Transcript:

Cryer: I became a fan of Carol Burnett when I was very young. I was probably twelve or 11 years old and I would watch her show on my little tiny black and white TV in my room. I had I had very strict rules at my house. My mom allowed me a certain amount of TV and watching her show was later than I was allowed to watch TV. And it was way over my limit. So I had to secretly watch her show on my little tiny Sony black and white TV that I had to change the channel with a wrench with her, with the with the covers pulled over and just, you know, watching the show and just, you know, trying not to laugh too hard. But but I would not be denied. I love me some Carol Burnett.

Interviewer: What was it about her? Can you describe her comedic style?

Cryer: Well, I became a fan of hers during the heyday of her variety show, completely not knowing that she'd had a Broadway career before that. And, you know, and many other aspects of her career. So what I loved about that show was that that it was sketch comedy that that a kid could could love as well as a Grown-Up. You know, I, of course, thought of myself as a very sophisticated 11 year old. But, you know, she did they did great movie parodies and just the sense of fun on that show with Harvey Korman and Tim Conway breaking up. And and and the the, you know, unheralded Vicki Lawrence, who was also wonderful, were, you know, it was just infectious. And you couldn't help but but enjoy them. And and Carol's personality on TV was so warm and friendly that you just felt welcomed by the whole show.

Interviewer: Things like. To do something like you felt like you not only seeing her in these characters, but also seeing the real Carol.

Cryer: You got the sense when you were watching Carol Burnett that that she was comfortable in the role of a clown, you know, and that she really did love to entertain. You got that feeling watching the Q&A she would do with the audience? Well, you know, watching the numbers she would do with that with people. She you know, you could tell that sometimes she's working with entertainers who she adored, you know, and and, you know, it just you felt as a as a viewer that she really was enjoying what she was doing. And I you know, one hopes when one is, you know, is a viewer of these kind of things, one hopes that that she's really that person, you know. And I was fortunate to meet her many years ago and was so relieved and exultant and and impressed that she was you know, she was this this person who, you know, you know, wherever her life took her, she loved what she was doing. And you could just tell that she was incredibly skilled at it as well.

Interviewer: Can you talk about her characters?

Cryer: What I loved about Carol's characters that she created was that they all had a certain sort of tragic sense to them. You know, the Eunice had that wonderful desire to shoot. What I loved about her character of Eunice was that that she was always one of the aspects of Carol's Younus character that I love. Was it was that she had this quest for dignity that she was always thwarted at. And I think that's one of the things I sort of incorporated into the Alan character on Two and a Half Men was that, you know, that you always felt that she was Shupe. She felt she deserved, you know, a more graceful life and she would never again. And and I think that's that sort of aspect of heartbreak was a part of all of her great characters, you know, still a toddler. And and, you know, you just felt for that old lady and you and even Mrs. Wiggins, you know, she had that sort of standoffish attitude. But you sort of got the impression that it was a woman who was beautiful but not, you know, got away with it for a little too long and maybe now didn't you know? Now she knew she was, you know, as much as she was the bane of Tim Conway's existence in those sketches. You got the sense that she was that there was that there was, you know, perhaps a young girl that wasn't there anymore, you know, and and I loved those characters.

Interviewer: So she was doing broad.

Cryer: Oh, yeah. I mean. You could not help but be impressed with with her ability to do incredibly broad comedy. You know, costume gags, getting whacked in the face. You know, and she would do those characters with them with incredibly saggy boobs. You know, she was willing to go anywhere with it. But in the end, you knew there was a person there and you could sense there was, you know, a real, real soul there that she. She gave every character. And so I. I just remember I think I think my favorite skit of of hers was I think it was that. I think one of the skits they did on that show was was one of the all time great skits in television history, which is probably there they're Gone with the Wind skit, where at one point Scarlett O'Hara is she's left with nothing to wear. So she wears the curtains that were hanging in the window. But, of course, with the curtain rod as the shoulder pads, basically. And now that would be funny. That was a great gag. It's a costume gag. She carries it off with the beautiful grace that she tries to to attain with it. But then, of course, delivers one of the funniest lines in television history. You know, I saw it in the window and I couldn't resist it. And I recall laughing about that line for about three weeks. And not just because it was so effortless on her part. And and just so perfect. I got to figure the writers and the writer writers room just went nuts when they had that, you know. But I think they the that that. Hopefully, you know, she'll be you know, she will be regarded in sort of the annals of comedic history with the respect that she's due.

Interviewer: And I'm wondering, you were eleven, twelve at the time. You were saying it was one of the shows that. You haven't seen any of those movies that she was spoofing?

