In September, it will be 50 years since Carol Burnett — then best known as a Tony-nominated actress for the 1959 musical comedy “Once Upon a Mattress” and versatile cast member of the hit variety TV program “The Garry Moore Show” — first walked in front of television cameras in her most celebrated role: herself.
From 1967 to 1978, “The Carol Burnett Show” was an essential stop for 30 million viewers each week, a one-hour musical variety show, complete with a 28-piece orchestra, singers, dancers and Bob Mackie-designed costumes, with comic sketches led by a bewigged Burnett portraying an unflattering army of zany, original characters. With a beloved repertory company that included Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Lyle Waggoner, the show won 25 Emmy Awards, and Burnett has been saluted at the Kennedy Center Honors (2003) and with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (2013).
But one of the things that distinguished “The Carol Burnett Show” was an element that made its star, at least initially, uncomfortable. The taping of each show would begin with Burnett taking the stage, unobscured by the kooky costume or blackened teeth that were staples of her characters, to field random questions from the studio audience.
“I was nervous about doing it,” says Burnett, recalling that a producer tried to soothe her with a proposal to seed the audience with people she knew. Burnett rejected the idea. “I said, ‘You know, if I end up with egg on my face, so be it, but if we’re going to do it, I want it to be truthful.’ ”
The exchanges, later edited to fill the time left after the show was complete, could be personal (how do you keep your nice shape? a woman asked), practical (Burnett escorted one woman backstage after she asked where the restroom was) and wacky (would she grant a priest in the audience his wish for a kiss?). Burnett’s graceful ability to respond to such a haphazard interrogation with humor and honesty was a tonic to viewers seeking refuge in an era defined by the duplicity of the Vietnam War and Watergate.
“You realized there was a comedy mind alert and at work all the time,” comedy king Carl Reiner said of Burnett’s Q and A segments in an interview for Time Life. “She answered it straight, but found a way to get a laugh out of it.”
A favorite moment came when a woman asked if Burnett would perform a song she had written for the star. Burnett invited her onstage, looked over the sheet of music and, to the horror of the producers watching from a booth at the rear of the theater, told the woman she would sing the number on a future show. Later that season, Burnett flew the woman and her husband from their home in Missouri to Los Angeles to watch her perform the song backed by a full orchestra and a contingent of costumed dancers.
“She was absolutely shocked. That was the fun of doing our show. We took chances and would do things like that,” Burnett says. “And the audience knew it was real.”
On Sunday, March 19, Burnett will bring the show based on those show-opening question-and-answer sessions to the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. “Carol Burnett: An Afternoon of Laughter and Reflection” will follow the same anything-goes format.
“It’s all freewheeling. I fly without a net,” she says by phone from her home in Santa Barbara, Calif. “We just have people raise their hands, and I point to somebody, and off we go.”
Burnett just won a Grammy Award in the Best Spoken Word Album category for a reading of “In Such Good Company,” her memoir about “The Carol Burnett Show.” She is in touch with Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Lyle Waggoner (Korman died in 2008), and plans to have dinner with Lawrence on her birthday later this month.
The next chapter in the 83-year-old Burnett’s television career begins March 31, when she’ll start filming a new sitcom produced by comic actress Amy Poehler titled “Household Name.” In development for ABC, the show features Burnett as a once-famous actress who, unknown to her, has gone broke. A friend devises a plan to allow the star to stay in her mansion by selling it to a family, with one caveat in the deal: They must allow the actress to continue to live in the home. Poehler will make occasional appearances as Burnett’s estranged daughter.
“She’s a 93-year-old actress who has seen better days, of course. She’s kind of frozen in time, like those ladies you see who were movie stars but still wear full makeup and wigs and things like that,” Burnett says. “They kind of live in the past, but they’re smart. They still have all their marbles.”
Along with airhead secretary Mrs. Wiggins and the embattled Eunice Higgins, one of Burnett’s most indelible TV characters was her takeoff on batty, reclusive silent-movie star Nora Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” Her new character is different, she says.
“That was Gloria Swanson, and I played her as totally crazy,” Burnett says of the character she portrayed with heavily mascaraed, bug-eyed paranoia. “But this woman’s not crazy. She loves to perform, like when she’s meeting people, she puts on the grand act. But I didn’t want to make her crazy. Behind the scenes, she’s real.”
Carol Burnett will appear 4 p.m. Sunday, March 19, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $49.50-$179.50. Call 954-462-0222 or go to BrowardCenter.org.