Carol Burnett, take two -- The comedian relaunches her popular '70s variety show

Carol Burnett is tugging at her earlobe, screwing an uncooperative earring into position, and moving briskly past Stage 33 in the CBS Television City studio complex. People are waiting for her; she hates being late. In a barren rehearsal room sit seven young actors and actresses — her newly hired ensemble of comic performers. They bounce their knees like curious first graders eager for a glimpse of their new teacher. Photographers, aides, publicists, costumers, and makeup artists bustle about, leaving efficient little trails of fruit platters, light meters, and mascara brushes. Nearby, three visitors sporting powder-blue leisurewear and oversize plastic name tags cluster expectantly.

”These are the stars of the Grand Ole Opry, who are here to tape a special segment of Family Feud,” their emissary says to Burnett’s assistant. ”And they are sooo honored to be working on the same stage as Miss Burnett. Could they possibly be allowed to say hello to her?”

And then Burnett, costumed in the dressing gown of a Sunset Strip hooker, totters in with comic grandeur. She picks up a mirror and narrows her eyes. ”Thinks she’s Kathleen Turner,” says Burnett, gazing grimly at her own reflection. ”Looks more like Ike.”

Carol Burnett has always known how to make an entrance — and when to make an exit. In 1978, when CBS requested a 12th season of her fading but still popular Carol Burnett Show, she politely folded her tent. ”My view is leave before they ask you to.” Last spring she decided she’d had enough of her modestly successful NBC comedy-anthology series Carol & Company after less than two years. ”It just wasn’t joyful,” she says. ”It had become generic.”

So what is she doing back on Stage 33, nearly 25 years after The Carol Burnett Show first appeared? The Carol Burnett Show — again. A variety hour, that rigged-for-failure relic of a rusty TV genre. Wooed by CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky, she is starring — beginning Nov. 1 — in the kind of series that hasn’t succeeded since, well, The Carol Burnett Show. Don’t tell her: She has heard it all.

”In essence, I’m fighting my own past,” she says. ”No matter what we do, people will say it’s not as good as it was. I know this will get a lot of attention because of my having been a variety performer, and I wish it wouldn’t. I wish they would just let us be.”

There’s no chance of that. Burnett’s return to the format that made her TV’s most popular sketch comedienne is too important. It is important to CBS, which has given The Carol Burnett Show the cherished Friday-at-nine time slot long occupied by Dallas. It is important to those who wish to eradicate the TV curse that says: Know when to quit, or you’ll wind up getting humiliated the way Lucille Ball did. And it’s important to Burnett, who, at 58, has reached an awkward age: She’s too old to blow her hall-of-fame status (even if her new show bombs, nobody’s going to take away her five Emmys or eight Golden Globes), but she’s too young and creatively ambitious to sit around collecting lifetime achievement awards, testimonials, and Entertainment Tonight birthday greetings like so many pension checks. So, stubbornly, she has gone back to what she does best: Sketches. Clowning. Slapstick. Connecting with an audience. Variety.

”I know people will say, oh, that’s what she did before. But yeah, because that’s what I do. I realized how much I missed music, how much I missed kicking up my heels, how much I missed reading something in the newspaper and taking off on it. When Leona Helmsley happened, when Zsa Zsa Gabor happened…” As she runs down the list, you can picture the shrewd, skewed impersonations: Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons, Kathy Bates in Misery, Tammy Faye Bakker in misery. ”Oh, God,” she recalls thinking last spring, ”would I love to be having fun with a group of sketch artists and play. Just play.”

But can she? It has been a lifetime since Burnett first walked onto Stage 33. ”We were opposite I Spy and The Big Valley,” she says, instantly reliving jitters over the competition she faced in 1967, ”and we did okay.” Her affection for the era of television her old series represented is tremendous. ”Mr. Paley had faith in us,” she says of CBS’ founder. ”They gave you more time to learn and make mistakes. And the pool of talent was extraordinary. When we taped, the Smothers Brothers were across the hall. Sonny and Cher would be next door. Bill Cosby had a variety show. Glen Campbell. Perry Como was doing specials. And (at NBC) were Dean Martin, Flip Wilson, and Laugh-In.” And since then? ”Thank God for In Living Color and Tracey Ullman,” she says. ”They’re the only ones.”