Cryer: Well, exactly, yeah. I don't even know if if I had seen Gone With the Wind. By the time she was spoofing Gone with the Wind. But it didn't matter. This kid stood on their own. And as I said, just sort of the spirit of fun that they had was kind of naughty. And, you know, but but just so incredibly competent and poised and perfect that that, you know, I I recall even as an eleven year old saying, you know, they know what they're doing. Which, of course, you're eleven. Who you know, who am I to decide. Carol Burnett, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman know what they're doing. I mean, I'm sure at the time I was inside, you know. You know, Vicki Lawrence is the unsung hero of that show. She is. She just brings her a game every time and just hits it out of the park. I was a very, very pretentious eleven year old. Yes.

Interviewer: I don't know if you were aware. The idea of the fact that it was a woman.

Cryer: You know, I grew up during the height of feminism. You know, it was the 70s in New York City. My mother was regarded as this. And she was a playwright. And I'm getting married then take him on the road. So she was regarded as as a big deal feminist. And. And but what I loved about Carol Burnett was Hepburn was just Carol Burnett. She wasn't overcoming, you know, any kind of bias against female comedians. She wasn't she. She completely transcended any feminist issue of her day. You don't. It's like Sidney Poitier. You know, he his work transcended the civil rights struggle. It wasn't about you know, he was sitting right here, you know, and like that, you know, Carol Burnett just transcends the work of, you know, the political context of the era. So, you know, I didn't you know, interestingly, to this day, I did a a a. They asked me years ago to do a a magazine spread. They do a thing called INSPIRATION'S. I believe it's in InStyle. And usually it's people that they're photographs of actors and performers with their inspiration. And they asked me who I wanted to be, my inspiration. I said, Carol Burnett. And they were really taken aback at the time because they said that despite that, the fact that this thing had run for a while, this this feature had run in the magazine, that nobody had chosen somebody of the opposite sex as their inspiration. And and that was surprising to me because it's like she's Carol Burnett. It's obvious. And and I was thrilled that she agreed to do it with me because, you know, I I grew up loving television and and wanting to be a part of it so badly that just being welcomed into the group just means a lot to me. I guess, um, what would I what would I say that I learned from her specifically? I'll get it, because I learned so much. You know this. I mean, she she was willing to be unladylike to such an extent. She was willing to be a clown. And I think that is what I took from from her work, that that I always have a willingness to completely lose any dignity that I ever possessed. At one point, I was doing a thing on my show where I was dressed in a ladies lingerie with stockings and the whole garter belts, the whole nine yards. And my fiancee was taking a picture and I said, oh, God, let's hope this doesn't get on the Internet. And then I realized it's gonna be on a TV show that people are going to see. And I'm worried about Internet for some reason. And and and I realized, you know, I, I do this and I am willing to go however far it takes for the laugh, partially because, you know, she inspired me that the the the the greatest clowns are the people willing, you know, who who aspire to these great things but are shown to be human and frail.

Interviewer: Can you talk a little bit more? You said when you met her personally. How did you meet her?

Cryer: I met Carol because her daughter was a friend of mine. She and I shared a manager in New York and. And one night I she her daughter had invited me out to dinner with our manager and said, oh, I think my mom's going to come. And I was like, no way. You're you're you're your mom, mom. Like like she'd have somebody else. She's like, oh, yeah. Well, there's my mom. And then there's my other mom, you know, it's like, no, you're her mom, Carol Burnett. And we went out and I was a nervous wreck. And, you know, and Carol just wanted to have a nice dinner. And I'm just like asking, are all these goofy questions I'm pulling? Totally, totally being a Chris Farley, you know. You know, so like when you did that that thing with the with the Younus on The Gong Show. What? I was a total geek and she was incredibly warm and and and I'm. And she could tell that I wanted stories. So she's like, okay, here you go. As she started telling stories about Tim Conway and she told this wonderful one about that growing up, Tim Conway's family had that the father that his dad would always try to fix things around the house, but he wasn't actually very good at it. So at one point, he tried to fix the doorbell. But he could only get it to ring. He got it to ring all the time. And the whole time it would stop ringing. Was when you press the button. So basically, they'd be sitting at dinner, you know, ding dong. Ding dong, ding dong. Ding dong. Ding dong. I'll get it. But, you know, and it was great because she she you know, I don't know if it was an effort for her to to sort of put up with this goofy fan, but it sure didn't seem like it. And and you know, it. She got that that comedy is nothing without her audience. And and she always seemed to have real, you know, love and warmth for her for her audience. And years later, and interestingly, years later, a friend of mine, an actor, friend of mine, and I told him I was going to do the photo shoot with with Carol. And he said, oh, my God, you have to thank her for me. And I said, What? Why? And he said, Well, years ago, I was a struggling actor in New York and I was trying to get into Manhattan Plaza, which is a place where apartments are really, really cheap just for actors in New York. So but it's a long waiting list for years. And he had put his name on the waiting list, but he was so far up that it was not even possible. But he said, I have to get a recommendation. And my acting teacher was Carol Burnett's acting teacher when she was like twelve or something. And he he he asked her to put me on the waiting list. She not only put him on the waiting list, but went to the offices every day for like a week and got them to move him up the waiting list. And I said, so, so well, you're a friend of hers. You you must have you know, and you why didn't you think her yourself? And he said, I'm not a friend of hers. I never met the woman. She did this for somebody she never met. And I was struck by that. You know, I guess, you know, when you know you know, she was obviously had become huge in New York City from her Broadway work. And, you know, she was revered quite a bit. You know, I guess she she was trying to give back.

