The Debra Messing, Carol Burnett interview: Mrs. Wiggins and Eunice, her friendship with Lucy, and more
Messing and Burnett talk The Carol Burnett Show, her friendships with Lucille Ball and Julie Andrews, the women she thinks are funny, and more.
"Well, I’m just sorry that all of this has happened because you and I were one day going to have dinner together," Burnett recalls of their plans.
"I was so heartbroken. I was like, noooooo!" says the Will & Grace star with a laugh.
There are lots of those over the course of their one-hour phone call (with Messing at her Manhattan home and Burnett some 2,900 miles away at hers in Santa Barbara, Calif.), as Messing interviews her comedy idol about The Carol Burnett Show — now available to stream in full for the first time across Shout! Factory TV platforms, including Amazon Prime Video and Roku — her own comedy inspirations, and female friends in the biz.
Running 11 seasons on CBS, the iconic sketch comedy series, a precursor to Saturday Night Live, collected 25 Emmys over its run from 1967-1978, including Outstanding Comedy-Variety or Music Series and for its supporting cast of Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, and Harvey Korman. The show racked up another eight Golden Globes, five of those for Burnett in the Best Actress in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy category. All thanks in part to spoofs of movies — Gone With the Wind, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, Sunset Boulevard, National Velvet, and many more — as well as enormously popular recurring characters, such as Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins, the Charwoman, the Family (which went on to become the Lawrence-starring sitcom Mama's Family), and the Oldest Man, as well as commercial parodies and one-off hits, such as the dentist sketch starring Conway and Korman.
Read on for a condensed version of their conversation.
DEBRA MESSING: I am so excited to talk to you. I am beside myself. I have all of these questions and you can just tell me to shut up because I could be here for five hours. [Laughs] I am so excited to talk to you! My parents watched your show religiously when I was a little girl. I grew up in Rhode Island in the woods, on four acres of land in evergreens. The nearest gas station was eight miles away, our driveway was a quarter of a mile long. We were isolated, and my parents watched your show religiously, and as a little girl, I was mesmerized. Your show was pure joy — the broad physical comedy, the crazy sight gags, the movie [spoofs]. Seeing you all break and laugh at each other was the highlight. It just felt like we were watching a bunch of friends playing together.
CAROL BURNETT: Aw. Thank you.
MESSING: You were the first woman in history to headline a musical comedy sketch show on television. Were you aware of how history-making your show was when you began?
BURNETT: Not at all. [Laughs] The thing was, my first big break on television was The Garry Moore Show, where I was the second banana. Garry was the star, and then Durward Kirby and Marion Lorne and I were the second bananas, and it was just such fun because we were able to do a musical comedy review every week and be different characters and have different costumes and stuff. So when I got the chance to do the variety show...I had a contract with CBS that was very unusual. It allowed me to do 30 variety hours, comedy/variety hours, and they had to put it on the air if I wanted to do it, whether they wanted to or not. [Laughs]
MESSING: Oh my God! How old were you?
BURNETT: I was 33.
MESSING: Oh my God. CBS will never make that deal ever again! [Laughs]
BURNETT: [Laughs] It was unbelievable! But I had it in the contract and when I told them I wanted to exercise that clause, they had forgotten because it had been a few years since the contracts had been signed. And they said, "Well, you know, Carol, comedy/variety is a man's game."
BURNETT: [Laughs] There was Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle. And then it was Dean Martin. And they said — I remember this — they said, “It's not for you gals.”
MESSING: Oh my gosh.
