Carol Burnett, back with all the answers

Special to The Times

Decades before scripts became superfluous with the advent of reality TV, Carol Burnett and her band of comics pulled off unscripted sessions that set the tone for the longest-running comedy-variety show in television history.

“The Carol Burnett Show” opened with question-and-answer segments, and the best of those are in CBS’ “The Carol Burnett Show: Let’s Bump Up the Lights” Wednesday.

Before Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner performed their skits, Burnett had the house lights turned up, and the audience asked questions. Since the show went into reruns, most of those sessions have not been seen.


One of the funniest and most embarrassing moments, Burnett recalls, came “when someone asked whether or not I had a sex change, and the very next question was, ‘Did you?’ ” She lets loose with a great laugh, and remembers another favorite.

“One woman got up, and she kind of looked like Bea Arthur on ‘Maude,’ and she said, ‘You know, I sing.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you do? Come on up!’ She came up on stage and she really took the stage, and I said, ‘What do you want to sing?’ She turned to the band and said, ‘ “You Made Me Love You” in the key of G.’ And she was hysterical.”

Burnett sang with her. “And at the end we petered out because I had a different thought on how it should end,” Burnett says. “She stopped and looked at me and said, ‘You screwed up.’ ”

For years, comedians joked with studio audiences before a show, priming them to be in the mood to laugh. When “The Carol Burnett Show” began its 11-year run in 1967, a producer asked Burnett to give it a shot. “Oh, my God. I don’t think the audience will believe this is off the cuff,” she says, vividly recalling her jitters.

Burnett is not sure if she was the first headliner to do this, but television authority Tim Brooks, coauthor of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present,” is. Naturally, there were talk shows, but nothing along the lines of the star interacting with the audience, he says. “It was a very endearing and humanizing factor,” Brooks says.

It was also a scary one to those on stage, Lawrence says. “I used to be petrified going out during the questions and answers because you are on your own and have to wing it.”

For Waggoner, that often meant puckering up, as women wanted to buss the resident hunk. “He came out one night with a table and two chairs and a candle, and he played a romantic scene with” a woman from the audience, Burnett says.

Burnett says the special keeps with the unscripted theme: “We just talk with each other. You never know what Conway or anyone else will come up with.”

Burnett does not expect this special to trump her 2001 “The Carol Burnett Show: Showstoppers,” CBS’ top ratings magnet in that time slot for a nonsports show in a decade. She did not want to re-mine that material.

“We had chosen the funniest ones, so doing it again would be the second funniest,” she says. “This is at least more original.”

“If we do half as well as that one did, I will still be totally surprised,” Burnett says. “I just hope the audience has a good belly laugh or two. That’s a very healing thing, and you can forget your troubles for a minute or two.”

Jacqueline Cutler writes for Tribune Media Services.

“The Carol Burnett Show: Let’s Bump Up the Lights” airs on Wednesday at 10 p.m. on CBS and is rated TV-G (suitable for all ages).

Cover photograph by Tony Esparza.