Actress-comedienne Carol Burnett

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One of the first ladies of comedy explains her success at sketch comedy and shares a humorous story about her Tarzan yell; she also talks about writing her new memoir, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection.

One of the most admired actresses in the business, Carol Burnett has displayed her talent for more than five decades. Her variety show won a remarkable 25 Emmys in an 11-year run, and she's demonstrated her dramatic chops on such series as L&O: SVU. Burnett began her career on the New York night club circuit, but it was Broadway that put her on the road to stardom. She's received a Presidential Medal of Freedom and is a Television Hall of Fame inductee. She offers behind-the-scenes insight in her new memoir, This Time Together.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Carol Burnett to this program. The iconic comedienne and best-selling author is out now with another New York Times best seller. The book is called This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection. I am as giddy about meeting you as you were about meeting Cary Grant (laughter).
Carol Burnett: (Laughter) But you handle yourself a lot better than I did.
Tavis: You want to tell that story?
Burnett: Oh, my. I mean, what an icon he was. I remember I came into rehearsal one day doing our show. Harvey Korman came in – bless him -and he said, “Guess where I was Saturday night?” I said, “Where?” He said, “I went to a party and guess who was there?” I said, “Who?” He said, “Cary Grant.” I said, “Wow, Cary Grant.”
He said, “But the best thing is, he watches our show” and I said, “Cary Grant knows who we are?” It just blew my mind. He said yes and he said that, whenever he can get to a television set, even if he’s at a party on Saturday night at ten o’clock, he’ll ask the hostess to show him where there’s a TV set so he could watch our show.
I said, “Oh, wow” and we were all just kind of blown away by the fact that Cary Grant knows who we are. I’d never met him, so two weeks later, my husband and I were invited to a party at Peggy Lee’s house, you know, the wonderful Peggy Lee. She’d been on our show a few times and stuff.
It was a nice little hors d’oeuvres and drinks and this and that and Peggy and it was wall to wall celebrities. We knew most of the people there. Then it kind of got quiet. Bing-bong, the doorbell rang and Peggy went to open it and there was Cary Grant. Well, it was like the sea parted (laughter). People all but genuflected over Cary Grant.
I said, “Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no, I want to go home.” I ran to the closet to get my coat and my husband said, “What are you doing? Don’t you want to meet Cary Grant?” I said, “No.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Because he likes me and I don’t want to make a fool of myself in front of him. Leave it lay.” So I’m putting on my coat, he’s thinking I’m crazy and there’s a tap on my shoulder and it was Peggy Lee with Cary Grant.
She said, “Carol, where are you going? You can’t go. Cary wants to meet you.” I went, “Okay.” I looked up and there I’m looking in those eyes. Tavis, he started to talk and all I could see were his lips were moving, but I couldn’t hear him. My heart was beating so loudly and he was saying, I’m sure, some charming things.
Finally, his mouth stopped moving and I realized it was time for me to say something. What came out was, “You’re a credit to your profession.” I wanted the floor to open up. I mean, of all the stupid things. Then on the way home, my husband said, “You know you were right. We should have left.” (Laughter)
Tavis: (Laughter) I love that story. So all week, knowing that you were coming, I’ve been saying to myself, “Whatever you say to Carol Burnett, do not say “you’re a credit to your profession,” although you are.
Burnett: Thank you (laughter).
Tavis: I’m sure you hear this all the time. As a kid, I grew up watching you. Indeed, I did. I was always amazed then, long before I became a television talk show and radio talk show host, so amazed at how comfortable you were, this star that you were, how comfortable you were, how open you were, how authentic you were, how honest you were in that Q&A setting.
That is like the antithesis of how this business works. Nobody wants to just be transparent in that way, but you were so comfortable with that.
Burnett: I was. Actually, I wasn’t at first. The reason it came about was Bob Banner, our executive producer, had produced The Garry Moore Show that I had been a second banana on, you know. So Garry used to go out and warm up his studio audience with doing Q&As.
I used to think, God, he was so great. He just warmed it. They didn’t tape it, though. They didn’t film it. But he would warm the audience up rather than having a standup comedian come up and tell jokes. He was so personable.
Then when we started to do our show, Bob said to me, “Carol, you should go out and talk to the audience so they get to know you before you start putting on all those fright wigs and blacking out your teeth and the fat suits and jumping out of windows and all of that. Let them get to know you.” I said, “I don’t think I could ever do that. I’d be tongue-tied.” He said, “Well, try it like the first three weeks while we’re going to air.”
