Despite running on air for 11 years, garnering tremendous popular and critical acclaim and winning 25 Primetime Emmy Awards and 8 Golden Globes, “The Carol Burnett Show” has been frustratingly difficult to see for the past several decades. Fortunately, that all changed this week when Time Life released a six-disc DVD box set entitled “The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes,” which has finally made all the episodes from the first five seasons of the variety show available for the first time since their initial broadcast. To celebrate the release, the Paley Center For Media welcomed the beloved entertainer back to the stage last night to share her insights and personal anecdotes about these “lost episodes.”
While many of these early episodes have been difficult to find, that is not to say that the groundbreaking variety show’s influence has waned. On the contrary, we continue to reap the benefits of the transformative variety show, through the work of the countless comedians, inspired by Burnett, who shape today’s comedic landscape. Comedians such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Bill Hader have been extremely vocal about how influential Burnett’s bold and brazen show was to them. One such protegé, Ellie Kemper (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “The Office”) moderated the lively talk with Burnett.
Speaking to Indiewire before the event, Kemper noted how well the show has held up, saying, “What’s so genius about her comedy is it’s timeless. I think at the time it crossed generations and I think that right now watching it, I mean I was watching on my laptop by myself cracking up, so it’s a testament to how great it is.” After a slightly nervous Kemper gently began the event with, “So we’re just going to have a conversation,” Carol Burnett quipped to the audience, “Don’t listen in,” confirming that she has not lost one ounce of her comedic edge.
Here are some highlights from the “Paley Live: Carol Burnett Showcases Her ‘Lost Episodes'” event.
On Her Big Break With the Secretary of State
After the manager of the Blue Angel Nightclub told a 24-year-old Carol Burnett to find new material, she and her vocal coach Ken Welch looked to the Elvis Presley craze that was sweeping the nation. “At the time, our Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles, who was aptly named,” Burnett joked. “So Kenny came up with this idea, ‘Okay, what if you use this young girl and instead of going crazy over Elvis, she has the hots for John Foster Dulles.’ He wrote this song ‘I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles.'”
Burnett recounted, “I was asked to do it on the Jack Paar show. That was Tuesday night, August 7. I sang it and then I went back to do the midnight show at the Blue Angel, and the phones were ringing off the hook. There was a call from a man from Washington DC named David Waters who was Mr. Dulles’ television advisor. He said Mr. Dulles didn’t see it, and could I go back on the Paar show again. So I went back and I sang it Thursday night, then Ed Sullivan called and I sang it Sunday night.”
Wrapping the story up, Burnett said, “A week later, I was home and I was watching ‘Meet the Press’ that Sunday, and Mr. Dulles was on. They’re talking about world problems and the whole thing, and the last question before it was over, this guy said, ‘One more question. What’s going on between you and that young girl who sings that love song about you?’ And he said, ‘I make it a policy never to discuss matters of the heart in public [laughs].'”
On the Unbelievable Encounter That Brought Her to Broadway
Burnett made it to Broadway in the unlikeliest of scenarios. After performing a scene from “Annie Get Your Gun” at a black tie party in San Diego, a gentleman offered up the money to help the young Burnett and her boyfriend get to New York to be on Broadway. She first thought it was just the champagne talking, but Burnett still remembers the complete stranger’s words to her: “I’m going to lend you the money to go to New York on. These are the stipulations: You must use this money to go to New York; if you can, pay it back within five years, no interest; you must promise to help others out the way as I’ve helped you or give them a leg up somehow; you must never reveal my name.”
Burnett continued, “He wrote up two $1000 checks and gave one to Don and one to me. I’d never seen that many zeroes in my life.” As promised, she has never revealed his name.
On What She Learned From “The Gary Moore Show”
Despite having to reject the sitcom that CBS wanted to give her, and having to fight to become primetime television’s first woman with her own comedy variety show, Burnett remarked that her show had a rather seamless start, partially due to what she learned from “The Gary Moore Show.” Burnett noted, “Actually, it was wonderful because a lot of the same people that were on ‘The Gary Moore Show’ came out to do my show. So it was well-oiled, we knew what we were doing, we just fell right into the same rehearsal patterns and everything. There weren’t many growing pains at all.”
