Peter Bogdanovich: I you know, I can remember I probably saw on The Garry Moore Show because I used to watch that show, but I remember her first really from seeing her on the stage in once upon a mattress. I'm not sure if I saw it off Broadway or on Broadway, but I saw it that season. I was doing a play myself and made a point of seeing as I heard, it was terrific. And she was you know, she you could I mean, she lit up the stage and you said, well, this is going to be a star. And. And strangely enough, I think we ran into each other because I was doing a play at that time in New York, my first play. And I think we ran into an actors hang out and called Downies. And I believe we were introduced because years later when we met, she said, you know, we met and couldn't think where, you know. And I think she said Downey's kind of an actor's studio is kind of the Actor's Studio version of Sardi's. So the hip younger people went to Downey's. Now it's gone and Sardi's is still there. Whatever that means.

Interviewer: It's actually amazing how many she remembers me. So you said when you saw her mattress, it was clear there was something special she was going to be a star. Can you say what that was? What was it?

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, it was a few years ago, so. But what was she had said to complete command. She was a complete, you know, pro. And she just you just said, well, this is a star going in. You know, she took over. There was a feeling of that. This was she was already a star. And I think that's what made her a star. But she you know, she had that that certain something that people have. She lit up to stage. She took over. She was funny. She was charming. I remembered her from that. And then subsequently, when I saw her own show, when she got her own show, of course, I remembered seeing her and that I could you know, you could tell I mean, the reviews were great for her, too. So I wasn't exactly reading a crystal ball, but I concurred that she was gonna we'd be seeing a lot of Carol Burnett.

Interviewer: Do you think it was something was there something special about that?

Peter Bogdanovich: Just when I saw a revival of that production of that play and it just didn't work. So I think she she had something that made the play and the show better than it is. I'm not sure it's a great show, but she made it great.

Interviewer: What was sort of the landscape at that time for women? This is late 50s, 60s.

Peter Bogdanovich: I don't think there was very many women around that were funny. I mean, there was Lucille Ball. And that was kind of it, wasn't it? I don't know. Yes. But then Imogene Coca was already had passed to her moment because of your show of shows was not anymore, I think. And did. There never has been. There never have been that many comic actresses around for some reason. I mean, there was Judy Holiday. She was still around and she was great. Judy Holliday. But Carole was a real clown, you know, and very much in the Lucille Ball tradition. I mean, she you could see a direct line between Lucy and Carol.

Interviewer: Is there. Is there a difference between the two? I mean, what is the next step?

Peter Bogdanovich: Carol, I think Carol is wilder and more and more in the 60s kind of persona in the sense that she had with Lucille Ball was sort of within a certain structure more realistic. Carole, would you go into somewhere more fantasy level, more fantastic level, which the characters were more a caricature, which was funny? She had a it was kind of satirical. I guess Lucy wasn't satirical and Carol was is satirical. And, you know, those those sketch the sketch sketches they used to do. They make fun of a movie or whatever. And it was this it was a tongue in cheek or sometimes not so tongue in cheek. You know her pretty obvious, but funny. It's belly laugh. Funny is is hard to get, you know, sort of polite laughter is one thing, but. Coming, you just this is really funny, was so funny that Harvey Korman and Tim Conway used to everybody is to break up. Of course it was gold when they did.

Interviewer: That was sort of breaking any stereotypes about women in comedy. I mean, there is you know, there was always the Gracie Allen cutesy ones. There was something she breaking was groundbreaking anyway.

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, I think Carol was groundbreaking in the sense that she she really took it all the way. I mean, she she was an interesting mixture of vaudeville, burlesque and satire kind of combined into this. You know, strange package that worked. Carol could get away with anything and she could also be touching so she could turn it. And suddenly he'd say, oh, that's kind of touching, you know? So she she really had it all.

Interviewer: She she has said that she did in those early years a lot of mugging, that type of was that sort of the style of the time when she came in.