I remember going out that first night, you know, kind of goofy saying “Well, welcome to the show. Does anybody got any questions?” Then I was terrified that nobody would raise their hand and then I was terrified that they would (laughter).
Finally, somebody said, “Who’s on tonight?”, so that gave me something to say, and a couple of little answers, nothing major. Then the next week, people had seen that, so the next week, the studio audience who had seen our show kind of came prepared and a lot more people were raising their hands.
I don’t know what it was. I remember the producer said, “Well, if you’re nervous about it, we could put some plant questions in the audience that you could expect and we’ll write an answer for you.” I said, “No, if I’m gonna have egg on my face, I want it to be honest. If I can’t answer something or I’m flummoxed, let that come across.”
Tavis: How did you get to a point, though, where you were comfortable enough with it and saw in it the creative genius of making it a part of the show?
Burnett: Well, I started to get comfortable around the sixth show, yeah, six weeks into it because the people were so nice and some of the questions you’d never write. They were just wonderful. Then a lot of people wanted to come up on stage and sing and do things and I’d say, well, come on up.
We’d just have fun and we could edit it at any time, so it was a great pad for time for our show. If we were long, I’d only do maybe one question. If we were short that week, I could go for 15 minutes or do the size of a sketch that we would have. There were some brilliant moments that happened not on my account, but from the audience.
Tavis: Because you couldn’t write that stuff.
Burnett: You can’t, no.
Tavis: How did you know that sketch comedy was the lane that you could run successfully in? I mean, comedians, as you know, have so many opportunities that avail themselves. How did you know that sketch comedy was your lane?
Burnett: That was because I always felt that I was more of an actress than a – I can’t tell a joke to save my soul, but that I was a comedic actress. I remember Ed Wynn, the famous old comedian, was a guest on Garry’s show once and he said, “There are two types of comedians. The comic says funny things and the comedic actor says things funny.”
So that’s like Jack Benny, you know. All he would have to do would be to do one of his “Well…” and you laugh. Now looking at that on paper, it’s not particularly humorous and it’s not a joke, but it comes out of character which is what I prefer.
I always preferred working with somebody so I could look into their eyeballs and play tennis, you know. That’s what I always say about Harvey. He was a better tennis player and he made my game better.
Tavis: The physicality that is a part of your humor. You developed that over time or you have always been this way?
Burnett: (Laughter) Well, when I was doing Garry’s show. I wanted the job and it was like the first week, you know, and I was just wanting to please everybody.
Neil Simon was a junior writer on Garry’s show at the time and he wrote a little sketch called Playhouse 90 Seconds” and it was exactly 90 seconds long. The premise was that Durward Kirby was in the hospital room with his head all bandaged and I came in and the doctor was there and I was to say, “Jack, are you okay?” He said, “I’ll be fine, Jill.”
I said, “I’m just so sorry we went up that hill.” The doctor said, “What happened?” I said, “Well, Jack fell down” and he said, “And I broke my crown” and the doctor said, “Well, Jill, what are you gonna do?” I said, “Well, I’ll just go tumbling after” and then I was supposed to leap out of a window.
So the producer said, “Have you ever jumped out of a window before?” I said, “Oh, I’m a stunt person. I can do that.” Because we’d been just rehearsing it in the rehearsal all week and there was no set. So now I’m on the set, right? I said, “I’ll just go tumbling after” and I sailed out of that window and landed on a mattress.
I sat up and I looked around and I said, “Oh, gosh, everybody, thanks so much for the mattress.” I guess I thought I was gonna go splat. It didn’t occur to me to look at outside what I was gonna land on. Yeah, you’ve done a lot of stunts, huh? From then on, I’d fling around and everything and I still have a neck that talks to me today.
Tavis: About that, do you ever get hurt doing that?
Burnett: Oh, yeah. I never, thank God, broke anything, but, yeah, I sprained and did, you know.
Tavis: This is the second – there may be more to come, I don’t know – but the second memoir from you. When you sit to write these, what do you get out of it?
Burnett: I love to write. I have always loved writing. That was my first love. What I like to write about is stuff I know. I don’t think I could write a novel. I don’t think I have it in me to come up with those kinds of characters.
But this came out of doing the Q&As on the road and I go around the country and I do 90 minutes and throw it open to the audience and bump up the lights and have a conversation.