Interviewer: What was her relationship like with Carrie?

Cryer: You know, I could never really my sense was that, you know, Carrie was very troubled girl, and my sense was they had the normal mother and daughter friction when clearly, you know, the daughter she was she was dealing with a lot of issues and. And, you know, parents, when faced with that, have to you know, there's there's a certain amount of tough love that can be very difficult. And so I sense that between them, you know, there was such powerful love and respect. But at the same time, the the you know, the tension of of that. You know, Carrie, I'm sure, felt that, you know, her mom did not approve of everything she did. And, you know, and and I can't say that as a parent I would have either. But they still love each other and still supported each other. I did a short film with Carrie at one point and and and Carrie was there. Brain food and and helping in every way she possibly could. So, you know, I had the sense that I got was that they had the normal mother daughter issues. But of course, you know, it all happened under this very under this tremendous celebrity microscope. It's very hard to have a normal life when when, you know, you're you're the world's comedian. You know, it's you know, it doesn't doesn't make it easy. Oh, clearly, they had a closeness at the end of of Carrie's life that that, you know, could not have been hinted at during the tumultuous periods. Clearly, they they got over that. And and and, you know, they both I mean, Carrie was a terrific talent, actually, and unfortunately never got to really shine. And you know that she owed a lot of her comedic sensibility to her mom, as you know, as much of the United States did, actually. So, you know, I, I, I got to figure as a as a child, sort of trying to get out from under the shadow of something like that. There was some frustration, but also great love and respect.

Interviewer: They were able to work together.

Cryer: Yeah. You know, again, I. You know, you're in your 20s when you're when you're a performer in your 20s. It's all about sort of getting out from the shadow of where you came from. And but there's a point when you circle back and you realize that there's a great deal to be to be gotten from that. I had a similar thing with my mother where I got where all the sudden I realized I could work with her and she could help me. And I think Carrie and Carol got to that as well. They they could. They helped each other in projects and work together and they wrote together. And, you know, you can do a lot of healing from going through that process. You can you can really confront things in this sort of third party way, you know, because you're working on something that isn't exactly you. You're working on this. This piece of art. And you can confront things and go through things in a way that's a little safer. And and I think that might have been one of the things that really helped heal their relationship. Also, the fact that their mother daughter and they love each other and there's no you know, there's no getting around that. No, I didn't have a whole lot of contact with her at that point. I didn't even. It was awful was. I didn't find out. Carrie was sick until two days before she passed. So, you know, I you know, she moved to Montana for a while and, you know, and so I didn't. So towards that during that period, I didn't get to talk with her very much. So unfortunately, no.

Interviewer: Did you go to see.

Cryer: I did not see it. I'm sorry. I don't know what. I don't know where I was at the time.

Interviewer: I think they're trying to do it again. Oh, great.

Cryer: OK, OK, fair enough.

Interviewer: Well, having been on your own show for many years now, can you just talk about how rare it is to have a show on for 11 years successfully?

