One of the most endearing qualities of Carol Burnett’s comedy is her willingness to answer questions from her audience. The spontaneous nature of these exchanges demonstrates her ability to work a room and shows Burnett at her funniest. Hillary Clinton could learn a thing or two from her.
Burnett, who will turn 82 next week, can still connect with an audience as she demonstrated this past Sunday afternoon at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Unfortunately, due to a cold she was unable to do her trademark Tarzan yell. She also needed to sit down midway through the show. But this did not diminish her spirit nor her wit, which remains razor sharp. When an audience member asked Burnett what drew her to comedy, she quipped, “My face.” This brought much laughter and there was a lot more from where that came.
Many of the stories Burnett told revolved around her cast mates from The Carol Burnett Show. She recounted the letter she received from a teenaged Vicki Lawrence who informed her she had entered the Ms. Fireball of Inglewood pageant and enclosed a newspaper clipping of herself. When she looked at the picture, Burnett said Lawrence reminded her of herself at 17. She phoned Lawrence to see if she could attend the Ms. Fireball pageant. Lawrence’s mother answered the phone and screamed, “It’s Carol Burnett!!!” The younger Lawrence thought it was a prank from one of her friends and answered the phone, “Yeah, Marcia!” Burnett soon convinced Lawrence the call was genuine. Lawrence would become Miss Fireball of Inglewood and a few short months later joined the cast of The Carol Burnett Show.
Burnett also paid tribute to the late Harvey Korman. She said of her co-star, “It’s always good to play tennis with a better player to bring out the best in you.” And then there was the irrepressible Tim Conway “whose mission it was in life to destroy Harvey Korman.” Burnett then showed a clip of the dentist’s sketch in which Korman could not keep a straight face while Conway went off script and literally injected his own brand of humor into the proceedings.
Conway did not confine his antics to the stage. When The Carol Burnett Show traveled to Australia to tape shows at the Sydney Opera House, Burnett and her husband invited Conway to dinner. Conway told them to meet him in his hotel room. When they did they found him lying in bed, bare chested, smoking a cigarette, lying next to a stuffed lamb. Burnett deadpanned, “We didn’t have lamb chops for dinner.”
Boredom can also drive a man to mischief. One night Conway’s wife, who was a championship bridge player, dragged him to a dinner with other bridge players. The problem was that Conway couldn’t care less for bridge. Worse, no one at the dinner recognized him. So Conway did the only thing he could do under the circumstances. When Conway went to the bathroom, he saw a jar of Vaseline and a box of Q-Tips and his twisted mind went to work. He put globs of Vaseline on his face, took the cotton off the Q-Tips and attached them to his face. Conway came out of the bathroom with all eyes on him and a horrified wife. “The Q-Tip box exploded,” Conway exclaimed.
Another significant supporting player on The Carol Burnett Show never appeared on camera. Costume designer Bob Mackie not only designed sixty to seventy different costumes in the course of a single episode but also influenced the development of Burnett’s characters, most notably the ditzy secretary Mrs. Wiggins. She was originally intended to be an older character, Mackie designed a dress that made Burnett look rather voluptuous. So voluptuous that Conway, a.k.a. Mr. Tudball, remarked, “You know you look like Africa from the waist down.” When Burnett suggested he bring the dress in, Mackie replied, “Stick your butt into it.” Thus came Mrs. Wiggins’s walk that even Rock Hudson couldn’t resist.
Mackie also played a crucial role in “Went With the Wind,” a parody of Gone With the Wind that is arguably the most popular sketch in the decades-long history of The Carol Burnett Show. It was Mackie who came up with the idea of Burnett’s Starlet O’Hara character wearing a dress with a curtain rod. When Captain Ratt Butler (played by Korman) sees the dress he says, “That gown is gorgeous.” To which Starlet replies, “Thank you, I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist it.”
There is a good possibility The Carol Burnett Show might have not come to pass without Lucille Ball. Burnett noted that Ball was an early champion of Burnett and came to see the second showing of the off-Broadway production of Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Burnett confessed she was more nervous with Ball in the audience than on opening night. But Burnett had no reason to fear. Lucy absolutely loved the show and met with her backstage and said, “Kid, if you ever need me for anything call me.” A few years later, CBS proposed that Burnett host a TV special on the condition that she book a big name. Burnett reluctantly called Ball fearing she would be too busy. By her own admission, Burnett blabbered until Ball asked, “Kid, when you do want me?”
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. They would appear on each other’s respective shows for many years. Ball would send flowers to Burnett every year for her birthday. In fact, Ball would pass away on Burnett’s birthday in 1989. That day she received flowers from Ball that read, “Happy Birthday Kid.”
With all the talk of Lucille Ball, an audience member asked Burnett if she would do a sitcom today. Burnett bluntly said no. “I am no prude, but when I watch comedy I ask myself, ‘Who wrote this? A teenage boy in the locker room?’” She said that while TV producers might want these kind of comedies, but they are “not clever” and do not measure up to shows like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Bob Newhart Show.
Perhaps the most poignant question from the audience came from a mother seeking advice for her daughter who will be going to New York to be an actress. Burnett cautioned that she would probably face a lot of rejection and recalled having an audition where she thought she would get the part, but it ultimately went to the woman sitting next to her. “It was her turn. My turn will come.” Well, Carol Burnett’s turn did come and America is a funnier place for it.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. But the audience, myself included, was so glad to have some time together on a Sunday afternoon with Carol Burnett.
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