Peter Bogdanovich: And I don't know that she was mugging. I mean, she was doing comedy. I mean, Jerry Lewis, you know, certainly wasn't poker faced. And he was very popular in the 50s. And Carol was you know, she wasn't a female Jerry Lewis by any means. But what did he do? I'm I can hear Carol was calling herself that she was mugging, but then said that would she would prove she always puts herself down in a funny way. And she's very self-deprecating.

Interviewer: I was just going to say ask that, too, because she she she also did especially those early years and made fun of herself for her parents, for example, or made jokes about that. And is that was that also something for four women in comedy at the time, too? A way to sort of break and you couldn't be sort of glamorous and funny, or was it just how?

Peter Bogdanovich: I wonder. It was unusual for somebody to be glamorous and funny. I mean, Carole Lombard was, but that was thirties and women had a easier time in the 30s and even a little bit into the 40s because you could have you can have that. I can think of performances in movies that were funny, where the character women were glamorous, like Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve or or or Judy Holliday, who could be glamorous and funny. But Carol was a clown, you know. And yet she was she had a was she was suttas or something touching about her. She was unique, actually, I think in in her qualities of a clown. And. And she she is herself very self-deprecating and kind of made fun of her looks and so on, which was a kind of, I think a sort of defense mechanism in a way.

Interviewer: What about kind of if you could explain a little bit about the variety show format and why it was so popular for early television?

Peter Bogdanovich: The variety show format was something that we don't understand anymore. And it was such a wonderful thing for television. It was. You could do anything with it. I mean, you could you know. You know, you could. Milton Berle was a variety show. One of the first really popular show. The Ed Sullivan was a variety show. And Carol was a comedy variety show. But you could have a singer do a straight song, although I don't think they did that very often, but they could. But, you know, Dean Martin had a variety show and he would have Orson Welles come on and do a speech from Shakespeare so he could go in a lot of different ways. That was a wonderful kind of potpourri of entertainment, which is sadly missing today also. It was live a lot of it was live. And an awful lot of the spontaneity and charm of television went when they started going to tape and lost the lives thing. You know, I mean, when you realize Carson was live for years and and Jack Paar and Steve Allen or The Tonight Show at all, that was live for years. I did the show later of.

Interviewer: How unusual was it then? You mentioned some of the other ideas for a woman to be hosting a variety show.

Peter Bogdanovich: It was very unusual for a woman to do it. And Carol was sort of a forerunner in that. I don't know that anybody followed her either. She was a pioneer in that field because Lucy hadn't done anything like that. Lucy had a straight, you know, dramatic comedy series, situation comedy. Carol did something different, although they did situation comedy, skits, sketches. I think they had continuing characters that would come in and they do a which is how Gleason started with The Honeymooners. That started as a sketch on a variety show, Cavalcade of America. I can't believe I remember these things. I didn't think I knew anything about television, but. But Carol was a forerunner of to pioneer, really female hosting a variety show and. But, you know, I felt it with the audience when I saw and once upon a mattress, she she people just liked her. She was warm and funny and and no ego. And the people felt that and smart. So she had this combination that was just very appealing. She was unique. She is unique.

Interviewer: Do you think that's sort of an essential quality, particularly for television? What's relaid ability?

Peter Bogdanovich: Oh, yeah. It's an extremely important element for television, the idea of likability. And because you're in their home, you know, coming into the audience. It's a cliche, really, but it's true that we come in, too into the home. You don't go out to see them. They come to you. We come to you on television. And so if you don't like that person, you're not going to want them in the home. But Carol was you know, I mean, that series went on for a long, long time because she just kind of just want to see her again every week. She was funded. She was fun to be with.

Interviewer: Is that something that sort of can't be faked either? I mean, this TV does to sort of see the real person?

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, it's pretty tough. That particularly in a show like that, which is so which is so weird, like a loose cannon. I mean, anything could happen and it often did. You see you get the sense of what the personality of each person's personality is. You use you see it because they they often react under under, you know, strenuous circumstances. Something goes wrong or somebody breaks up. Something happens. Something doesn't work. And you see how they react in those circumstances. It was the same with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis when they were first on television. You could tell they liked each other. And that was you just could tell they were very fond of each other, particularly when they'd break up and that, you know, it's real. And it was it's the same thing with Carol's show, you know, and then they break up, you know, they're you know, they're having a good time. So you have a good time, you know.

