“Do you remember your first kiss?” “Yes, I do.” “Did you like it?” “Well, it was from a dog.”
For 11 years, each episode of The Carol Burnett Show kicked off with an unscripted audience Q&A. And every week, Burnett somehow managed to wring guffaws out of even the most humdrum queries. “I like to fly without a net,” says Burnett, who continues the tradition in her live tour, which stops by Cobb Energy Centre on October 24 and 25. Recently the 83-year-old Burnett talked to us about her groundbreaking show, that infamous curtain-rod dress, and the Hollywood parodies she wishes she could do today.
You have a new memoir, In Such Good Company, about The Carol Burnett Show. Did you rewatch all the old episodes while you were writing?
I had to, to jog my memory! I felt at times like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. There were certain things I saw that I thought, “Well that’s terrible! I can’t believe we did that!” And other times I’d say, “Oh, that’s pretty funny. Yeah that works!” But I didn’t watch all 276 hours—or I’d still be doing it!
Do you have a favorite sketch from the show?
Not a particular one, but I have the genres. For instance, I always enjoyed doing “The Family.” Those spoke to me because I thought the writing was absolutely terrific. If you played it straight, there wouldn’t be one laugh. Because they didn’t write jokes. But we would go over the top with these characters, and the audience loved it.
And I love all the movie take-offs. I was raised going to the movies with my grandmother as a kid. And then I’d come home and my best friend and I would act out the films that we saw. Years later, it was a treat to be able to do it with real costumes and real scenery. I’d say to the writers, “Let’s do a take on a Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie,” and in three weeks we’d be doing it.
The curtain-rod dress from one of your most famous parodies, “Went With the Wind,” is now in the Smithsonian. What did you think when Bob Mackie showed it to you the first time?
I said, “Bob, this is going to go down in history as one of the funniest sight gags ever.” Everybody knew it. The cameramen were all screaming with laughter when they saw it. It’s one of the longest laughs I’ve ever gotten. And that line, “I saw it in the window,” it almost topped the sight gag. It was brilliant. The writer who worked on the sketch, Rick Hawkins, had done his college thesis on Gone With the Wind, and he knew every nuance, every scene.
Are there any movies or shows today that you wish you could send up?
At the height of the Kardashians, I know we would be doing them. Downtown Abbey would make a great one. Game of Thrones. I’m leaning more towards television because I don’t go out to the movies much anymore.
“The Family” was created by writers from New York, L.A., the Midwest, but the characters turned out to be Southern. How did that happen?
Well, that was my fault. [Laughs.] When I read that, I just thought, These people are from the Southwest. I come from Texas, and my grandmother and mother were born in Arkansas. At the first table reading, I just went into that kind of accent, and Vicki [Lawrence] and Tim [Conway] picked up on it. The writers weren’t in the room, and later when we did a run through for them and the whole crew, they were horrified. They said, “You’re going to alienate the entire South!”
Did you ever get a reaction from people in the South?
Sometimes I’d get letters saying, “Oh my God, this reminds me of our house at Christmastime.” And other times I’d get a letter saying, “These are such awful people, why do you do them?” But I loved those characters so much, and they kept writing them.
You’ve shared the stage with Liz Taylor, Julie Andrews, Lucille Ball, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable. Is there anyone you always wanted to work with but never got the chance?
Well, one time we almost had Bette Davis, but she wanted too much money. We had a set salary for our guest stars, and had we not adhered to that, it would have set a precedent that we couldn’t afford. But I was really sorry we couldn’t have her on the show. Today, I would want Meryl Streep, I’d want Kevin Spacey. They’re multitalented, they can do impressions, they sing, they can do everything.
Today a number of female comics have their own shows, but you were the first woman to host a variety sketch show. How did you break that barrier?
First of all, I love seeing all the female comediennes today. Amy [Poehler], and Tina [Fey]. Kristin Wiig I think is brilliant. I love Maya Rudolph. She’s very multitalented herself. I think it’s about time.
Before me, it was Lucy [Ball]. She was kind of my mentor, and we were good friends. But there weren’t too many others. I had a strange contract that said that CBS had to put me on the air in a variety show. They didn’t want me to do it. They said, “It’s a man’s game. Comedy variety is for Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason.” But I had it in the contract, and if I had not, it never would have happened.
The Carol Burnett Show was famous for its audience Q&As and you’re doing them again on your tour. Why does that format appeal to you?
I never know what’s going to happen!
That doesn’t make you nervous, not knowing what people will ask?
Yeah, it does, a little bit. [Laughs.] But it’s fun. And as I’ve said before, it keeps the old gray matter ticking. They ask a question and I try to make the answer funny or interesting. You really have to be on your toes. You can’t be thinking about yesterday or tomorrow.
A version of this article originally appeared in our October 2016 issue.