On Saturday afternoon at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, I was sitting cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of sweaty book lovers in USC’s Bovard Auditorium. But for a moment I could have been in a New Jersey living room in 1975, watching “The Carol Burnett Show.”
There she was, walking on stage to raucous cheers and a standing ovation. Just as she always did, she clasped her hands, tugged her earlobe. Dressed in a bright orange jacket that set off her famous red hair, she looked pretty much the same as she did on my parents’ color TV. Admittedly my eyes are not what they were, and the lighting was dim. Burnett even remarked, “I like the lighting in here,” as she took her seat. But she might have been saying it just to be nice to the rest of us.
“If you want to feel good about yourself,” said moderator and and L.A. Times TV critic Mary McNamara, “I recommend you walk out on stage with Carol Burnett.”
As the conversation proceeded, it became clear that, appearances aside, a lot has changed since “The Carol Burnett Show.” Burnett’s oldest daughter, Carrie Hamilton, grew from a creative little girl to a troubled, drug-addicted teen to a bohemian but accomplished actress and writer, and then died of lung cancer at the age of 38 in 2002.
Burnett’s new book, “Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story,” chronicles their relationship.
“We had one hell of a ride during her 38 years,” said Burnett, 79, explaining that she wrote the memoir as a belated response to Hamilton’s request that her mother finish a story she was writing before she died, “Sunrise in Memphis.” Burnett knew she couldn’t do that, she said, but she did use their correspondence about the story in the book.
“When I figured out how I was going to do it, I felt relieved,” she said. “I felt Carrie on my shoulder.”
Burnett has always been open about her daughter’s troubles; the family even approached People magazine at the time in a preemptive effort to control the story.
“I loved what you told me about how the magazine’s title was something like, ‘Carol Burnett’s Nightmare,’ and how Carrie started referring to herself as ‘Mom’s Little Nightmare,’ ” said McNamara, who demonstrated a warm onstage rapport with Burnett. “I feel like that told me everything I needed to know about her and her sense of humor.”
Once that difficult period ended, Burnett and her daughter became “best friends.” They acted together and even wrote a Broadway play, “Hollywood Arms.”
Conversation inevitably turned to “The Carol Burnett Show,” which is winning a new generation of fans.
“I don’t sit there and watch myself like Norma Desmond,” Burnett said. “But we’re all over YouTube. I do have to wonder who’s watching!”
She said a 9-year-old boy approached the microphone to ask her a question recently at a panel discussion. "You’re 9 and you know who I am?” Burnett asked the boy. "Surprisingly, yes,” he replied.
Asked how she managed to run her own show while raising three children, Burnett said that, because she came from live TV, she and her cast and crew were so organized that they could film a show in about two hours. “I had a running bet with the crew that I could do a skin-out costume change in the time it took them to move a couch.
“I was once asked how many hours I worked a week and I totaled it up. It came to about 30 hours a week. Which is like a part-time job.”
Audience members asked about favorite skits from the show (“The Family”) as well as Tim Conway’s legendary ability to make Harvey Korman laugh on set. “We had a pool backstage,” Burnett recalled. “Not about whether Harvey would break up but how long it would take.”
And of course somebody in the audience asked for her Tarzan yell.
“Aren’t you sick of it by now?” Burnett asked, recoiling in disbelief.
“Are you kidding? It should be in the Smithsonian!” McNamara said.
So Burnett did the Tarzan yell.