Interviewer: Can you recall any specific favorite characters?

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, the. The cleaning lady, of course, was wonderful. But I just I can't ever it all melds together. And it's Carole, you know, being very outrageous. I loved her when she was doing parodies of movies and paying the kitting a glamorous star. And I didn't she do a Burt Lanka? Did she do From Here to Eternity? That was very funny. Yes. The Norma Desmond thing was very funny. Also Sunset Boulevard. This was the thing. You know, Carol took it to another level. She she was outrageous. And on the show and. And in the outrageousness was the satirical aspect. So it was like a little a little jab. It it was had a knife to it, but it wasn't mean, actually.

Interviewer: That's interesting.

Peter Bogdanovich: In other words, it had an edge. Sometimes the edge was really what was funny about it. The fact is, oh my God, this is outrageously savage in a way. And yet it wasn't mean. It was funny. She she she never was mean. Was I the ability to do that?

Interviewer: And what about two with, you know, she was on throughout the 70s, and yet she didn't seem to do much political humor, really? I'm just wondering, you know, is there a difference between sort of political humor and being topical and being of your time? But it was there was a sort of smart choice to stay away from that.

Peter Bogdanovich: It's interesting that she she was on the on that her take that again. It's interesting that her longest run, 11 year run was all during some of the most difficult times in our history. Recent history through the late 60s into the 70s. It was a period when Hollywood everything Hollywood changed and the new Hollywood began and all that changed. And then there was a lot of political upheaval with Kent State and the murders, the assassinations and all that that went on. She avoided all that. But it was which was smart because people didn't tune in for political humor with her. But she had. A feeling of the of the moment of the zeitgeist, as they say, because that's what allowed her to get sort of savage at times and and merciless. But she did it with such charm that it was never offensive.

Interviewer: Explain sort of satire. What is the key to good satire?

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, good satire takes something that you is familiar or that it's a little pompous and deflates it or, you know, sticks opinionate or sticks a knife in it. It's usually something pretentious or something a little overblown or. Something phony or something just a little bit much. And then when you when you kidded it, you say, oh, wow, that is funny. But, you know, the interesting thing about that was that you don't remember it. You don't remember carollers being mean spirited or or savage. And yet it was satirical and it was it was vicious at times. And you'd say that this is vicious, but it was funny. And and what didn't make you feel, you know, unpleasant about it?

Interviewer: Are you thinking of I mean, for example, like with the family sketch?

Peter Bogdanovich: Yes. The family sketches were, you know, rough. I mean, and yeah. And they rang true. And that's why I was so funny. But you say, well, that is sort of the way it is, you know, kind of exaggerated way. But but she did it with affection. Strangely enough, even on top of all of it, there was a kind of an affection there.

Interviewer: So even though she maybe wasn't looking at political topics that they were they were topics that we could relate to. I mean, people.

Peter Bogdanovich: Yeah, I think that I think one of the most I think the most distinguishing aspect of it is that she was dealing with real people, things that we could all identify with, you know, family things, mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, jealousy, and the all the wonderful human things that that we recognize as being human.

Interviewer: What about her abilities as a physical comedian? How unusual that was?

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, a physical comedian is really a good one, is rare. I mean, we had very few and female is even rarer. More rare, I suppose, is correct. But anyway, you had Judy Holiday, you know, and Lucille Ball, Judy, wasn't that physical. But Lucy was. And Carol, I don't know. There aren't very many more, really. I mean, there weren't that many male comedians that are physically there. They're brilliantly physical, like Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, John Ritter.

Interviewer: You know, was she trained in any of that. Or was it something that.

