NPR

Carol Burnett, Still Glad For 'This Time Together'

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."

(via YouTube)

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Carol Burnett was one of the original queens of television comedy. Her long-running variety show offered a warm wackiness that parents let their kids stay up late to watch. Carol Burnett looks back on those years in her new memoir, "This Time Together."

Ms. CAROL BURNETT (Comedian/Actress): I loved putting on wigs. I loved blacking out my teeth...

MONTAGNE: Making funny faces.

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Do you just - getting a laugh makes it worthwhile?

Ms. BURNETT: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: So naturally, when Carol Burnett sat down at the mic here at our studios at NPR West, she was completely game when I asked her to reprise her trademark Tarzan yell.

Ms. BURNETT: Shall I back up?

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

Ms. BURNETT: Would that be the best?

MONTAGNE: Whats the worst...

Ms. BURNETT: Let me see what happens.

(Soundbite of Tarzan yell)

Ms. BURNETT: Did I blow anybody's head off?

MONTAGNE: I dont think so. I think - I think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: That wasnt a particularly good one, but it was OK.

MONTAGNE: There's a story in the book where you went into...

Ms. BURNETT: Bergdorf?

MONTAGNE: The fans at Bergdorf Goodman.

Ms. BURNETT: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Fancy department store once, while you were quite famous. You were a household name by that time.

Ms. BURNETT: Right, we were in New York, and I was headed for rehearsal. We were doing a special, and I needed some stockings. And I went up to the lingerie department and there was this lovely lady there. And she's, oh, hello, Miss Burnett and all, very lovely. And I said, oh, may I write you a check? And she said, Im sorry but Ill need some identification.

And I said, well, you know who I am. She said, I know, but it's the rules. We have to put down the driver's license and all that. So she said wait a minute, let me check with the floor manager. And finally she said, Miss Melton will approve your check if you will do the Tarzan yell...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: ...in the middle of the lingerie floor. So I said, well, OK. Nobody else was around, so I did it.

Right behind the saleslady, there was an exit door that burst open, and in came a security guard with a gun pulled. I mean, we could have had our heads blown off. So, I learned a lot that morning.

(Soundbite of theme music, "Carol's Theme")

MONTAGNE: In 1967...

Ms. BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: ..."The Carol Burnett Show" started, and you were surrounded by these really funny people.

(Soundbite of "The Carol Burnett Show")

Mr. TIM CONWAY (Comedian/Actor): (Acting) I guess Im in the seat right behind you there. Im in the no-frills section.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARVEY KORMAN (Comedian/Actor): (Acting) Oh, is that right?

Mr. CONWAY: (Acting) Yeah, it's a lot safer back here.

Mr. KORMAN: (Acting) Good.

Mr. CONWAY: (Acting) Ever hear of an airplane backing into a mountain?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence. Would you say, looking back, that there was an innocence about the humor? Or is that not the word? I mean, there's something about...

Ms. BURNETT: No, I think some times we were pretty edgy. But I never purposefully wanted to hurt anybody or get edgy without really being funny. You know, sometimes that happens. You'll sit and watch something, and it's very clever but there's no belly laughs. And I always loved the belly laugh.

(Soundbite of "The Carol Burnett Show")

Ms. BURNETT: (Acting) Uh, excuse me, but are you in the no-frills section?

Mr. CONWAY: (Acting) Yes.

Ms. BURNETT: (Acting) Well, then get your foot off our rug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: I liked the physical humor. I'd do my own stunts and never knew how. I'd jump out of windows, get dragged across the floor...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: ...all kinds of things.

MONTAGNE: One of the best-known continuing sketches in the show was you, Vicki Lawrence and Harvey Korman portrayed as a family.

Ms. BURNETT: "The Family," yeah.

MONTAGNE: You played Eunice, and Vicki Lawrence played your cranky mother.

(Soundbite of "The Carol Burnett Show")

Ms. BURNETT: (As Eunice) And I wouldnt be here right now if Mama hadn't started whining for me to take...

Ms. VICKI LAWRENCE (Comedian/Actress): (As Mama) I did not whine.

Ms. BURNETT: (As Eunice) You just shut up or Ill take that little rubber stopper out of your purse and ram it down your...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: It was a highly dysfunctional family. Actually, 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.

MONTAGNE: You write, in this memoir, that some of Eunice was based on your own mother.

Ms. BURNETT: Yes, because none of her dreams ever came true. And she touched my heart even though she was horrible. My mother wasnt horrible - but she was very vulnerable, and none of her dreams came true.

Eunice always had these dreams and ideals that she was going to be somebody. And I remember when she got on "The Gong Show."

(Soundbite of "The Carol Burnett Show")

Ms. BURNETT: (As Eunice) Who knows? I might just get a television part or something, and just have to stay out in Hollywood for a while.

Ms. LAWRENCE: (As Mama) A television part? Eunice, you are nuts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: 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. And it was so sad. We got fan mail on it, saying that it made them cry when it just went into Eunice's face and you could just see her starting to cry. And it was a heavy piece.

MONTAGNE: There's another skit that involves one of the other ensemble - thats Tim Conway.

Ms. BURNETT: Oh, please.

MONTAGNE: This involves Mr. Tudball and his secretary, Mrs. Wiggins.

Ms. BURNETT: Yes. I was kind of a bimbo, tending to her nails in this push-up bra with this floral top and a pencil-thin skirt.

(Soundbite of "The Carol Burnett Show")

Mr. CONWAY: (As Mr. Tudball) Do you have any estimated time that those doggone nails are going to be dry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: (As Ms. Wiggins) No.

Mr. CONWAY: (As Mr. Tudball) You're beginning to attract the fruit flies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: The thing with Wiggins and Tudball is that we never rehearsed it, because Tim would always change the dialogue. That's why, on the show, if you see me as Mrs. Wiggins biting my nails, I'm trying to keep from laughing.

MONTAGNE: The show, actually, you write, was criticized because the actors - all of you - might crack up, break character and especially when Tim Conway...

Ms. BURNETT: Well, generally, I would say 90 percent of the time it was Tim. He would just crack everybody up. And I totally understand the criticism, but it was never like, oh, let's break up here.

MONTAGNE: Well, but the audiences loved the sense that you kind of were all in on the joke.

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah, the audience was in on the joke because they knew Tim was doing something that he had not done before.

MONTAGNE: I'd like to end our conversation with the way you ended your show.

Ms. BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: You had a small, little song that you sang...

Ms. BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: ...at the end.

Ms. BURNETT: My husband, Joe, wrote that. Oh, here we go...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: (Singing) Im so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.

MONTAGNE: Well, Im sorry to be saying so long.

Ms. BURNETT: Aw, thank you, Renee. I enjoyed it.

MONTAGNE: Carol Burnett has gathered together tales from her life in her new book, called "This Time Together."

And for those who remember that dress, that famous curtain-rod dress from her spoof of "Gone with the Wind," relive the moment at NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of song, "Carol's Theme") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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