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Cracking up with Carol Burnett

The TV Icon talks about her own idols (including Lucille Ball and Sid Caesar), why she dislikes sitcoms (well, except ”Everybody Loves Raymond”), and her variety show’s classic ”Gone With the Wind” parody (which wasn’t her idea)

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Carol Burnett
J. Emilio Flores/Corbis

Today, it’s hard to fathom a prime-time sketch-comedy show running for 11 years, but The Carol Burnett Show did just that from 1967 to 1978. Its memorable moments are legion, from Tim Conway cracking up Harvey Korman to Vicki Lawrence’s Mama cracking wise, from Burnett’s opening Q&A to her closing ear tug. And then, of course, there’s that epic ”Went With the Wind!” send-up of the Civil War classic that climaxed with Burnett as Scarlett emerging with a dress made of drapes, curtain-rod still attached. ”I saw it in the window,” she cooed, ”and I just couldn’t resist it!” And we can’t resist her, especially after sitting down with the TV icon (No. 6 on EW and TV Land’s list of the top TV icons of all time) to talk about how that indelible moment came to be, as well as why she’s never done a traditional sitcom.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What does the whole idea of a ”TV icon” mean to you?
CAROL BURNETT:
I get a little embarrassed saying [in response], ”I’ll call somebody else one, I don’t call me one.” I don’t know if that’s false modesty or what. I guess what comes to mind, if you want to do it in one word, might be longevity. And the fact that the audience can conjure up moments that they like to think about or talk about: ”Hey, do you remember the time Lucy set fire to her nose?” That’s iconic.

As you were doing your show, did you ever feel like you were entering into that kind of territory, like you were carrying a TV comedy torch?
Never thought that, not once. Which is very healthy, because we were living in the moment. We never knew from one season to the next whether [we] were going to be renewed or what. We had no idea what they’re going to throw up against [us]. So that was never, ”Oh, well, we’re carrying a torch.” It was like, ”What are we going to do this week, or next week?” And that was it. That’s about as far into the future as I would think.

So how does it feel now to have people speak of you as an icon?
I’m grateful. If somebody says [something] looks nice on you, don’t say, ”What? This old thing?” [You say,] ”Thank you very much.” But you don’t go anywhere else with that. I still have to go to the grocery store, put gas in the car, put [my] pants on one leg at a time.

Are there any other TV icons you admire?
I got my first break on television with The Garry Moore Show, which was way before your time and a lot of folks’ time. I learned a lot about how to play sketches on Garry’s show. I would never miss watching Sid Caesar [on his variety series, like Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour]. Variety was the thing I loved the most, more than sitcoms, because I loved seeing Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca do take-offs and satire. That’s why I didn’t ever do a sitcom. I always wanted to do take-offs on some of the movies that I grew up with, and you can’t do that on a sitcom.

Why don’t you like sitcoms?
I don’t watch sitcoms, I really don’t. My problem with them is they take so long to film them that there’s no spontaneity. I want to see that. They did have spontaneity, I thought, on Everybody Loves Raymond. They were [performing] right in the moment, and that wasn’t a laugh-track. That was real people [laughing]. It kind of bothers me that they try to pull a wool over your eyes and say, ”Oh, here’s an audience,” and you know they’re long gone.

NEXT PAGE: ”It was one of the longest laughs we’ve ever had on the show. You can see me kind of biting the inside of my cheek, trying not to laugh.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you can tell when someone’s performing with a fresh audience and when they’re not?
CAROL BURNETT:
I can tell. Some sitcoms, if there’s a close-up on an actor, I can almost say, ”Okay, this is probably midnight.” [Laughs] They started around 6 o’clock. The audience was there. The audience left around 8. Everybody’s gone. They’re hungry. The craft services cheese is already molded. And you just know they’re exhausted. ”Okay, the picture was crooked on that wall over there. Let’s fix that. Now, okay, let’s do another retake.” Oh, come on. Seven hours to do [an episode that’s] 22 minutes? We used to do an hour and 20 minute [show] in two hours, with all the music, with all the costume changes, with all the scenery changes. We kept going because I didn’t want that audience to get tired. Because we played to the studio audience, and if they laughed, and we were spontaneous, we knew it would translate to the folks at home watching us between their feet.

How would that spontaneity work when you were planning out your show?
I would go in thinking, ”What will I do? I’ll do Joan Crawford. Yeah I’ll do a take-off on Mildred Pierce.” So the writers would get to work on that, and in three weeks we’d have a sketch on Mildred Pierce. I loved to do Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth. And I had a 20-piece orchestra. I had gorgeous, funny, hysterical costumes by Bob Mackie. Singers, dancers, guest stars, and then our own rep company. I always felt it was important to have the best comedy actors around, because it’s like playing tennis. Your game gets better if the guy you’re playing with is a better tennis player than you are.

For your show, the most iconic image that comes to mind is the ”Went With the Wind!” sketch, and you emerging as Scarlett in a dress made of drapes with the curtain rod still attached.
That I give credit to Bob Mackie. He did about 50 costumes a week. He dressed everybody you ever saw on the screen, including the singers, the dancers, the guest stars, Harvey [Korman], Vicki [Lawrence], Tim [Conway], Lyle [Waggoner], me, and each one of us would be in maybe four or five or six different outfits. I’m not talking about pretty outfits. He would find characters for me. Sometimes I wouldn’t know how I was going to play a character until I knew what she was going to look like. He would design everything from top to bottom. One time, we were doing a take-off on a horror film. Vincent Price was the guest star, and it took place in London in the late-1800s. I was this cockney tart that Vincent Price was going to kidnap and take his mother’s brain and put it into my body. So Bob put me in the outfit and I couldn’t get [the character]. I wasn’t comfortable with her. We were in the dressing room getting ready for rehearsal. He said, ”Back in those days, people didn’t have good teeth. If they ate an apple, they would chip a tooth. Put a little tooth black right here. Don’t black out the whole tooth, just a little chip.” And I did that, I put it on, and all of a sudden I could see her. I figured she would have a lisp because she had a broken tooth, so that gave me my character.

So Bob was really instrumental to the show’s success.
He was a director, he was writer, he could do it all. When we were doing the Gone with the Wind take-off, it had originally been written that Scarlett would come down the stairs with just the draperies hanging [off her]. I went into the costume fitting on that Wednesday, and [Bob] said, ”I have an idea.” He picked up the curtain rod with the dress on it, and I fell on the floor. I said, ”This is one of the most brilliant ideas anybody has ever come up with.” It was one of the longest laughs we’ve ever had on the show. You can see me kind of biting the inside of my cheek, trying not to laugh, before I could say, ”I saw it in the window, and I just couldn’t resist it.” It was a wonderful sketch, anyway, it was written beautifully by two of our junior writers. Wonderful moments in it, like, again, Lucy setting her nose on fire or being in the vat with the stomping out the grapes.