By Matthew Carey
(CNN) — It’s been more than 35 years since “The Carol Burnett Show” left the air, but a new generation of fans is discovering it, courtesy of YouTube.
Countless clips are posted on the website, and that seems just fine with Burnett.
“I’m getting fan mail from 11-year-olds, teenagers!” she said incredulously.
Burnett recalled a recent trip to Texas where she took questions from an audience (anyone familiar with her show will remember her unparalleled touch with a Q&A).
“A little boy in the second row raised his hand,” she said. “I said, ‘Hi. But first before you ask your question, what’s your name?’ And he said ‘Andrew.’ I said, ‘How old are you, Andrew?’ And he said, ‘Nine.’ And I said, ‘And you know who I am?’ And he said, ‘Surprisingly, yes.’ I mean the audience screamed, it was so cute.”
It’s not just 9-year-olds, of course, who appreciate her comedy. CNN spoke with Burnett just after she received the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center, honoring a body of work that included 11 seasons of her variety show on CBS.
“It’s so wonderful coming now, at this time of my life,” said Burnett, who turned 80 in April. “It was a thrill … to have my friends there, old buddies, my chum Julie Andrews, Tony Bennett to sing, and Vicki (Lawrence) and Tim (Conway).”
Lawrence, Conway and the late Harvey Korman were by her side for most of her 11-year run, integral parts of a show that — can you believe it?– almost failed to get on the air in the first place.
“I got my show on a fluke. It wasn’t supposed to happen,” Burnett recalled. “It was in a contract that they –CBS — had to put me on the air in a variety show, and they tried to talk me out of it. … They said (variety) is a man’s game — (Jackie) Gleason, Sid Caesar, Dean Martin, on and on. … They tried to get me to do a sitcom … (but) I really didn’t want to do the same character week after week.”
To mark her Mark Twain Prize we asked Burnett for more scoops about her legendary show.
Some of the best-loved moments occurred when Burnett and her co-stars could not contain themselves and busted up on screen. No way was that planned, she said.
“I know we’ve been occasionally accused of, you know, ‘breaking the fourth wall’ that way and doing it possibly on purpose, but never, never, never did we do that on purpose,” Burnett said.
“People talk about that as if that was the main thing in the show and it was one of the least things but people remember it so much when we cracked up at Tim (Conway). Usually it was Tim’s fault.”
The time she laughed the hardest
“(The sketch) never aired but it was a dress rehearsal that has been shown a million times on YouTube and the bloopers show about Tim going off on the elephant story … if people want to Google that one. I laughed the hardest and the whole audience (too). … And Harvey (Korman) too, he prided himself on being a very strict comedic actor. But he was putty in Tim’s hands. Totally. And Tim would just go out of his way to get Harvey.”
Her favorite sketches
“I loved doing ‘The Family,’ Eunice and Ed and Mama. … There were no jokes in that. It was totally character. I loved doing the dumb secretary with Tim, Mrs. Wiggins and Mr. Tudball. And the movie takeoffs.”
The “Gone with the Wind” parody may be her most famous sketch, one that had Burnett fashioning a dress from a curtain, complete with curtain rod.
“It was brilliant, and it was (costume designer) Bob Mackie’s genius.”
Stick out your backside
The aforementioned Mrs. Wiggins sported a memorably snug pencil skirt.
“It was very tight in the knees,” Burnett remembered. “Bob Mackie … put me in that tight skirt … but it bagged in the behind. It was very loose, so I said, ‘Bob, you’re going to have to take in the rear because I’m flat back there.’ And he said, ‘No, stick your behind in the air’ and that’s how the walk happened with the stiletto heels. That’s the only way I could walk. (Bob) gave me my character.”
