[Editor’s Note: The following post is part of American Masters’ #InspiringWomanPBS campaign, which highlights the powerful, creative, and innovative women in our lives. Visit the Inspiring Woman page to join the campaign and submit the story of a woman who inspires you.]
American comedian, actor and nonagenarian Betty White sits down with director Kyra Thompson to discuss the life and career of comedian, actor, singer and writer Carol Burnett. White shares personal anecdotes from her time spent working with Burnett and talks about The Carol Burnett Show’s lasting influence, Lucille Ball and how comedy and audiences have changed [Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character (2007)].
Betty White reflects on Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, and being a woman in comedy. Betty White was interviewed in 2007 for Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character (2007).
Betty White: [00:00:17] Oh Carol Burnett was sort of a Saturday night must, you couldn’t you couldn’t not watch the Carol Burnett Show was that wonderful lineup of Mary Tyler Moore and the whole group – Bob Newhart. When Carol called me and said would what I do her show. I said Well are you sure again then she sent me the script and that sort of thing. And I thanked her profusely and you know that was great I hung up I thought I’m gonna do the Carol Burnett Show!!! And I was very professional from then on!
Interviewer: [00:44:24] You said sure if you like. I think that’s great.
Betty White: [Laughs] Carol’s comedic style is is there’s such a sense of fun in there you get the feeling that she’s enjoying it. Maybe just as much if not more than you are and that’s saying something – with Harvey Korman and Tim Conway that was a piece of work. After doing her show I really was amazed at her control because they had none. They would rehearse a thing and then Tim would come out. Different from rehearsal in some little way maybe a little piece of wardrobe maybe a little different reading of the line. And Harvey was gone. He was absolutely on the floor. And how Carol held it together I don’t know because I’m not very good at holding it together when that goes either. I think Carol is such a professional that she probably thought somebody had to keep it together. And but I also think she had a lot of other responsibilities that was a heavy show and all that and she couldn’t lose it too much and still have to get through the end of the hour and keep everybody together.
Interviewer: [00:03:52] Was it unusual to see a woman doing such hard physical comedy as Caro did?
Betty White: [00:04:07] I I don’t think it was that unusual for the hard physical comedy that Carol did because Lucy had blazed that trail long before her. Lucy’s physical comedy was incomparable.
Interviewer: [00:04:33] But what was sort of a stereotype though in the early period, say even in the 50s and 60s for women in comedy what were the stereotypes?
Betty White: [00:04:42] Well in the early days when I started in 1950 most of the comedy shows were built around the man and then the the woman filled in the family places or the girlfriend or whatever. But it didn’t take long you know once. Once you open the door to girls they take over you know how that goes. And actually my first series was in 1951, 50, 51. And I produced it and that was very unusual for a woman to be a producer and for a woman to be the comedy. And we had a woman director but I didn’t know I was breaking any ground it wasn’t a thing about, by George we’re going to get women in there. I had no I just I just took people I liked and people who worked at the studio. Then later way later when the woman’s movement came along I thought well what else is new. But I never ever felt any discrimination from from the guys on the set or the the man nor Betty Turbaville was our director I don’t think she did either.
Interviewer: [00:05:48] Was there a sort of tradition that women couldn’t be both feminine and funny?
Betty White: [00:05:56] Oh I think that a big misconception was that you can’t be funny and beautiful and smart. You got to pick one but you can’t have the whole package. And Lucy kind of broke that mold too she was beautiful she was smart and she was funny. And then Carol came along and she was beautiful and she was smart and she was funny.
Interviewer: I’m just thinking in the beginning of her show she came out in those beautiful gowns, the next sketch she’s falling out of a window or something.
Betty White: [00:07:25] Exactly the Bob Mackie gowns that she would she would wear were top of the line and so gorgeous and so fancy. And she would come out and answer the question answer period that was always one of the highlights of her shows and then she would be this not dignified she always had a sense of it but she was this lovely lady in these beautiful clothes. And as you say then she’d fall out a window or and she do a pratfall or she’d do something ridiculous or do terrible things with this pretty face. But if you noticed Carol had great legs her legs were wonderful. And somehow or other we always got a chance to see them.