BURNETT: It’s funny, I didn’t take it…I didn’t…okay, that's what they felt. It didn't upset me. Then they said they wanted me to do a sitcom – I’ll never forget it – called Here’s Agnes. Oh. God. Can you picture it? Anyway… [Laughs] I said, “I don't want to be Agnes every week, I want to be different people. I want to have a [repertory] company like Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason had. I want music. I want guest stars. I want singing, dancing. The whole nine yards.” And they had to put us on the air, but they gave us 30 shows — 30 — and so I figured, well, okay, so we had 30 shows, at least we'll have that. I remember before the first taping the audience was waiting and Harvey and Lyle and Vicki and I — Tim wasn’t a regular at that time — had a Kumbaya moment and we said, “You know what? We can't predict anything, but let's just go out there and have a ball.” We debuted opposite I Spy and The Big Valley, which were pretty big shows. That’s where they put us, but we survived and, eventually, they moved us to the wonderful Saturday lineup that was really terrific. All in the Family and M*A*S*H and [The Mary Tyler Moore Show] and [The Bob Newhart Show], and then us. That was really something because back then there were no VCRs or TiVo or anything like that. Everybody stayed home and watched the show, and also there were only three channels, so all of us had over 30 million viewers every week, which was amazing.
MESSING: So what came first? Did the creation of the character come first? The site gag ideas? Did they come from improv?
BURNETT: I was raised with my grandmother going to the movies, which is one of the things that I always loved to do. I would go to the movies with her and with my best friend from school. Then we'd come home and we'd play out the movies that we'd see. So when I got the show, wow, to be able to do that and have costumes and sets and music and everything, it was a gift! I love that. But, for instance, I would go into the head writer and I'd say, “I'd love to do a take-off on Mildred Pierce.” So the writers would watch Mildred Pierce and then they come up with the skit, and it's one of my favorite ones. And same thing with Gone With the Wind, Double Indemnity, and all of those. As far as other things, Tim Conway created Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins. That was Tim. He originally wrote Mrs. Wiggins to be this kind of doddering old lady, and I went into costume fittings on Wednesday with Bob Mackie and Bob said, “You know, I'm doing a lot of old ladies lately. Let's make her into this blonde bimbo whom the IQ Fairy never visited.” [Laughs] So he created that look and then he put me in this funny top with the push-up bra. And then the skirt was baggy in the behind and tight at the knees. And I said, “Bob, I'm flat back there. You're gonna have to take it in.” And he said, “No, stick your butt into it.” And I did and that’s how her walk was created. So lots of times I didn't know how I was going to do something until I knew what Bob was going to dress me in.
MESSING: One of my favorite sketches is the Gone With the Wind spoof, and I was wondering if the writers had written that in the costume or… was that Bob Mackie?
BURNETT: Yeah, they had written that I would come down the stairs with the draperies just hanging on me. And Bob had this great sense of humor. He was like, “That’s not as funny as it can be.” So when I got in [for the costume fitting] that week, he said, “I’ve got an idea,” and I went into the room and there it was on a dummy. I said, “Oh my God, that is going to go down as one of the greatest sight gags in the history of television.”
MESSING: [Laughs] Of all time.
BURNETT: Yeah. That [dress] is in The Smithsonian.
MESSING: Your first Emmy Award was for The Garry Moore Show, right?
MESSING: What was that night like for you when they called your name?
BURNETT: Oh my! [Laughs] It was surreal. I didn't expect it. I really didn't. I think it was for Variety Performance, so it included men and women. And I think Lena Horne had done some variety thing and Judy Garland, and it might have been Danny Kaye.
MESSING: Oh my God! [Laughs]
BURNETT: So I did not expect it. It was a very pleasant shock, I have to say.
MESSING: My other favorites were Eunice and Mama playing the board game Sorry! — that always made me cry. And, obviously, Tim Conway as the novice dentist, treating Harvey Korman and stabbing himself with the Novocaine. Mrs. Wiggins. Norma Desmond. I could go on and on. What were your favorite characters to play?
BURNETT: I think Eunice and the movie [spoofs]. Wiggins, I loved doing her. She was tough, though, because Tim, a lot of times, he would try to throw me because he’d come up with lines that he never did in rehearsal. And so I realized, as Mrs. Wiggins I can't laugh because she's so stupid. She has no idea of a sense of humor, so I used to put my little finger in my mouth as if I'm chewing on my nail [but] I was chewing on my finger to keep from laughing.
MESSING: So you decided after 11 seasons and mantles full of Emmy Awards and Golden Globe Awards to end the show, and then you went on to do critically acclaimed dramatic work in the TV movie Friendly Fire. How long after the show wrapped did you feel you were ready and hungry to do comedy again?
