Carol Burnett glad to have this time together with her fans
The iconic comedienne/actress has been making people laugh for nearly 70 years. She headlines the Chicago Theatre this week.
Carol Burnett turned 89 years young on April 26 and she’ll be celebrating the event on the road with her one-woman show, “An Evening of Laughter and Reflection,” that arrives at the Chicago Theatre two days later.
The iconic comedienne/actress — whose accolades include Golden Globes, Emmys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a Peabody Award, a Kennedy Center Honor, a Grammy Award, and more — is still doing what she’s loved doing for nearly 70 years: making people laugh.
Carol Burnett: An Evening Of Laughter And Reflection
When: 7:30 p.m. April 28
Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
“It’s the same kind of show that I’ve been doing — 90 minutes of Q&A interspersed with various clips of my shows. We just bump up the lights and people raise their hands and I call on someone. It’s playing without a net,” Burnett said with a chuckle during a recent phone chat. “It keeps the old gray matter ticking.”
For 11 years beginning in 1967, her CBS television comedy fest, “The Carol Burnett Show,” ruled the airwaves on Saturday nights, averaging nearly 30 million viewers each week. The series, with an ensemble that included her doppelganger Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, would go on to win 25 Emmys. It also marked the first time that a woman hosted a prime-time television comedy-variety series.
It was always about the laughter, and making people just forget the cares of the days, Burnett said. It’s a responsibility she never took lightly.
“Someone once asked me what I wanted my legacy to be and I said maybe it’s just that I made people laugh when they needed it,” Burnett said. “It also gives me joy. It’s reciprocal. It makes me happy that people are laughing. It gives me a new lease on life.”
Burnett said her comedy influences included her good friend and mentor Lucille Ball, the legendary Sid Caesar “and his rep company” that included Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, and of course, Garry Moore, on whose TV show Burnett cut her comedic teeth as a self-proclaimed “second banana.”
In 11 years of her own show’s signature brand of shtick, which often involved everything from pies in the face and tumbling down staircases to swinging from the rafters and walking through walls of scenery, Burnett never sustained a serious injury.
“I never broke anything. But I did get a few bruises,” she explains. “I was never taught how to walk into a wall or jump out of a window. I just kind of did it. But I realized when for example we did the ‘Gone With the Wind’ takeoff, and I had to fall down those stairs three times during the sketch I realized you have to be really loose and flexible. Don’t stiffen up as you’re falling down. Just keep your arms and legs loose is the best way to explain it. Knock on wood I never sprained anything.”
Burnett said she patterned her show on Moore’s, using the “rep company” format, so that everyone had a chance to shine. It wasn’t unusual to have the best punch lines end up with “Vicki or Tim or Harvey because that was best for the sketch. ... It only made the show better because I wanted everyone on my show to score a touchdown,” she said.
Born in Houston, Texas, Burnett says she became Hollywood star-struck around the age of 7 when her family moved to California. She and her grandmother (who raised her) would “save their pennies” and head to the movies every week, sometimes double features, because it was the only entertainment they could afford. It’s one big reason she cherished the chance to have so many show business legends she had seen on the big screen as a little girl eventually do a guest appearance on her show.
When it came to guest stars, Burnett said Linda Darnell, Betty Grable and Bing Crosby were among those who truly left her awestruck. “To grow up and have them as a guest; to have Lana Turner, Mickey Rooney, Rita Hayworth as guests. I grew up watching them and now here they were and I was working with them!”
And then there was Jim Nabors, who became a sort of “good luck charm” for Burnett, she wrote in her book “This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection.” He was a guest on her very first show, and when the episode exploded in the ratings, he guest-starred on the first show of every season after that. They remained close friends until his passing in 2017.
“And my darling Betty White,” Burnett continued, recalling her longtime friend whom she met on the set of “Password” before White and host Allen Ludden were married. “She just had that gene [to be funny]. She was friendly, she was loving, she was smart as a whip.”
Burnett will soon be returning to the small screen in a new comedy series for Apple TV+ called “Mrs. American Pie” with Alison Janney and Kristin Wiig, about a woman (Wiig) who wants to be part of Palm Beach society.
“And I’m the not-terribly-nice matriarch of the bunch. I’m just looking forward into getting into the sandbox with these wonderful women,” Burnett said.