Expanding on the impact of her old boss, Burnett said, “Gary Moore was one of the most terrific human beings I ever knew in my life. He was so generous and kind and he ran a great show. When we would be at a table reading on a Monday, the first time we read the script, if he had a joke, he would say, ‘You know what, give that joke to Durwood Kirby, he can say it better than I can, he’ll get a bigger laugh. Give this to Carol over here.’ That’s what I learned from Gary. If you let your people shine, it’s only going to make your show better.”
On Bob Mackie, the Unsung Hero of “The Carol Burnett Show”
After screening a clip of “As the Stomach Turns,” featuring Harvey Korman in full drag as the massive Mother Marcus, Burnett gave credit to the show’s costume designer, Bob Mackie, for being one of the show’s most vital, yet unheralded, assets.
“He did every costume you saw on the screen — 60-70 costumes a week. He created everything all of us wore, everything I wore. The guest stars, the dancers, the singers, everybody. He created all of that in one week,” Burnett marveled. “I work from the outside in. It helps me to know what I’m gonna look like and be dressed in. I can then become that character. There were times when my costume fittings were on Wednesdays and we were gonna tape on Fridays and he would come up with stuff, and I’d put it on and then say, ‘Oh, that’s who she is.'”
Regarding the now-classic curtain dress from the show’s “Gone With the Wind” parody, Burnett said Mackie “got the idea of the curtain rod. And I said this is gonna be one of the greatest sight gags in the history of television. And it was. It’s now in the Smithsonian.”
On Trusting Her Guest Stars
Over the show’s 11-year run, Burnett had an incredible array of guests, including Lucille Ball, Bob Newhart, Bernadette Peters and young talents such as Joan Rivers and George Carlin. The key to getting the most out of them and to keep them coming back was trust.
“We would try to incorporate guest stars. When we would have a guest star on our show, we’d try to have them all throughout the show,” she said. “For instance, if you had Steve Lawrence on the show, of course he was a brilliant sketch comedian, instead of just seeing if he’s going to have a song and that’s the last we’ll see of him until the finale, no, we wanted to put him in sketches.”
“I even used Ray Charles in a sketch once,” Burnett continued. “All I had to do was tell him the lines a couple of times and he knew what he was doing. He got a kick out out of it because nobody had ever used him in a sketch before. They’d just say, ‘Here’s Ray Charles’ and he sings.”
When asked if she ever got nervous around her heroes, Burnett replied, “I wasn’t intimidated, but I was in awe. You know, everybody goes to the bathroom. But I was in awe. Working with Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner.”
On the Origins of Her Classic Question and Answer Segment
“The Carol Burnett Show” is celebrated for its liveliness and its spontaneity. Burnett gave the audience the origin story for perhaps the show’s most famous unscripted segment, the Question and Answer portion that preceded each night’s episode. She remembers her producer Bob Banner saying one night, “You know Carol, you’re gonna be doing all these different characters with fright wigs and fat suits and blacking out your teeth and doing all kinds of crazy stuff. It would be very important for the audience to get to know your first. Instead of having a warm-up guy come out and tell a bunch of jokes to the audience, why don’t you go out and warm up the audience by taking questions and answering, but we’ll tape it?”
Burnett remembers that initially, “I really balked big time. I was scared. First I was scared nobody would ask anything. And then I was scared they would and I couldn’t come up with a snappy answer or something. The first time I come out, there’s no play-on or anything, it just comes up on gawky me and I’m saying, ‘Hi, welcome everybody. Gosh, you have any questions?’ I was terrified. Nobody raised their hands for a moment because they didn’t know. And then finally some kind soul said, ‘Who’s on?’ And I was so grateful.”
After a while, people got the hang of the segment, and “they would come in and be ready with questions. But we never had a plant in the audience.” Speaking to the power of improvisation, Burnett said that the segment became one of her favorite things to do, because it was totally off the cuff and ad libbed.
Carol Teaches the Crowd How to Do the Tarzan Yell
When a diehard fan asked Burnett to teach us her famous Tarzan yell, Burnett enlightened us: “It’s a yodel. I did it for Beverly and she said that’s a great vocal exercise.” After performing the yell to rapturous applause, the entire audience practiced in unison.
“I have a theory about the body. When you can do stuff like that, you can vent and you feel so much better after. I am not a person who yells or vents at all, but I always felt so good after I had done the Tarzan yell, after I had done Charo, after I had screamed as Eunice in ‘The Family.’ Your body doesn’t know when you’re acting,” said Burnett.
Burnett, 82, already a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, adds to her impressive tally this January, when she is set to receive the Screen Actors Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award.