witted star, whose unscripted interactions with her live studio audience were unfailingly hilarious and sweet.

It’s a legendary bit that will forever be associated with Burnett, and it forms the basis of her show, Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection that comes to Regina on the last Saturday in September.

I spoke with Burnett ahead of her show. She was friendly, generous and sharp as your favourite sharp object — knife, samurai sword, pointy stick, whatever. Here’s our conversation, edited for publication.

Hello Carol Burnett. I didn’t think you’d be phoning me directly. I thought you might have a person call first.

It’s really me! I’m very capable of dialing the phone. And I’m really dialing—I have an old phone.

I miss those! I’m putting you on speaker so I can record you on my cell.  If I hang up on you, please call me back.

I will do.

And you can laugh at me.

Okay dear.

How are you today?

I’m terrific, thank you Stephen, how are you?

I’m very good, thanks. Very excited and a little nervous.

Why?

Well, like a lot of people, I grew up watching TV in the ’70s and ’80s, sitting in a living room in a classic ’70s single-parent household, eating dinner on TV tables and enjoying your show. It was formative for me, and my family is pretty excited I get to do this interview.

Well thank you, and give your family my best.

I will! So have you been to Regina before?

I think I have! It was a long, long time ago, but I’ve been to Canada quite a bit doing these evenings. I find the audiences are just terrific — they usually come loaded with questions, which is what I want, so I have a good time doing it. None of the questions are planned or anything, it’s all random. Just calling on people raising their hands and hoping I’ll have a snappy answer, or something that would be entertaining for the audience.

I think you’ll have a good crowd. A lot of people here remember your show and they’ll be very excited.

Now that our DVDs have come out from Time Life and we’re also all over YouTube, I’m getting fan mail from 10-year-olds! Teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s! I’m getting good audiences ranging in age from nine to 90!

I watched an episode of your Netflix show, A Little Help, where kids help your celebrity guests solve dilemmas. How did that come about?

My manager and I were talking and he said, “you remember how cute it was when Art Linkletter used to talk to kids?” And I said “Yeah!” And so we came up with this idea, and we went to Netflix with it, and they said “Okay!” The age range of the kids — five to nine — was perfect. They don’t censor themselves at that age. They’re just saying what they think.

Plus you get to bring in guests.

Right, and a lot of them I’d never met before, so that was a thrill for me. It was fun! These kids are adorable.

What should the audience expect from your show? I know you take questions…

Yes, that’s what it is. It’s a conversation that I have with the audience, so nothing is planned. I open with about eight minutes of some of the funniest questions and answers we had on my show to get the live audience up for it. And then I come out and say ‘bump up the lights,’ and we have ushers with microphones, so when I call on somebody an usher rushes to that person with a mic so everybody can hear their question. It’s free-wheeling because I never know what anybody’s going to ask.

It’s wonderful because it keeps my brain active. I can’t be thinking about yesterday or what I’m going to do tomorrow because I have to be in the present moment. And that’s very exciting for me!

How does comedy at the height of The Carol Burnett Show compare to comedy today?

A lot of it today is mean-spirited. They kind of stoop to get cheap laughs. I’m really tired of sitcoms where they talk about bodily functions. That’s too easy. You look at a Dick Van Dyke Show; you look at Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart. That was classic, classy writing. And it’s harder to write that.

Because it’s smart.

It is smart! Nowadays I just find that they’re taking the easy way out. It’s a dumbing-down of people watching. And that’s why I’m happy that we can be seen on DVDs. Those things hold up.

Are there any TV shows nowadays that make you laugh?

I’m not into many comedies, actually. I’m kinda hooked on cable. I liked Breaking Bad and now, Better Call Saul, and when Homeland comes back on I’ll watch that. And House Of Cards. But I did laugh out loud — by myself, in the family room! — watching Schitt’s Creek. Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy — that cast can do no wrong.

Do you remember SCTV?

Oh my gosh, that was my favourite!

I went directly from the Carol Burnett Show to SCTV.

SCTV was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. That to me was one of the best shows ever.

Have you met any of that show’s cast?

Yeah! In fact, one time I was in Canada when they were filming SCTV and I met everybody on the set. I even was in a bit of a sketch that Marty Short was in, and John Candy. Then I went to a party and they were all there!