Peter Bogdanovich: Physical comedian is usually just that's just something they were born with. You know, they can do a pratfall and it's funny. And she's loose. Lucy Goosey, you know, she was she was who she looked like she could do anything physical and she moved funny. You know, you can't learn that. You know, you just can't learn that. I know John Ritter and Carol were fond of each other. I think they did some shows together and John was a very dear friend of mine and. And we did it all, did a picture together. And, you know, they acknowledged that about each other, you know? They know how to move. Funny. The Jerry Lewis talks about it's in your bones. You said, you know, it's it's something you're born with. It's not something you can learn. Either you're either funny or you're not. And there's nothing worse than seeing in somebody who's trying to be funny physically and just isn't.

Interviewer: It's true. It's painful.

Peter Bogdanovich: Certain actors I will mention.

Interviewer: Let's talk about the movie. I don't know what how she was cast or if you thought of her from the beginning, why you wanted to cast her.

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, we had a very funny play called Noises Off, which was a very big hit in in England and it was an English play and then it was done in in New York. I saw it in New York and I wanted to do it as a picture. And Spielberg bought it. And I actually went and asked him if I could make it, and then they agreed to let me do it. And we basically did the play, but we made it. We changed the English characters to American and the play within the play was still English. So the American actors were putting on English accents when they were in the play. And they were when they were speaking. Normally they talk like themselves. And the leading woman had to be as a star, as a stage star comedy star. And I mean, there was hardly anybody that would fit that bill. But, Carol, we had we considered a couple of other people. But Carol was was the first choice. And because she could be funny. She could be funny and and I knew she could she could sustain the kind of role that it was. It was a huge part. And a lot of physical humor, quite a bit of physical humor. You know, and Carol, I mean, I like comedy and I'm pretty good at it, but there were times when she'd do something and I remember one time she did a reading and I thought, that is the most peculiar reading I have ever heard. And I went over to I said, you know, I know what to say, but that is really a strange reading. She said, You don't like it. I said, no, I don't dislike it. I don't know what to say. It's just to just keep I just say it that way, I guess. And I walked away and I said, I don't know. And it of course, when I saw it with an audience, it worked. She just had his new year. You know, it's just what it's all about. Timing with comedy. It's all about timing, intonation. You could you could have a half a second off and I won't get a laugh. And you can have it just a little bit long. Wrong intonation. I won't get a laugh. It's varied. Comedy is like walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls, you know, because the proof is in the pudding. You know, you show it to an audience. They don't laugh. It didn't work.

Interviewer: And is part of it, too, like not being afraid of having silences. Waiting. Is that part of the timing?

Peter Bogdanovich: Sure. Silence is part of comedy. You know, when to pause. When when you do that, when you do the take and how long you wait before you say things. I mean, she you know, and she was a virtuoso. I mean, I'd say, you know, do a little shtick here when you go in the door. Give me a thing like a movie star. I think she do a thing, you know. And then it was perfect.

Interviewer: What was it like for her? Your impression of for her to do films? I mean, she had done others. Was it a different experience? She was so used to having the limelight.

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, I know that doing a film is it's a huge difference for somebody who's used to having a live audience. And I mean, Desi Arnaz invented situation comedy because he knew that Lucy was better in front of a live audience. And so he shot it with film, but it was in front of a live audience. That was the birth of of a sitcom. But so, Carol, I think anybody who is good at comedy is going to be better in front of a live audience. We have no choice. We're making a movie. So but one of the things we did on that picture, which was his challenge, was to shoot a lot of long, uninterrupted takes where the camera would move with the people or move around them, so whatever, and not to shoot any coverage. So the actors knew that this this shot. Might be 10, 12 pages without a cut. And they knew that they had to sustain that and if they screwed up, we have to go back to the beginning because I wasn't going to cover it. That was the shot once we got it. That was it. Which is not the way movies are normally done. So I think that was a plus for these. We had some very good comedy actors in the picture we took besides Carol. We had John Ritter. Chris Reeve was good at comedy. Mark Lynn Baker. Marilu Henner. Everybody was comic, had comic talent. So. It was a conscious decision to try to do as much as possible without a cut. Because that would give them continuity, which is a little bit like having an audience, because you're playing it straight through, not in bits and pieces, very hard to get a riff going in comedy and constantly interrupted. OK. Come over here. So we do long pieces and in fact, we rehearse the whole movie for six weeks before we shot a foot of it. We rehearsed it and planned out how we were going to do it and so on. So the actors were were quite comfortable with with each other and with the with stuff before we actually turned the camera with that.