Interviewer: [00:08:12] Can you talk more about her face, I just feel like it’s made of rubber sometimes.
Betty White: Carol Burnett’s face well you said, well sometimes you just suspected it was made of rubber because she could do anything with it. But she never cared about how she looked it wasn’t always well I don’t want to do that because I might not look wonderful. She would do terrible things with that face.
Interviewer: [00:10:46] Was that something of the times? Also a little bit that women in comedy if they were sort of less attractive, make themselves less attractive. I’m just thinking of Phyllis Diller made a lot of jokes about her appearance, and-
Betty White: [00:11:19] I think I think it’s not so much timeliness of early comedy. I think it’s the fact that girls like to be pretty or did in those days at least sometimes I wonder these days but they they like to be pretty. But then the contrast when all of a sudden a very pretty girl like Carol Burnett would do something – or Lucy – would do something outrageous against type and not care what she looked like I think. And that’s what made the public adore her so and that’s what made them go along with the comedy because they knew that she wasn’t worrying about well I must do that because I might not be as pretty as I should be. I think that was a big transition period at that time for comedy. Prior to that women again had been the the wives or the girlfriends or that and, even prior to that they would do a stand up routine with like Burns and Allen or various combos like that. So there was a show called My Favorite Husband and it did a half hour story line and that’s when the situation comedy started and mine was Life With Elizabeth and we had done sketches on a on a variety show an hour I was on five and a half hours a day during the week six days a week. And that wasn’t enough so we did an hour variety show at night and we did these married sketches and the station manager called me in one day and said "Do you think you could make that into a half hour situation comedy?" And in my wisdom I said oh no that would never work because if you’re with friends in the evening you tell an anecdote It lasts about five minutes but if you milk it to a half hour it will never work it’ll bend in the middle. That’s how much I knew.
Interviewer: [00:13:32] 50 years later.
Betty White: [00:13:34] 50 years later situation comedy has become- now comedy has changed particularly with women. But, again it’s a whole different world. The audience has changed. Remember when we started and Carol not that long after all though she’s of course was much later. But it you you did your stuff and it was a surprise to the audience. Now today the audience has heard every story they’ve heard every joke they know all the plots they know, when you open your mouth they know where it’s going. That’s that makes it tougher.
Interviewer: [00:14:17] They’re sort of more jaded.
Betty White: [00:14:18] That’s right. And and the comedy for the standup comics gets a little raunchy and raunchier these days. And you lose some of that. That. To Me comedy has always been what you don’t say physical comedy is marvelous you make faces and you fall down and you do those things. And the spoken comedy you lead right up and then you take another direction and the audience thinks you’re going that way and they finish it for you and it’s funny. Now they just lay it all out and I think it loses a little bit. I’m not critical of today’s comedy you can plainly see that.
Interviewer: [00:15:26] How would you, we’ve talked about Carol and Lucy. They’re both sort of the queens of TV at different times. How were they different though. What was unique about Carol that was different than Lucy?
Betty White: [00:15:41] Lucy was first of all she was so pretty not that Carol wasn’t pretty but Lucy started out as a as a glamour girl and the comedy came from that and with Desi and all that. Again situation comedy. Carol with the she went back to the wonderful sketches where you could do. You could do a very funny situation that didn’t have to have a plot line or go anywhere it was just here it was and let’s let’s get this out of our systems and be as funny as we can and then we’ll do something else.
Interviewer: [00:16:13] Why do you think Carol was more suited to doing the sketch – or particularly suited to doing sketches as opposed to doing a sitcom? I know they had asked her if she wanted to do a situation comedy and she didn’t.
Betty White: [00:16:27] Well I think Carol’s choice was to do sketch sketch comedy because of the variety if you’re on an hour every single week. Not that situation comedy and storylines but it it’s a whole another life and you’re playing just one character. Well the fun of it is with sketch comedy you’re playing everybody in the world at some time or another. I missed, personally I missed the old variety shows because you had the music you had the dancing you had the sketches and you had let’s say a personality like Carol whom you adored and you saw her wander through all of those things and still be a gracious hostess with her guest stars and I wish I wish somebody would get maybe try just one let’s have a little look at that.
Interviewer: [00:17:41] You hosted your own – Several shows. And I’m just wondering what is the key to being a successful host of a variety show like that? And what did Carol have that made her successful?
Betty White: [00:17:50] I think you have to keep in mind and I it was obvious that Carol did. I think you have to keep in mind that you’re never playing to a big audience. She’d come out and she’d play to that theater audience when she first came out. But from then on you’re only playing to two or three people. If there are more than two or three people in a room they’re not listening to you they’re talking to each other. But two or three people or one person. So you have to kind of think of the audience as an individual more than as a as a group. And that’s that’s where the warmth comes in and that’s where I think Carol excelled because she was she was your buddy she was in your room with you you’ve invited her in and she came.
Interviewer: [00:18:35] How did we feel that do you think? How did we get that sense. Audiences felt like, they knew her and she was a friend.
Betty White: [00:18:43] Well what are the medium brings somebody right into your living room or into your den or into your bedroom when you’re going to go to sleep. You have to go see people you know other then use where they come right in your entire house and you don’t have to share them with anybody you’ve got them right there.
Interviewer: [00:19:29] Was that unique, was that a new thing for television?
Betty White: [00:19:34] I think a lot of times it was done in the warm up when you were talking to your audience that were there to see you. But I think her method of doing it on camera to open it up gave everybody a chance to see Carol Burnett. Not Carol the comedian, Carol the funny lady. But Carol Burnett and who she was and how she’d respond and I think that’s what made it kind of it got you in the mood for the whole show once you couldn’t wait to hear how she was going to respond. And some of the questions would, you’d say well now let’s see how she handles this. It was like walking the edge of a cliff.
Interviewer: [00:20:31] It was, there was one I saw where somebody just asked where is the bathroom. And she brought them up on stage.
Betty White: [00:20:36] Right down there turn left-
Interviewer: [00:23:43] What would she bring to – that wasn’t on the written page or was she someone who really stayed close to a script, or what did she bring?
Betty White: [00:23:53] I don’t think I don’t think she would stay just a slave to the script. I don’t think she would do all that in situation comedy you you, sometimes you should do that or must do that because a lot of new people will come in and they’ll they’ll say well I’ll put it in my own words because I’ll say it funnier but they put a couple of extra syllables in and they they lose the rhythm and they kill a joke. But Carol had such a surefooted sense of comedy that I don’t think she read all the commas and then periods and exclamation points. But she still knew how to get from this point to that time without stepping on the laugh. I think by the time Carol Burnett became Carol Burnett I think the writers were so aware of all the places they could go with her and all the things that she could do that they would know that they’d lay out a situation maybe a couple of lines and things like that. And. She’d do the lines as they should be. But she would bring so much else into it that I think they they they knew where to put the the spaces for her to do that and that’s that, that’s what comes of a good writing group with a good rapport with the star. Another thing that Carol is amazing about with all that wonderful talent and comedy and all that. She’s such a pro and she’s such an organized person. Other shows you go over there and you’d work and you get home maybe 10:00 11:00 o’clock at night on show day and think on rehearsal day she had it because she had and wanted to get home and have a life off camera. We many times we’d be out of there two o’clock in the afternoon and 2:00 2:30 and we’d get all the rehearsing done and all of horseplay done but still not not devote your entire life. You had another life.
Interviewer: [00:29:10] Did you see her work evolve over the years? I mean in the beginning on the Gary Moore Show it was more to use her word, about mugging and that sort of thing and it did seem to change, can you talk about what you saw and how you saw it change.
