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The Hemi Q&A: Carol Burnett

This month, the foremother of sketch comedy gets her due with a SAG Lifetime Achievement award

Author Phoebe Reilly Photography Hulton-Deutch Collection/Corbis (Burnett, opener)

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Over the last three years, Amy Schumer has broken out as one of the funniest women in America, thanks in large part to her wildly popular sketch-comedy show, Inside Amy Schumer. You could say she’s indebted to many funny women who came before her: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. But the forebear of them all is Carol Burnett. In 1967—right in the middle of the Mad Men era—she became the first woman to get her own sketch comedy program, The Carol Burnett Show, which aired for 12 seasons on CBS. 

Still, the 82-year-old comedian, who will be feted with a Lifetime Achievement award by the Screen Actors Guild later this month, says the likes of Schumer, Fey, and Poehler don’t owe her a thing. “I got my break, and it did kind of open the way for other women to be considered sketch performers,” Burnett says. “But, had I not been born, they’d still be doing what they’re doing.”

Don’t mind Burnett’s modesty. When The Carol Burnett Show premiered (the first five seasons, by the way, were released this past fall in a DVD collection called The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes), the majority of working American women were still relegated to the typing pool. 

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Hemispheres: The story goes that The Carol Burnett Show exists only because a shrewd agent added a clause to your contract for The Garry Moore Show (a popular variety series that aired on CBS from 1958 to 1967) that said if you wanted your own variety show, CBS had to give it a shot. Did you have any hesitation when you ultimately decided to exercise the clause?

Carol Burnett: I never thought I could be the host of a variety show. It was not in my nature to even think along those lines. But then, the last week of the fifth year, when the clause was set to expire, my husband and I put a down payment on a house in California. I’d been kind of … cool. I was not that much in demand, and we had two babies, and we looked at each other and said, “Maybe we better take ’em up on that clause.” So I called one of the vice presidents of CBS in New York and said, “Hi, Merry Christmas. I’m calling to push the button.” And he had no idea what I was talking about. He said, “What?” And I said, “Where I get to do a one-hour variety show? 30 of them?”

Hemispheres: Did you encounter any skepticism or sexism?

Burnett: He tried to talk me out of it by saying, “You know, Carol, comedy variety is not for you gals”—or words to that effect. “It’s Sid Caesar, it’s Milton Berle, it’s Jackie Gleason. We’ve got this great half-hour sitcom that we’d like you to do called Here’s Agnes.” Can you picture it? But because of having all of the experience on The Garry Moore Show, which I loved, I said, “I don’t want to be Agnes every week. I want to sing, I want to move around, I want to do pratfalls, I want to wear fat suits, I want to be different characters.”

Hemispheres: Do you think CBS was rooting for you to fail?

Burnett: They certainly were hoping we would be successful, but they really didn’t have that much faith in us. In fact, when my husband [producer Joe Hamilton] flew back for a meeting with the CBS vice president, he had a bulletin board behind his desk that had little 5 x 7 cards on it that said Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and what hours and which shows would be on. So my husband looked up and saw The Carol Burnett Show on Monday nights in September starting at 10. And then it went to February and there was a big question mark.

Hemispheres: You had Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Steve Martin, Cher, and so many other wonderful talents on your show. Was there any competition to stand out among your peers?

Burnett: No, not at all. Yes, my name was on the show, but I wanted it to be a true rep company. I got that from being on The Garry Moore Show. I remember one time we were doing a table read for his show on a Monday, and there were a couple of jokes that Garry had, and he looked up and said, “No, no, give this to Carol, she can deliver this funnier than I can.” That was Garry. And that’s what I learned from him. Don’t hog it. Let everybody shine. It’s only going to make your show better.

Hemispheres: There have been a lot of changes in television since The Carol Burnett Show went off the air in 1978. What do you think is the biggest?

Burnett: That you can do anything now. Whatever goes goes. Sometimes I’m tired of hearing the F-bomb. Like, OK, all right, can you think of another word?

Hemispheres: Did you have much trouble with the censors back then?

Burnett: Not particularly, but there was this one sketch where I was playing a nudist, and I was behind a fence, and my shoulders were bare, and my legs were bare. And the fence said “Keep Out.” And Harvey [Korman] was interviewing me à la Edward R. Murrow. And at one point he said, “So what do you nudists do for entertainment?” And my line was, “Well, we have dances every Saturday night.” And he said, “Oh? And how do you nudists dance?” And I said, “Very carefully.” I mean, please! But the higher-ups said no. So we came up with one even better. “How do you nudists dance?” Harvey asked. I answered, “Cheek to cheek.”

Hemispheres: Many members of the new generation of female comedians owe something to you. Do you have any favorites?

Burnett: Let me put a little caveat in there: I don’t think they owe me anything. Had I not been born, they’d still be doing what they’re doing. I like the usual suspects—Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. There’s this gal I talk about, her name is Rosemary Watson. She wrote me a fan letter a couple of years ago, a very nice letter, and told me she was on YouTube. She had me on the floor. She does Hillary Clinton better than anyone. If you close your eyes, it’s her. She has her voice down pat. But then she does characters that she’s made up, like a plastic surgeon’s receptionist whose face doesn’t move, which is brilliant. I called her up and told her what a fan I was.

Hemispheres: Amy Schumer has had a huge year. Are you a fan, or does her work skew a little vulgar for your taste?

Burnett: I think she’s hysterically funny. I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, so if it’s really funny and a little blue, that’s fine with me. Going blue just to get a laugh or to shock—that’s lazy.

Hemispheres: I’ve heard that you and Julie Andrews share a ribald sense of humor.

Burnett: Hers is worse than mine. Or, let me say, better than mine.

Hemispheres: Was there ever a point in your career when you doubted your chances of success?

Burnett: This sounds very conceited, but I never had doubts. And I think it’s because I was raised going to movies in the 1940s. There was no cynicism in the movies when I grew up. There was Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and they were going to make it. The bad guys lost. The good guys won. There were happy endings. I never felt I was going to be a star—I hate that word anyway. But I always felt I would be able to earn a living. To pay the rent, buy food, and put clothes on. I never doubted that would happen.

Hemispheres: What was the last thing that made you laugh out loud?

Burnett: My cat, Nikki. When she’s hungry she takes the phone off the hook. I see the red light on and I go, OK. And I go in to where her dish is, and she’s sitting there waiting. Like, Room service, please!

Freelance writer Phoebe Reilly once auditioned for the role of Miss Hannigan in a high school production of Annie—despite being totally tone deaf.

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