Therein is the conundrum: If Carol Burnett can mention Sonny Bono and Tracey Ullman with equal warmth, which fondness will win out? Will her show be a creaky retread or a smart contemporizing of her strengths? That’s a question Burnett ponders as she develops the 1991 model of The Carol Burnett Show. ”I don’t think we can do big production numbers with singers and dancers anymore,” she says. ”Those may have too much of a ’70s look. But as far as being hip” — a word she expels with genteel distaste — ”look at The Naked Gun. It has the most obvious, wonderful old gags, but it’s hip, so it’s new. No, it’s new, so it’s hip. No, it’s funny, so it’s hip, which makes it new. You know?”

Never mind. She knows, and she has assembled a formidable staff (”the hottest writing team in town,” says In Living Color producer Tamara Rawitt) to help her achieve it. Sixteen writers and half a dozen producers — including some of Saturday Night Live‘s most respected veterans — will decide what works and what doesn’t, and so will Burnett, who as an executive producer will have a strong hand in her show’s content. And the tentative guest list, so far, is impressive: Roseanne and Tom Arnold, Sandra Bernhard, Aaron Neville, John Candy, Danny Glover, Jane Curtin.

”If Carol went out and did the same show she was doing in 1977, then it would be endangered,” says Martin Short, who appeared on last week’s premiere. ”But she’s not doing that. The sketches I participated in were really sharp, very well written. And Carol was hysterical.”

But Burnett isn’t smiling yet. Eating a fast lunch in her dressing room, she is warm and engaging, but essentially serious. When she speaks of her 11-year run on CBS, she refers to it almost shyly as ”the Burnett show” — as if that Carol, of the Tarzan yells and whooping laugh and good-natured banter, the one who wore a curtain rod across her shoulders as Starlet O’Hara and outcamped Joan Crawford as Mildred Fierce, was a world away from the serene, thoughtful woman who runs the show now.

In a sense, she probably is. The Carol Burnett who was raising three daughters when her show aired has now seen them grow up and move into their own adult lives. Once married to her producer (Joe Hamilton, who died this summer), Burnett has lived independently since their divorce seven years ago. She has written One More Time, a well-received 1986 memoir about her rocky upbringing, starred in dramatic TV movies, and found sporadic big-screen roles (including one in next spring’s slamming-door farce Noises Off). She is probably in better physical shape than she was 20 years ago, with as much energy and as little body fat as an Olympic swimmer.

She has also developed an athlete’s mental toughness. Once afflicted with a fear of causing distress that she has termed ”People Pleaser’s Disease,” she is, tentatively, calling her own shots. ”You know what I’m finding out?” she says. ”I can say no and people won’t die. I’m not really powerful enough to kill anybody if I hurt their feelings. Sometimes I revert to old patterns and try not to say anything that will upset anybody, but I’m learning.”

Burnett once said that if she hadn’t gone into show business, she would have made a fine executive secretary. Her approach to work — rigorously organized but not obsessive — bears out that assessment. ”I’m a workhorse,” she says. ”But it’s not all-consuming. You have to go grocery shopping, you have to go out on a date, go to a movie, read a book.” When the curtain rises on each taping night, Burnett and her company of actors will work hard at playing, but within limits. ”When the audience sees it, they’ll know we didn’t stay up until five in the morning to make it perfect,” says Burnett. ”Perfect is not the fun of television. If something goes wrong and the gang starts to roll with it, that’s where your gold is.”

So CBS will get its 12th season of The Carol Burnett Show after all — 13 years late. And Burnett will try to escape the expectations game and her own long shadow to have some fun. She will reluctantly turn up on Regis and Kathie Lee and Arsenio and Dave to promote it. (”It embarrasses me to show clips,” she says. ”I’m not a very good salesman.”) And then she’ll let the Nielsens take their course, without apology. ”This show,” she says calmly, ”may absolutely go right down the tubes. But I’m not going to stop being who I am. What I’ve trained in my whole life has been dress-up-doing silly stuff, doing sophisticated stuff, sometimes pretending to be famous people and sometimes making them up. How well is it written? How well is it performed? That’s what variety is and what it can still be.”