BURNETT: I never thought I wouldn't. It was just kind of surprising that I got the Friendly Fire script. Comedy is my first love. I enjoyed doing Friendly Fire, so don't get me wrong: You can do comedy. And you can do drama. We've all got it in us. It's just, we need to get the offers. But I just like the feedback of a live audience. Making movies… it depends. I had a great time working for [Robert] Altman. He was the best. I just felt like I was doing my show again, because he would encourage us to improvise. We were doing the movie called A Wedding. There were 50 of us in the cast and he got us all together and he said, “Look, if any of you have an idea for a line or a scene in this, come to me. I want to hear it. Some of my best ideas have come from actors.” Did you ever hear of a director saying that?
BURNETT: He said, “I'll either say, 'Yes, that's great, we'll do it,' or I'll say, 'No, I don't think that's right but don't let it keep you from coming to me with an idea.'”
MESSING: You were very poor growing up in San Antonio, but your grandmother took you to see all the movies. Who were your idols?
BURNETT: Oh wow. Betty Grable. Judy Garland. And a beautiful actress called Linda Darnell. She was from Texas. Yeah, she was beautiful. And I got her autograph once when my grandmother and I were hanging over the ropes at a premiere on Hollywood Boulevard to watch all the movie stars coming in. I think I was 9 years old. She came walking by and my grandmother, who was not shy [laughs], says, “Linda! Linda! This girl just loves you. Give her your autograph!” She did and she was so sweet.
MESSING: Who did you think was funny?
BURNETT: I loved Abbott and Costello. And I thought Danny Kaye was funny in his movies. And I love the way he could do all the singing with a double-talk and all that. Mostly I was in love with the musicals, and anything Jimmy Stewart was in.
MESSING: Okay, this is a question I want to know: The entertainment industry has historically been male-dominated, and I would love to know which women, your contemporaries, were a source of support and friendship for you?
BURNETT: Well, when I started out on television with being a comedian, there was [Lucille Ball] and Imogene Coca. That was it. I remember, oh my God, the second night of Once Upon a Mattress, my big Off Broadway break — we had opened the night before — and Lucy came. And I was more nervous that she was in the audience than I was the night before with all the critics. And we were a hit and everything, and then afterwards she came back to my funky, Off Broadway dressing room, and she visited with me for 25, 30 minutes. She called me "kid" because she was 22 years older than I. And she would say, “Kid, if you ever need me for anything, call me. Don't hesitate to call me.” So about four years later I was doing pretty well, and CBS had offered me a special — an hour special — if I could get a major guest star. So the producer said, “You should call Lucy.” And I was like, “Ohhh, I don't want to bother her.” He said, “Well, she said.... All she can do is politely say, 'I can't.'” So I got up the nerve and I called her and she got on the phone right away — I called her office — and she said, “Hey, kid, you're doing great. What's happening?” And I was blubbering. “I, uh, I, I don’t want to bother you. I’m doing this special…” And she said, “Wait a minute. When do you want me?” So, she did the special with me, and we became very close friends.
She gave me a baby shower for my second daughter, but it was the funniest baby shower ever. It was in the evening at her home, black tie with men and women.... And at the time she was married to Gary Morton, who was a comedian, and he opened all the baby gifts and was doing riffs on all the baby gifts. It was just hysterical.
MESSING: You also did a special with Julie Andrews, right?
BURNETT: Oh, I did three.
MESSING: How did you meet?
BURNETT: A friend of hers knew me also. He was an agent, and he said, “You two guys have to meet each other. There's something about the two of you.” So, he brought her to see me in Mattress, and afterwards we went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, a late dinner. And also the producer of Garry’s show was with us. So the two men were sitting there, and Julie and I never shut up. We just kept talking. It was like we knew each other from the get-go. And so then she did The Garry Moore Show, and we did a number at the end of the finale, “Big D” (from the musical The Most Happy Fella), where we were dressed like cowboys and we were taping, the studio audience was there, and it's the only time — first time, I think — a studio audience watching a television show gave us a standing ovation.
