Carol Burnett was one of the original queens of TV comedy. Her long-running variety show, with its outrageous costumes and its uproariously unpredictable sketches, offered a warm brand of wackiness that parents would let their kids stay up late to watch. Now, in a new memoir, Burnett tells stories about what went on behind the scenes of The Carol Burnett Show — plus a few tales about what went down when she ventured out among the show's fans.
The lingerie saleslady at Bergdorf Goodman, for instance, who cheerfully accepted a personal check without proper ID — but only after Burnett demonstrated her trademark Tarzan yell. Lacking options, needing stockings and seeing that the department wasn't especially crowded, Burnett obliged.
"Right behind the saleslady, there was an exit door that burst open," Burnett tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "And in came a security guard with a gun pulled. I mean, we could have had our heads blown off."
Laughter, But A Few Tears, Too
The Carol Burnett Show specialized in family-friendly ensemble comedy — and what an ensemble: Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, et al. But "innocent" is hardly the word for everything they did. In the classic skit "Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins," Conway played the boss and Burnett played a secretary who was "kind of a bimbo": push-up bra, microscopic skirt, constantly tending to her nails.
"We never rehearsed it, because Tim would always change the dialogue," says Burnett. "That's why, on the show, if you see me as Mrs. Wiggins biting my nails — I'm trying to keep from laughing."
The tricks didn't always work. In fact, The Carol Burnett Show was often so unpredictable that the cast would lose control mid-sketch.
"Ninety percent of the time it was Tim," Burnett says. "He would just crack everybody up."
Critics carped about how often the cast broke character, but the audience — happy to be part of what felt like an inside joke — ate it up.
"The audience was in on the joke," Burnett says firmly. "They knew Tim was doing something he had not done before."
Not all of the show's sketches were as outright goofy as the Wiggins and Tudball bit. In a popular recurring segment called "The Family" — which eventually spun off the NBC sitcom Mama's Family — Burnett played the irrepressible, easily agitated Eunice opposite Vicki Lawrence's cranky widowed Mama.
"It was a highly dysfunctional family," says Burnett. "I loved it because there were no jokes in it. It was all about the premise of the sketch and the characters, and how they would react to certain things."
Those reactions often involved long-practiced insults and long-simmering impatience, but one memorable moment from "The Family" had to do with dashed hopes — Eunice's dashed hopes.
"Eunice always had these dreams ... that she was gonna be somebody," Burnett recalls. "And I remember when she got on The Gong Show — she thought she was going to move to Hollywood and become a star and everything. And, of course, they gonged her before she got three notes out."
On the video, the camera pulls in tight on Eunice's face as Burnett lets real, raw pain show in the character's eyes.
"It was so sad — we got fan mail on it, saying that it made them cry," Burnett remembers. "It was a heavy piece."
Wigs, Teeth, Pratfalls And Curtain Calls
Mostly, though, The Carol Burnett Show steered well clear of the dark and the dangerous, offering an occasionally edgy but always friendly brand of humor.
"I never purposefully wanted to hurt anybody or get edgy without really being funny," Burnett says. "Sometimes that happens — you'll sit and watch something, and it's very clever, but there's no belly laughs."
On The Carol Burnett Show, those were always the No. 1 goal.
"I loved putting on wigs, I loved blacking out my teeth," Burnett says. "I liked the physical humor. I'd do my own stunts and never know how — I'd jump out of windows, get dragged across the floor, all kinds of things."
And in the end, it was that rolling-on-the-floor reaction that made the costumes and the wigs, the bumps and the bruises worthwhile.
"I always loved the belly laughs," says Burnett. And over the years, she's earned plenty of them.
'Went With The Wind':
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