It’s hard to grasp that “The Carol Burnett Show” went off the air more than 40 years ago. That’s especially true when reruns on MeTV and elsewhere, not to mention a steady stream of DVD collections and YouTube clips keep introducing new generations to the movie parodies (“Went With the Wind!”), family-drama spoofs (centering on the endlessly melodramatic Eunice Higgins, forever being upstaged by her cantankerous Mama) and Tarzan yells that made Burnett and her television show a Saturday-night must-see.
“I am getting fan mail from 10-year-olds, from teenagers. It’s so adorable,” says the 86-year-old Burnett, whose career dates back to the late-1950s. Her vast resume includes not only her self-titled variety show, which ran on CBS from 1967-1978, but stints on Broadway (she was Tony-nominated for “Once Upon a Mattress”), the movies (“The Four Seasons,” “Annie”) and guest appearances on TV shows that might surprise you, including an episode of the original “Twilight Zone” and even “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which earned her an Emmy nod.
On July 23, she’ll be bringing one of the most endearing features of her variety show, the spontaneous audience Q&As that kicked off almost every episode, to the Modell Lyric. During a recent phone interview, Burnett talked about what audiences can expect (and what they need to bring with them), life as a comedic icon and memories of the late Tim Conway, a fixture on “The Carol Burnett Show” who specialized in bringing fellow cast member Harvey Korman to unscripted hysterics.
(For extra points, someone should ask Burnett about her Baltimore connections: she got her start on TV in a variety show hosted by Baltimore native Garry Moore, and one of the Emmy-winning writers on “The Carol Burnett Show” was native son Barry Levinson, in the years before he made his movie debut as a writer-director with “Diner.”)
What can your audience expect?
It’s pretty much the same as when I did my show. I do questions and answers, so it’s a conversation with the audience. There are no planned questions at all, it’s all random. So in a way I’m flying without a net, but that’s what makes it more fun.
I open the show with about eight minutes of my favorite clips from the show, the audience questions. And they’re just so funny. That gets the theater audience in the mood. And then I come out, and we put up the lights, as I say, it’s all random. We just have people raise their hand, and I’ll call on them. And we have ushers with microphones strategically placed throughout the audience.
And then we’re off and running.
I always love it when I get a question I haven’t gotten before, that’s always fun.
Do you generally get a couple curve balls thrown at you?
Oh sure. It’s 90 minutes, so I get more than a couple.
Do the questions ever go back to the earliest part of your career, to “The Garry Moore Show,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” things like that?
Not so much, no. But what I’m thrilled about is that, the audiences now, at these shows that I do, they range in age from, say, eight-years-old to 108. Because of our exposure on MeTV and YouTube and the DVDs that Time-Life has put out over the past few years.
I tell this story about, three years ago, I was doing one of these evenings and a little boy in the second row raised his hand, and I called on him.
I asked what’s his name, and he said “Andrew.” And I said, “How old are you, Andrew?” And he said, “Nine.” And I said, “You know who I am?” And there was a pause, and he said, “Surprisingly, yes .” That was so cute.
When you talk about “The Carol Burnett Show,” there are certain bits that always come up – the “Gone With the Wind” parody, some of the Tim Conway sketches, Eunice and ‘Mama’s Family.’ But is there a sketch you remember doing or a character you remember doing that you wish people remembered more fondly, that maybe doesn’t come up in these evenings?
Well, two of my favorites were Mrs. Wiggins, with Tim Conway playing Mr. Tudball, a secretary whom the IQ Fairy never visited. And Eunice. There was a pitifulness about Eunice, and as funny as some of those sketches could be, they were also kind of heart-wrenching, and truthful.
Another one I loved doing was the old lady, Stella Toddler. She was always getting beat up, and I just loved her. Because I loved slapstick, too. Physical comedy, I could do it. I taught myself how to take falls, jump out of windows, walk into walls and stuff like that., For some reason, I loved that a lot.
And I loved doing Charo. And the crazy pigeon lady in the park, who loved tormenting Tim.
How does it feel to be described regularly as a comedy icon?
Old. If somebody’s still alive and still doing stuff, they’re usually called an icon. So it’s not that big a deal.
But when somebody comes and talks about the wonderful memories, of sitting around on a Saturday night with their family and watching the show…
That’s the nicest compliment one can get, I think. And that’s a lost art now. Families don’t really sit around together that much anymore and watch television, they way they did. Everybody’s got a set in their own room or whatever, their iPhone or whatever. It’s just not done that much anymore, and it’s sad.
You must have been affected by the recent passing of Tim Conway; there must be some good Tim Conway stories to tell during the show.
Oh yeah. He was as nice and kind as he was funny. I’ve often said that maybe there have been people as funny as Tim, but I can’t think of anybody funnier than Tim Conway was. He was fearless in his comedy.
Poor Harvey. He prided himself on being a serious comedic actor, but when it came to Tim, he couldn’t control himself…Harvey hated himself for laughing so. But Tim, his goal in life was to get Harvey to laugh, And he succeeded.
Anything you’d like to tell your prospective audience?
Just that I’m looking forward to it, and please come armed with a bunch of questions.
If you go:
Carol Burnett will be appearing at the Modell Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., for “An Evening of Laughter and Reflection” on July 23 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $49-$250. Information: modell-lyric.com.