BURNETT: Yeah, it was just unheard of. And so then the idea came that we should do a special together at Carnegie Hall. But nobody wanted it. CBS didn't want it. They said, “Nobody knows who Julia Andrews is west of New York.” She was in My Fair Lady but had not done movies or much television, and Carol, they can see her every week so what's the big deal. So I was at a luncheon with the affiliates of CBS, and I don't know how I got the nerve — I was sitting there with [CBS vice president of programming] Mike Dann and [CBS vice president of network programs] Oscar Katz and Garry — and I said, “Gee, I'm sorry you guys don't want to do a show. Maybe Julie and I should go to NBC because they have color now.” [Laughs] So anyway, they were fine and now we walk outside and it's pouring rain, coming down in buckets. So Mike Dann and Oscar said, “We'll wait here for you until you can get a cab.” I said, “I'll be fine. Somebody's going to come by and offer me a ride.” I was so bold. Not only had I said that, a beer truck pulled up and the driver said, “Hey, Carol, do you want a lift?” And they helped me up into the cab of the beer truck. The guy took me home. I had an apartment on Central Park South. And as I'm going into my apartment, the phone is ringing and it's Oscar Katz and he said, “You've got your show.”
MESSING: Obviously, you're considered a trailblazer with your TV show. Who are the people who came after you that you paid particular attention to, who you thought were also groundbreaking in their kind of comedy?
BURNETT: Well, I’m more interested in people who are sketch performers, or like you guys with Will & Grace. That was very funny, funny, funny. All of you were brilliantly funny. And that appealed to me more than stand-up. I can admire stand-up, but that's not my thing. So I'm always more interested in how people who are in a scene together are funny. When I was getting my start it was Lucy and Imogene Coca. Now there’s Tina Fey, Amy [Poehler], Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon and Jane Lynch and Maya Rudolph. All those sketch performers. And also, it's wonderful that they have their own production companies. Lucy had one and she was a trailblazer in that instance. And now there are so many of them. Even people like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman have these larger production companies and I think it's great. So there are a lot of women. Well, you're among them, Debra.
MESSING: Well, I'm not a sketch performer, but...
BURNETT: But the point is, you know how to get a laugh. Whether it’s in a sketch or in a scene, however you want to label it, you have timing, and that you're born with. You can improve upon it, but you can't just say, “Okay, yeah, I know timing,” and then do it. You're born with it.
MESSING: Well, you changed my life. The Carol Burnett Show, seeing a woman lead a show, being bold and brave and courageous and goofy and a chameleon — it made me believe that wanting to do that too wasn't a pipe dream, that it wasn't impossible.
BURNETT: Right, absolutely.
MESSING: And it wasn't just that show. I mean, Miss Hannigan in the film version of Annie, I played Annie in high school.
BURNETT: Oh! You did?
MESSING: Yes, so when that movie came out, that was my favorite movie. I just played it over and over and over again. And then you were Emmy-nominated on my girlfriend [Mariska Hargitay]’s TV show, [Law & Order: SVU] playing this terrifying, really menacing person. You're brilliant and you’re an incredible role model for millions and millions. And I'm so excited that a whole new generation of kids will get to see your show now that it's gonna be streaming.
BURNETT: In the past five years, because we are on YouTube and MeTV and then we had Time Life distributing DVDs, I've been getting fan mail from 10-year-olds. It’s a thrill! A few of them would say, “I come home from school and I watch you on YouTube before I have to do my homework.” And the thing is, I think our show holds up as well as it does because we weren't topical. We just wanted to laugh. I dare anybody to watch Tim and Harvey do the dentist and not lose it. And that's over 40 years old. I think the only way you can tell it was done a long time ago is by the clothes. But you look at Gone With the Wind, that's a period piece, so that holds up. That'll always hold up.
MESSING: So if you were talking to young kids right now who are just discovering your show and all they've known is the more modern-day sitcoms and sketch shows, what would you ask them to sort of focus on when they're watching The Carol Burnett Show?
BURNETT: Focus on the fact that we were having so much fun.
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The Carol Burnett Show