So a lot of the times, many times, some of the questions over the years are the same. You know, “Is Tim Conway that funny in real life?” or “How did you find Vicky?” or “How did you develop the Tarzan yell?” and so forth. Then I thought, “You know what? Some of these are really funny that I can tell and I should put them down on paper.”
So that’s what I started it out as was a book of what I would hope would be funny anecdotes of things that happened to me over the years, the Cary Grant story and things like that. But then a little more than halfway through, it kind of morphed into a quasi memoir. So I’d call it a hybrid. It’s an anecdotal quasi memoir (laughter).
Tavis: There is a lot of funny stuff in here, but some serious stuff that I’ll come back to in just a second that I want to get your thoughts about. There are two things I promised myself when I got a chance to meet Carol Burnett. I would not tell her she was a credit to her profession, number one, as we established earlier in this discourse.
But secondly, I promised I would not ask her to do the Tarzan yell because I know that she’s been asked to do that a thousand times. But there are some interesting stories in the book, of course, about the Tarzan yell. I’ll let you tell them in your beautiful way. One, once the Tarzan yell saved your life literally.
Burnett: Yep.
Tavis: And once the Tarzan yell got you in some trouble in Bergdorf Goodman.
Burnett: Yes.
Tavis: I’ll let you tell both stories.
Burnett: Okay. Well, which one do you want first?
Tavis: This is your show.
Burnett: Well, I’ll tell the Bergdorf Goodman first. I was in New York and there’s this very fancy department store, Bergdorf Goodman, and it opened at ten o’clock in the morning and I needed some stockings. I was running to rehearsal for a special, so I ran into Bergdorfs and got up to the lingerie department.
Nobody was there. It was pretty empty except for the saleslady. She came up and she was so sweet. She said, “Hello, Miss Burnett. It’s so nice to have you. What can I do for you?” “I need some stockings.” “Of course.” Then she had me sign autographs for five of her grandchildren, which I was happy to do and all.
Then it came time to pay and I didn’t have the right credit card with me. I said, “Oh, gosh. It’s back at the hotel. Could I write you a check?” “Well, I’ll need some identification.” (Laughter) I said, “But you know who I am.” She said, “Oh, I know that, but we need your driver’s license and we have to write the things on the check. Wait a minute. Let me go check with Miss Carlton who is the floor manager.”
She’s this lovely lady clear across the floor, still empty, at a desk. This lady went over there to that lady, whispered, whispered, whispered, waving back hi and I’m waving back. Finally, she comes back. She says, “Miss Carlton will approve your check if you’ll do the Tarzan yell.”
Okay, at Bergdorf Goodman, I’m gonna do the Tarzan yell? So I did and it was a doozie. From the back of the room, the exit door burst open and there was a security guard with a gun. So now I only do it under controlled circumstances because I don’t want to give anybody a heart attack or get shot.
Tavis: Or get shot in the process, yeah (laughter).
Burnett: Then there was another time in New York. It was late and I couldn’t sleep. It was a Saturday night and I’d remembered two blocks up right by Lexington Avenue, there was an all-night newspaper stand. So I thought, well, I’ll just read myself into a stupor.
Back in that day, there were five or six New York papers and I thought I’ll just get all of the Sunday papers and everything and read and read. They came up to here. So I’m walking back to my apartment. Now it’s after midnight and this man is coming towards me and walked by me and everything.
So I’m walking and I heard him turn around. I thought, “Is he following me or what?” So I would speed up and he would speed up. Now it’s time to turn the corner towards my building at the end of the block. I turned the corner and he turns.
Now I’m scared at first and then I got mad. I thought, “Why in the world can’t somebody just have some papers and go home and not be bothered by this jerk that scaring me to death or whatever?” and all this is going in my mind when he takes my arm and says, “Okay, sister, let’s go” like he’s gonna take me somewhere. I whirled around and I went (scream) and then I went “Ding-dong, the witch is dead, the wicked witch” and then the Tarzan yell.
That sucker ran and I don’t know what happened to him (laughter). I was so mad I didn’t know what to do. Oh, and I also did the witch’s laugh. The guy? Well, of course, he had hold of a nut. It worked (laughter).
Tavis: I’ll never walk behind you and touch you on your elbow (laughter).
Burnett: Don’t you dare (laughter).
Tavis: That’s the third thing I’ve learned about Carol Burnett. Never grab her from the elbow from behind. Wow. Who knew that comedy would come into –
Burnett: – yeah.