Interviewer: So the timing of it so closely.

Peter Bogdanovich: Yeah, it was very. It was. And Carol was just great. I mean, she was such a joy to work with. No problem. No temperament. Always had good ideas, you know.

Interviewer: What is her process? What she would bring on.

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, I mean, she get she could get laughs. There weren't there? You know, good. A good comedic comic actor will get laughs that aren't on the page. They'll just say it a certain way and it'll be funny. She did that all the time. The biggest thing I remember that she contributed in terms of that wasn't had to do with her part was something we were really stuck with in the second act. The play is going on onstage. The play within the play is going on onstage. And meanwhile, backstage is all kinds of hullabaloo going without dialogue. And in order to time the backstage stuff, it had to be timed to the to the stuff that was going onstage, because otherwise when the person backstage went onstage, we wouldn't know where they were in the play. So it had to be had to be timed so that the play onstage was going at a specific moment with the backstage and we couldn't figure out how to do that. And Carol said, well, maybe we should do it the playback, which is means you recorded a certain way and then have it play during the rehearsal like you do a musical playback. I don't know. I think, Carol, you're a genius. And we did that. We recorded everything onstage in two speeds, normal and faster, and we'd rehearse it normal. And then when we shot it, we'd put it faster. And it was perfect. That was Carol Burnett thought of that. Saved my a--, I'll tell you that. Thanks, Carol.

Interviewer: What about some of her other films? Do you have any favorites? I'm thinking of. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the scene in Chile or a wedding or.

Peter Bogdanovich: Yeah, she was good. She's good at everything. She was good. And I liked the wedding very much. And Pete, until he was a lot of fun, too. Yeah, she's great.

Interviewer: Did she seem. I mean, she's obviously done much more television. Does is does television work better for her?

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, I think television is a medium that's kinder to her because of the audience aspect and. And movies are not easy for comic actors because there's no audience. And B, it's done in little tiny pieces. Which is why we did noises off in long pieces so that the actors would get into the mood and keep it going. That was part of the tension of the shot, was can we get through this? Which is what you do in a live TV show or a theatrical production. So and the that is usually not the way movies are done. So I think it is harder for somebody who is used to the audience used to doing a straight through to do it in little tiny pieces. But she's, you know, she's a pro. She can do it.

Interviewer: Her transition to just straight dramatic work. I'm wondering if you were surprised how well she did. Friendly fire.

Peter Bogdanovich: I'm never surprised when a really good comic actor does drama. It's so much easier. Comedy is harder than drama. People don't think so. You get Oscars for being serious and crying and so on. But it's much harder to be funny. It's much harder. You know, it's it's a famous story about Edmund Gwenn, the actor who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, and he was dying over at the Motion Picture Country Home. And somebody came to visit him and say, How's it going, Terry? And he said, oh, it's tough dying. It's tough, but not as tough as comedy. And that's true. I mean, you asked, you know, you used to you live or die with the laugh, you know, if it doesn't get a laugh, you can't say, well, they didn't understand it. It's over. Sudden death drama. You can get away with murder, you know. So I wasn't surprised that she was good at drama. I mean, I'm I have a thing I always said you can play comedy, you can do anything.

Interviewer: Do you think for her there's that also others saying comedy is tragedy plus time? Is that true for her?

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, I think it's true. I think. I think that. Comedy, particularly the kind of high quality comedy that Carol always does. Has a basis in drama, has a basis in tragedy. It's not really funny if you examine it. Well, it's funny because of the way it's done and because it's been exaggerated a little bit, but some of that family's stuff of, you know, that she did that was so funny. It's not really funny. If you if you look at it, you know, realistically, I mean, the great French comedy writer George Phaedo wrote 37 screwball comedies and then went nuts. The the bedroom forests, you know, Feydeau Forest. Somebody said, well, you know that your stories are rather dramatic. He said, yes, every comment, every comedy is based on tragedy.