What Olivier told Burnett
“I remember I had met Sir Laurence Olivier years and years ago and he said sometimes he did not know how to do a character until he got all of the costumes and how he was going to make his nose look. He would like widen the nostrils or put a bump on the nose. And many times I didn’t know how I was going to do a certain character until I went to costume fittings and saw what Bob had in mind for me. And I’d think, ‘Oh, that’s who she is!’ ”
Burnett’s favorite guest stars
“There were a lot that we would have back as regular guests — semi-regular, let me put it that way. Bernadette Peters, for instance, who was musical and a sketch performer. Steve Lawrence definitely was a wonderful sketch performer. Many times he would say, ‘If you’re running long cut my song. But keep the sketches in.’ He was wonderful. Ken Berry was very versatile. They were kind of our rotating semi-regulars.”
Pointers for Burnett
Among Burnett’s guest stars was a trio of singing sisters.
“I remember the Pointer Sisters. We put them in sketches also. We did a fabulous takeoff called ‘Cinderella Gets It On’ and we were going to the disco instead of the ball. I was Cinderella and Harvey was my fairy godmother and the Pointer Sisters were my evil stepsisters and Vicki was my evil stepmother. Tim was dressed like Elton John and he was performing in the disco and we fell in love and I left my slipper (behind) and all of that. And the Pointer Sisters were in that and they were wonderful.”
Meryl Streep: Are you busy?
“Today if I were doing it I would want to get Meryl Streep, because she’s such a wonderful comedian and also a great singer. The whole ball of wax.”
Who could pull off a variety show today?
The variety show genre has essentially disappeared from TV but if it came back, Burnett thinks several stars could do the job expertly.
“Justin Timberlake. Jimmy Fallon. Martin Short. Kristen Chenoweth, because she’s funny and she sings and she’s adorable and all of that. Jimmy Fallon cracks me up with some of the parodies he does. There’s a sweet vulnerability about him, too. When I saw him do the takeoff on ‘Downton Abbey’ I was blown away! It was done like a movie. He did a takeoff on ‘Breaking Bad’ that was brilliant!”
Could variety shows make a comeback?
“You couldn’t do our show today because we had a 28-piece orchestra. We had 60 costumes a week. We had 12 dancers. We had two major guest stars (a week). We did nine or 10 sketches, major finales. All of that. The cost would be too high today. You couldn’t do it. If variety ever does come back it would have to be on a different scale. The talent’s there, it’s just that maybe the networks just don’t– the money is a major factor.”
Putting it together
There were 278 episodes of “The Carol Burnett Show” over 11 seasons, which works out to about 26 shows a year. But surprisingly, Burnett said production wasn’t grueling at all.
“It was easy. We did it like a school-week schedule. Monday we would go in at 7 o’clock and do a table reading and have lunch and then put some of the sketches on their feet and I’d be home in time to pick my kids up from school. And then Tuesday, same thing. We’d be rehearsing. We’d learn the choreography. Then Wednesday I went to costume fittings and then had lunch and then we did a run-through for the writers and the crew and then we would have notes afterwards. Home in time to pick the kids up and have dinner.
“Thursday was camera blocking and Friday we did two shows (dress rehearsal and ‘air show’) … It came to about 30 hours (a week) and that’s all. That’s a part-time job.”
The best advice Burnett ever got
Burnett got her big break co-starring on “The Garry Moore Show,” a variety show that debuted in 1958. And it was host Garry Moore who gave Burnett the best advice of her career, she said.
“We were talking about auditioning and stuff like that and he said, ‘Well, I hope you never took any rejections personally because you know you might just not be the type (they were looking for) or whatever.’
“And I remember I was up for a small part in a musical and it was narrowed down to another girl and me. Just the two of us and we were neck and neck. And she got it. And I didn’t take it personally and then I thought, ‘Wait a minute. It’s her turn. It’s not my turn. This is her turn to get a role.’ And so I was fine. I wasn’t (feeling) rejected. It’s a great way to look at it and keep on trucking.”
Burnett eventually did get her turn of course — in movies, on Broadway and on TV, especially those 11 seasons of “The Carol Burnett Show.” Comedy fans are grateful she did.