Carol Burnett is big on punctuality. She always made sure the taping of her legendary sketch comedy show, which aired from 1967 to 1978, did not take longer than necessary.
“It’s because of my theater background, I don’t like to keep an audience waiting,” she said during a recent 40-minute phone interview which started right on time. “We did quick scene changes. We did quick costume changes. I wanted the audience to stay alert, not bored.”
So please be on time come Monday, March 25 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Burnett will be on stage at 7:30 p.m. sharp. She won't be waiting for stragglers. You can get tickets here. (She did two similar Q&A shows at Cobb in 2016.)
Burnett said she has done guest spots on sitcoms that theoretically air for 22 minutes but take five hours to tape.
“It’s not necessary,” she said. “Trying to nitpick and make everything so perfect. It runs it into the ground. It’s so long, the guys need to shave again.”
In comparison, the hour-long “Carol Burnett Show” took maybe 75 minutes to tape, tops, she said: “I used to bet the stagehands if I could change my costume faster than they could move a sofa across the stage.”
This gave her an excuse to wax nostalgic about her costume designer Bob Mackie's amazing outfits, which she said rarely tore or caused any issue during her rapid changes.
“He made beautiful stuff,” she said. “I’d borrow stuff to go out to nice events. I still have a closet of some of his beaded jackets. They are 30-40 years old and still look amazing. I’d wear them over some dark turtleneck and skirt. People think it’s new. They’re timeless. ”
Burnett has been justifiably feted many times over the years, from Kennedy City Honors (2003) to the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (2013) to a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award (2016).
Last year, she was told by the Golden Globes they would be giving a new lifetime achievement TV award and she would be the first one to receive it. “I was flattered,” she said. But then she found out they were naming the award after her and she was bowled over.
During her Golden Globes speech, she said there is no way “The Carol Burnett Show” could happen in 2019, in part because of cost.
If cost were no object, she said it might be possible. But she said part of the magic of her show was the cast and she doubts she would have been able to hire someone as inexperienced as Vicki Lawrence, who was all of 18 when she started on the show in 1967. Burnett also wasn't sure Harvey Kormen was a big enough star either for today's executives to say yes.
Burnett appreciated that legendary CBS titan William Paley gave her the space to be creative and do her show without interference. "We never got a note from the network," she aid. The show's immediate high ratings and non-political bent certainly helped. She has seen shows today getting "nitpicked to death" by the suits. (That's why in part she felt a revival of her show in 1991 didn't work out.)
But over the years, CBS has aired several specials about “The Carol Burnett Show,” the most recent a 2017 50th anniversary retrospective, which pulled in more than 16 million viewers.
Burnett loved when Harry Connick Jr. came out and noted that he was born the day her show premiered: September 11, 1967. He then sang her theme song at the piano: "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together."
She said Connick's an old soul who would have fit right in on her show, along the likes of Bernadette Peters, who showed up on the anniversary show as well.
Given Burnett’s comedic skills, she could have gone the sitcom route (“Everybody Loves Carol!”) but wasn’t interested then.
“And I’m not interested now,” she said. “With everybody having their say so, trying to make their jobs important, it would drive me crazy!”
She remains friends with Lawrence, who is now on a Fox sitcom "The Cool Kids," which also features Leslie Jordan, Martin Mull and David Alan Grier. "It's so good to see her doing that," Burnett said. "They have great chemistry. She's having fun. I saw her not too long ago at an L.A. Press Club event. We played catch up. We email and occasionally get together and have dinner." Would Burnett guest star on "Cool Kids"? "We've talked about it," she said. "I told her if I go, they better only take an hour to tape because I'm not to sit around anymore. She told them that. I haven't been asked."
Last year, Burnett hosted a fun show on Netflix called "A Little Help With Carol Burnett" where she brought in celebrities such a Taraji P. Henson, Mark Cuban and Lisa Kudrow to get advice from young kids on topics such as juggling priorities, how to keep a marriage strong and dealing with a daughter's dating suitors.
“I like kids,” said Burnett, who has three daughters. “I get along with them. We pitched it to Netflix and they said yes.” And since she was dealing with five to nine year olds, the producers had no choice but to keep the schedules Burnett-level tight.
“It was all improv, no script,” she said. “It’s also the right age where they aren’t censoring themselves. It just comes out. By the time they hit 10 or 11, they start to think too much. These kids were terrific.”
The sweetest part? Burnett tugs her ear at the end of the show like she did on “The Carol Burnett Show,” an homage to her grandmother. A couple of the kids noticed and asked her about it, which she thought was adorable.
The Dick Clark Production company created the show. Clark, she noted, was big on game shows and she loved participating in them back in the 1970s. Her favorite was “Password.”
"I was really good at it, along with Elizabeth Montgomery, of "Bewitched" fame, she said. "They'd have me, Elizabeth and Allen Ludden for championship rounds."
If you go to the Cobb show, she will show some clips and relate some stories but mostly take questions, a format she said “works. I have no pre-planned questions ever. Because of MeTV, YouTube and DVDs, we now have audiences range from 9 to 90. I get fan mail from 10 year olds and teenagers.”
At age 85, Burnett is healthy and mentally sharp.
A typical Burnett day involves her doing both the L.A. Times and New York Times crossword puzzles. “That’s kind of my meditation in the morning,” she said. “I go for a walk. My husband and I go over mail. On certain days, I got to a chiropractor. I have a pilates instructor. I got out with friends and have dinner. It’s really nice and quiet.”
And Burnett does not dwell on death.. “Like most people, I would like to die quickly. Thank you. I don’t want to hang on and linger, not only for my own sake but for my loved ones.”
Carol Burnett: An evening of laughter and reflection where the audience asks questions
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.