Cryer: But being on my own television show now, I have sort of gone back over television shows in the past that I've loved. And, you know, Star Trek, Star Trek ran three seasons. You know, a lot of my favorite shows really didn't go that long. And when you when you realize the achievement of running eleven years on American television, having been one of the biggest hit shows American television ever saw at that point, and churning out incredibly memorable comedy, which is also a difficult task, the sort of magnitude of what you did comes into focus. I you know, we you know, Charlie Sheen and I have every now and then we'll talk about how far down the line we we can go with our show and, you know, and we'll sort of take into account, you know, it's like, wow, friends did eleven seasons. We're at four. We're kind of tired now. So, you know, I, I, you know, people forget that the Carol Burnett's show was a staple of American television for a while. It was just there was just something everybody did. And I recall seeing my first episode of Saturday Night Live, which was on later, but it was also on on Saturday night. And I recall what a what an odd sort of sea change that was, because I'd watch Carol Burnett and then I think the news. And then I saw this weird show called Saturday Night Live, and the skits were different and I didn't understand them. I remember watching Andy Kaufman and and and he was doing his lack of character. And I said, oh, this is terrible. Everybody's laughing at this poor foreign man who doesn't know how to tell jokes. And and the comedy went from this very sort of inclusive thing to this very sort of exclusive thing. It sort of counted on you counted on sort of excluding some people from the joke. And to me, that was a big change in American comedy, one that that, you know, I enjoyed Saturday Night Live, but I wasn't 100 percent comfortable with. Yeah, it was the end. I mean, there was the Cher Show and there was all those. And then Sonny and Cher. And it was all those rowdy shows off. Tony. Tony Marie. Donny and Marie. You know, there was all those variety shows that were just flourishing during the 70s. And then, you know, sang live, just changed the whole thing. And it's my hope that that, you know, much of comedy rejects that of the past. But if you talk to any, you know, any sketch comedy professional, you know, in the last 10 or 15 years, everybody will say Carol Burnett took you there, you know. You know, they're there. You know, I'd say, you know, there's a real progression. There's Sid Caesar's. There's Carol Burnett. There's Saturday Night Live. There's kids in the hall, you know, and that's that's you know, there's there's a real throughline there.

Interviewer: Do you think she's she the door for other women?

Cryer: I don't know. I. I don't know if Carol Burnett specifically opened the doors for women just because, if you recall, it was there was a lot of great female comedians. There was The Mary Tyler Moore Show had married John Walker and Cloris Leachman and Betty White, you know. And so, you know, and then there was Maude with Bea Arthur. And, you know, it was it was a great. There was a great upswelling of fantastic roles for women. And I think, you know, I, I, I think Carol Burnett was a force of nature. But I think the whole culture changed around her and. And, you know, I don't know if there are. I'd say that she opened doors for women, accept who who came through, you know, where you know, where's the Carol Burnett of today? Is there one? I don't know. Tracey Ullman is the closest, is the closest. But again, you know, and thankfully they she got a shot on an HBO where she could do whatever she wanted, you know, but. But I. Yeah, and Tracey Ullman is is brilliant. But did she have the same amount of impact that Carol Burnett had? I don't I don't I don't think so.

Interviewer: I just wondered, you mentioned Broadway.

Cryer: I never saw her on anything on Broadway. I was too young for once upon a mattress and. And I think my dad was in a show with her many years ago called Fade Out. Fade in which was. Which, you know, I don't think ran that long, but. But. So. So I recall hearing about her. But never having met her. No. No. Not that I can recall. But again, I was three. So I don't I don't know anything.

Interviewer: Anything else I've forgotten or other favorite episodes or characters?

Cryer: Let's see. I love it when when they tried to have still a toddler punch your way out of a paper bag.That was great. And it just went. And, of course, I loved Eunice. I just I felt for her. And she reminded me of my my mom's family back in Indiana. And it was just so, you know, depressing and wonderful and American and silly. I loved Mrs. Wiggins.

Interviewer: You know, with the that thing of being. So sad and funny at the same time, if you saw that that often on TV.

Cryer: No, well. Well, if you if you if you watch a lot of the skits, there's the Eunice family's skits. Well, I guess you'd call Eunice family as opposed to the mom's family as they eventually became. But when you watch a lot of the Eunice skits, they're they're not jokey. Very often. The laughs don't come from jokes. They just come from the ridiculous stuff that happens. And and that you just you you again, you feel for her. She's a ridiculous woman for wanting some sort of graceful existence in the middle of this very rich sort of rural, you know, life. But but but at the same time, you know, you feel that everybody's sort of like that. You know, nobody's life is exactly what they want, you know? And she you empathized with her. But I was surprised on watching those things fairly recently that they they they were much less joke oriented than the other skits on the show. They were more just about what happened to them. And and and you could tell they had a lot of love for those characters like Tim Conway. You know, had the guy who always spoke loud to Harvey Korman because, you know, he assumed he was hard of hearing, but he wasn't. And, you know, and you could tell these were work were people they knew and they were very affectionate, but also hilarious.

Jon Cryer
Interview Date:
2007-06-26
Runtime:
None
Keywords:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
1793200154
MLA CITATIONS:
"Jon Cryer, Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 26 Jun. 2007, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/547
APA CITATIONS:
(2007, June 26). Jon Cryer, Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/547
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Jon Cryer, Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). June 26, 2007. Accessed January 26, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/547

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