Interviewer: And knowing her personally, I do think that she sort of brought. I mean, she she's had a fair amount of tragedy in her real life. And do you think that that's kind of a layer that she brings to her, even to her comedy?

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, Carol has. A sense of tragedy in her. She's had it in her life and she has it in her in her psyche and it deepens her comedy. It's probably a way that she's managed to deal with a lot of things in her life just to be funny about it. Even when it's when your heart's breaking the clown with a broken heart, it's an old cliche, but it's you know, it's it's true.

Interviewer: That's part of what makes us feel so she's so relatable. Maybe that vulnerability,.

Peter Bogdanovich: Carol, has an enormous vulnerability and we sense that we know it. I felt it. And once upon a mattress and I saw it on television. You saw it when we did the picture together. There she is. There's. Somebody who's had a lot of seen a lot of sad things in her life. And overcome them. She's been wounded by life and overcomes it through comedy. It's a valiant profession. And. You know, my hat's always off to a good somebody who can be funny is it's a great thing.

Interviewer: This is me. OK, so just.

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, Pete, until the Walter, Martha and Carol Burnett are terrific together and they're a great team. I wish they'd done more pictures together. Walter is so funny and same kind of dry sense of humor that Carol, Carol is not quite as dry as Walter Mosley, but they complement each other wonderfully. And they were they were it's too bad they didn't. If they if if that team had come around, come about in the 30s, they would have made a whole bunch more pictures because they were they were good together, was a good idea.

Interviewer: She had said that she sort of felt she was so concerned about not being the comedy person that she was almost to scale back. I mean, do you do you notice that in her performance or to too long ago on the wedding, a wedding?

Peter Bogdanovich: I mean, the thing I remember is she fit very well into the ensemble. And with Altman, it's always an ensemble piece. He's always done a lot of people talking at once and he's got a lot of things happening, a lot of characters, sometimes to a fault. But anyway, and she because of her training and because of her her non diva personality, she she would fit into that kind of scheme very well. And she was she was terrific. She didn't seem like she was, you know, trying to pull focus.

Interviewer: Just one last thing I want to ask you some try to just give the context of how the comedy itself was changing in Carol's place and that it seemed like it was kind of going from a more broad slapstick and vaudeville into something a little more cerebral. And it almost seems like she have been the bridge between the two. Your thoughts on.

Peter Bogdanovich: I think you could say that you want me to say something. You could say that Carol was a kind of bridge between kind of a slapstick burlesque kind of humor, which television began with. We had Milton Berle and Martin Lewison and Red Skelton and so on. And then and Carol certainly could do, you know, slapstick with the best of them. But she did take it into another area at times. And a darker area and more and more savage area. It was it was her own essential humanity that made it possible for her to get away with that. And I think she did become a kind of bridge between the two.

Interviewer: Mary, mirroring change.

Peter Bogdanovich: It was also. Well, it was. It wasn't it was not just mirroring a change in comedy. I think that comedy reflects the society and the society was changing. I mean, the 50s were, you know, not the 60s, the 60s and the 70s got worse in the way. So the humor gets less innocent, more biting because the times change, you know. And the comedy reflects well, everything reflects the period we're in. And comedy is particularly reflective of the society. It's it's making fun of.

Interviewer: Just lastly, I guess what Carol's biggest impact has been, what's the legacy that she's.

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, I think Carol's legacy is an awful lot of great laughs. You know, how do you thank somebody is a great line and a picture of one of my favorite pictures. How do you thanks somebody for a million laughs. That's a big debt. But also, she pioneered the way for women will be. And Ellen, generous. I mean, I think she she opened the door for women to go the last mile with comedy. And I wish more women would follow in her footsteps because she she really opened the door for any kind of was anything that a woman wants to try to do that they can do with, thanks to Carol Burnett.

Peter Bogdanovich
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
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"Peter Bogdanovich, Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 06 Jun. 2007,
(2007, June 06). Peter Bogdanovich, Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Peter Bogdanovich, Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). June 06, 2007. Accessed May 16, 2022


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