Tavis: I don’t know where to go after that (laughter). I wasn’t expecting all that in the telling of the story. But since you went there, though, you mentioned earlier in this conversation that your brand of comedy is what it is and you could not tell a joke.
Burnett: Right.
Tavis: That’s not your style, but you have developed this wonderful – this is years of practice. But you are such a great storyteller. How do you become – is it a gift? Can you become a great storyteller?
Burnett: I don’t know. I’ve always been able to recount things and I have a really good memory about dialog and what people have said before and this and that. What I do when I write is I just write the way I would tell it, so it comes out just exactly the way I would, you know, talk to you.
Tavis: One of the things that I noticed – again, we just met for the first time minutes ago when you walked in the studio. But I said to myself that, when I read the book, this reads like I would expect. I don’t know her, but this reads in the voice that I would expect Carol Burnett to talk.
Burnett: Oh, that’s great.
Tavis: I mean, I felt like you were talking to me, so I hear your point that you write like you talk.
Burnett: Yeah, and I’ve always done that when I’ve written little things, letters or anything like that. My first book was an open letter to my three daughters. This one isn’t a tell-all or anything. I didn’t get deeply into relations and that. As I say, I started it out just as a book of funny anecdotes.
Tavis: To your point about your three daughters and to the point I made earlier in this conversation about some serious stuff being in the book, I was completely blown away because I knew the back story of the daughter that you lost.
Burnett: Carrie.
Tavis: Carrie. But I did not know what kind of treatment you were gonna give it in the text and I didn’t know how you would want to get into it. When I turned to that chapter and I see that the way you get into it is to share with us the obit and then you start to talk about it, that hit me.
I mean, you reprint the obit and you’re like, “This is her daughter” and then you move on to talk about it. I don’t know how you did that, but it was moving to me as a reader.
Burnett: This was the way to do it. That’s the only way I could think to do it.
Tavis: How do you navigate past that? I know you don’t close on the death of a loved one like you close on a house. But you were able to write about it with help from your husband who helped get you out of bed, but in retrospect, how do you look back on getting past that moment?
Burnett: Well, getting past it –
Tavis: – getting through it.
Burnett: Getting through it, you do learn to cope because what’s the alternative? Just to stay with the covers up? Also, I knew that I had to do what I had to do for her sake because we were in the middle of writing a play together and I knew she would want me to finish it, which really was my lifeline after she died. That kind of helped me get through it.
But then, you know, you believe in certain things and maybe there are certain signs that happen or whatever. I remember my husband and I were flying to Chicago because we were gonna break in the play we wrote, Hollywood Arms, in Chicago. The wonderful Hal Prince was directing and so forth.
On the plane, I just talked to Carrie. I said, “Carrie, I don’t know if I can do this without you, but give me a sign that you’re gonna be a little angel on my shoulder.” So we got to the hotel, checked in and went into the room and there was this huge bouquet array of Birds of Paradise from Hal Prince saying, “Welcome. See you in rehearsal tomorrow.” That was Carrie’s favorite flower. She even had one tattooed on her shoulder.
I asked Hal, “Did you know that was Carrie’s?” He said, “No, I just asked them to send up something exotic from the flower shop.” Then we went out to dinner with him the next night to a lovely restaurant in Chicago that had just opened up and the maitre d’ came up and said, “I would like to present this bottle of champagne to you.” We looked at the label and on the label was the name “Louise.”
Well, that was Carrie’s name and my mother’s name. So I thought, “Okay, okay. All right, sweetheart. I know you’re around here. You’re in my heart, so I know you’re alive there too.” So every once in a while, I’ll just have a Carrie moment and I just sense her being. You know, it can be explained that that person is always with you in your heart or maybe there’s something to “signs”. Who knows?
Tavis: Well, you have Carrie moments and, thanks to your wonderful work over the years, we’ve had a whole lot of Carol Burnett moments.
Burnett: Oh, thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Courtesy of the wonderful gift that you have nurtured over the years and shared with us, so thank you for sharing the gift with us.
Burnett: I thank you.
Tavis: And thank you for the book. The book from Carol Burnett is called This Time Together: Laugher and Reflection. I kid you not. I have literally just scratched the surface in this conversation of the good stuff that is in this New York Times best-selling book by Carol Burnett. An honor to have you on the program and thanks for the chance to talk to you.
Burnett: It’s an honor to be here.
Tavis: I enjoyed talking to you so much.
Burnett: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm