Archive » June 21, 2007
An American Master
By Steven Libowitz
From 1967 to 78, nobody was hotter on the small screen than Carol Burnett. Her self-named variety show on CBS re-defined the genre, combining a hilarious opening monologue with zany sketches featuring ongoing characters, musical and dramatic parodies, and some of the best physical comedy on TV, in which Burnett was ably aided by a strong bench of supporting actors like Lyle Waggoner, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, and Vicki Lawrence.
Many characters from the show still endure today – high-strung Eunice Higgins and the bumbling, inept office secretary Wanda Wiggins. And it’s likely TV will never see a longer live laugh than the famous scene when Burnett’s Scarlett O'Hara descends the stairway of her Southern mansion in a dress made of curtains (and designed by Bob Mackie) – with the rod still attached – and then falls down the stairs. Unlike today’s television, where the stars have little to do with a show’s content, “The Carol Burnett Show” was all Carol – she was one of the first actors allowed complete control, and that’s only because CBS had agreed to it five years earlier thinking the show would never get off the ground.
On June 29, Burnett, who has lived in Montecito since 1999 with her third husband, Brian Miller, a percussionist for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, will hold a discussion at UCSB about her career – which includes lots of terrific acting both before and after the variety show was on the air – in a special evening called “Laughter & Reflection.” After a short film clip, Burnett will spend the entire time answering questions from the audience. PBS will film the event as part of the “American Masters” series.
Q. What brought you up here in 1999?
A. I had moved so many times over the previous ten to fifteen years, looking for something I didn’t quite know what. I lived in Maui for a while, but that didn’t work with the kids. I was in New York and Santa Fe. But I missed seeing water. So by then I was with my husband and we thought we’d try going up the coast from our L.A. apartment to find a little weekend place. We knew about Montecito, but how naïve was that? We found a place not too far from the upper village that had a view. We spent the whole summer there. Then we looked at each other and said, “Why don’t we switch, make Montecito the permanent digs?” That began the remodeling process. We’ve been a work-in-progress ever since.
So do you feel like Montecito is really home now?
It really does feel like we’re a part of the community. We still spend time in Los Angeles, so we can have dinner with (Tim) Conway and other friends. But now we have a lot of friends in Montecito. We go out to Lucky’s, and shop at Vons. I know all the stores and restaurants in the Upper Village by now, and they’re friends. What’s nice about it here is you can do as much as you want or as little. You can kick back and rest on your laurels, sit in the backyard and read for two months.
Last time we talked, I remember you saying you were surprised you hadn’t run into Jonathan Winters yet. Is that still true?
Oh, no. I saw him just the other day coming out of Imagine. We stood there in the doorway for about twenty-five minutes, with him regaling me with stories. You know, we started out together way, way, way back in New York. We were the two newcomers with a business agent who had lots of established clients. He was taking a chance on us.
I guess that worked out OK….You guys had a few hits. Can you tell me what were some of your favorite things from “The Carol Burnett Show?”
I always loved doing the family, Eunice. Those were very well written pieces. None of them had any jokes, they were all pure character, like little one-act plays. Also, Mrs. Wiggins, the dumb secretary, the woman that the IQ fairy never visited, which Tim created. I never knew what he was going to say, so it was like walking a tightrope, especially since we did the show live on tape…. Oh gosh, sometimes he was so shocking or funny I couldn’t answer, or I’d be so doubled over with laughter I couldn’t speak. I used to say we should have a concession of Depends in the lobby.
It was fun for us, too, because you laughed at yourselves.
We never did it on purpose. Actually we’d pride ourselves on having the ability to stay in character. But sometimes playing with Tim was like having a firecracker lit under your behind. When you sit down, you’re going to be surprised.
You were also so very physical, one of the first women to do that in comedy.
You know, I taught myself how to do most of that stuff. It does show up in my back and neck every once in a while now. But it’s amazing that I never broke anything while I was working. I jumped out of windows, fell down stairs, all of that stuff on TV for years. All I got was bruises. Then I break my leg when I twisted my ankle at our house in Montecito! Talk about irony.
You’ve had quite a few of these sorts of career achievement-type awards recently. Is that a good thing or do you want to stop and say, “Hey, wait! I’m not done yet.”
Oh, I’m proud of it. I think it says if you live long enough, this sort of thing starts to happen – “Burnett’s still alive….Let’s haul her out!” The Kennedy Center Honors was great because you don’t have to give a speech. You just go for the weekend, eat and smile and weep….But the Q&A events keeps your brain matter working. You really have to think on your feet, because I really don’t know what they’re going to ask.
Well, you know someone is going to bring up the Tarzan yell. What I’ve always wanted to know is, doesn’t it hurt?
Oh, no. It’s just a yodel. I’ve got a strong set of pipes. And it keeps my voice in shape. I remember teaching Beverly Sills to do the yell when we did a special “Sills & Burnett at the Met.” Here’s the most fabulous opera singer ever, and she’s asking me how I do that. Well, it’s just chest-to-head voice. So there we were yodeling in the dressing room. We’re great friend now. She’s my first phone call when I arrive in New York.
I know I’m not the only one who’d like to see one more variety show special. What are the chances?
The networks really don’t want to do that. It’s all reality shows which cost them $1.98 to produce. Even if they weren’t that cheap, the costs would be prohibitive to do even a one-time special that was anything like our weekly show. It’s a very different climate with the suits now, too. I’m so grateful that I came along when TV was more open. It wouldn’t have been possible today. We had such fun, and the network trusted us and left us alone. But, now? No. Not going to happen.
(Friday, June 29, 2007 @ 8:00 PM, Campbell Hall. For Information on purchasing tickets to a private reception with Carol Burnett please call the Arts & Lectures ticket office at 805-893-3535. General public $50.00 / UCSB Students $15.00 / Promo $35.00)
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