Betty White: [00:29:21] Well I think we all change over the years I think with each decade that goes by we grow a little. With any luck some of us do some of us don’t. But it’s just the very age factor changes it. And Carol was never one to try to state I’m so young I was when she was just she was Carol and and we grew up with her. We all grew along with her and I think I think that’s why we felt so comfortable with her she wasn’t trying to be something she wasn’t. She knew we knew better.
Interviewer: [00:30:49] Do you think the show was the Carol Burnett Show series was reflective of the time period at all, I mean looking at what 70s television was going on and you know the Women’s Movement was going on.
Betty White: [00:31:02] The show tried to cover all the bases as did so many other variety shows. They try to cover all the bases and I don’t think they were trying to make brownie points or anything like that it was just like and remember performers and I’m this is not to take away from Carol. We know who she was why the show worked but the performer can come out show night and do a dynamite show and then go home and at least think OK I don’t have to do anything till Monday morning. The writers have to go home and think oh my god we’ve got to do this again next week what do we do. And. So there is always that pressure. And when you the bigger a hit you are the more the pressure is on to stay that way. So people don’t say oh well it’s not as good as it used to be.
Interviewer: [00:31:54] Did you ever sense that in Carol that she was carrying a major responsibility and load in carrying that show?
Betty White: [00:32:02] Oh I think that you couldn’t be in the business and not know the load she was carrying. But I’m not sure she ever bothered the audience with that. I don’t think she ever- I think she just wanted the audience to enjoy their fun together. But you knew you couldn’t ignore if you knew anything about the business you couldn’t ignore that she was carrying a big load.
Interviewer: [00:33:58] Did you watch any of her later dramatic work?
Betty White: [00:34:04] Oh yes friendly fire and many many of those that again you were seeing a different a different Carol. And then through her later life with the problems she had. The pain you felt the pain because you loved her and you. Writing the show with her daughter and then losing her daughter so close once in a while Carol and I have lunch together. And. Again it’s what you don’t say that that means more than what you do say you don’t say all the things like how are you’re doing or anything like that you just when you see each other you just hold a little tighter and and. If you try to be business as usual.
Interviewer: [00:34:57] I mean she has had a fair amount of tragedy.
Betty White: [00:34:58] She’s had her share, trust me. I think everybody’s life gives them the the storage cabinet where they can open this door and take some of that out because they remember that if you don’t if you don’t you know. Keep some of that storage available if it makes your life a lot you can’t just go in and forget it ever happened and just move on. You can do that to get through a bad time. But then when something comes along let’s say a role comes along where. Instead of trying to dredge it up out of whole cloth. You say Oh yeah yeah i know i know what this is about.
Interviewer: [00:38:56] Just as a comedian yourself what is it that you most admire in watching or even at the time that you admired in watching her.
Betty White: [00:39:07] I think the thing I’m I’m I was most impressed by with Carol was she had an awful lot of people to deal with staff and other cast members and a show that was on every week. Was the fact that she she could kind of make her time valuable. She wouldn’t waste a lot of time. Some of us get horsing around or kidding around with other people. And you you waste valuable time that way. And you know it’s a hard thing to cure yourself of and sometimes you never cure yourself of it. But Carol with all her humor and all her fun was very businesslike. I remember just a silly side anecdote. One thing I I remember. I was going to do our show that night and we pulled in the CBS parking lot. And at the same time and she was parked over there and I parked and of course we’ll always hug and kiss because we we really love each other. And she got out of the car and Placido Domingo got out of the car and she introduced me and I said you know how nice it was to meet him and then I just gave her a look. She said Eat your heart out. Don’t you love it. Eat your heart out.
Interviewer: [00:40:36] Was there anything groundbreaking about her? I mean looking back, was there anything she was doing that was absolutely new-
Betty White: [00:40:44] I- That’s I don’t know how groundbreaking any specific thing that she did would be but just the fact that a woman goes to the top of her particular venue and holds on that long. What was the show on like 11 years wasn’t it. And that’s a long time for anything to last usually if it goes seven years you’re in you’re in great shape. But but for her to still maintain that and then go on to a further career. But to maintain that top position for that long that was groundbreaking.