Carol Burnett was back in the sandbox, as she calls it.
The veteran entertainer had returned to Stage 33 on the CBS Television City lot in Los Angeles — the original home base of “The Carol Burnett Show” — to tape a special celebrating the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking comedy-variety show, which premiered in 1967 and ran for 11 years.
The series had almost been a sitcom called “Here’s Agnes.” But Burnett, a cast member on the variety series “The Garry Moore Show,” had wanted a 28-piece orchestra. She wanted a repertory company and guest stars. She wanted costume changes.
“I had this terrific and unheard-of contract that read if I wanted to push that button, the network would have to give me 30 one-hour comedy-variety shows,” Burnett, 84, said during the October taping. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ And they said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Carol ... all comedy-variety shows are hosted by men — Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Dean Martin … It’s not really for you gals.’”
She added: “Well, here we are, 50 years later.”
The two-hour special, which will air Dec. 3 on CBS, features Amy Poehler, Jim Carrey and other celebrities paying homage to the pioneering sketch show. (The special made headlines recently when CBS said it was editing out Kevin Spacey’s appearance after he was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple people.)
Burnett is also slated to appear at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Dec. 15 for her trademark Q&A sessions. (The Times spoke to Burnett prior to news of the Spacey allegations.)
Does it even feel like 50 years have passed?
Are you kidding? No! In fact, 25 years ago, we did a 25th reunion and that just seemed like 10 minutes ago that we did that! Time has a funny way of changing. When you're young, it never goes fast enough, and when you get older, it's a blink of an eye. Where did it go?
Taking questions from the audience is a hallmark of the show that you’ve kept going. Why do you revel in doing it?
It keeps the old gray matter ticking, you know? You have to be on your toes — you can’t be thinking about what you're going to do tomorrow, what you did yesterday. And so it keeps the brain going, really.
Has there ever been a question you just didn't want to answer?
No, but there was one that threw me for a bit. It was about nine years ago. Some lady raised her hand ... and it's all random. And she said, "Carol, if you could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours and then pop back into being yourself, who would you be and what would you do?" And the audience went, "Woo!" I'm going, "Oh, my God!" And I'm thinking, “Would I want to be Cary Grant?” And I swear, I said a prayer. I said, "OK Lord, I'm gonna open my mouth and whatever comes out is gonna be your fault," and I swear I didn't know … it was surreal. I didn't know I was gonna say this until I said it. I said I'd be Osama bin Laden, and I'd kill myself. The audience went crazy, and I just said, "Thank you, Lord." So that was the weirdest one I ever got!
We were about doing a musical comedy revue a week. It was like a little Broadway show. I think that's why it has held up all these years: funny is funny.
It’s interesting that you are doing the answering because you had originally wanted to be a journalist —
Yeah. I was editor of my junior high school paper and I was the editor of the Hollywood High News at Hollywood High School. In fact, when I was a senior, I got the brilliant idea to interview famous people who went to Hollywood High. Joel McCrea was a big movie star way back then, and I interviewed him. And then I had one all set up for Lana Turner and somebody [told] on me and told the principal I was gonna cut a class, so I never got to interview her. But years later, she was a guest on my show.
Do you think if things had worked out differently you’d be an entertainment reporter?
I don't know. I don't think I'd be in politics, that’s for sure. It's too depressing!
What do you think “The Carol Burnett Show” would look like today? Do you think it would have found a way for the sketches to have some sort of commentary on the politics of today?
No, because that's not what we were about. We were about doing a musical comedy revue a week. It was like a little Broadway show. I think that's why it has held up all these years: funny is funny. We always went for that, and we got a little more serious when we started doing the family. Those were pretty heavy ... the, you know, dysfunctional family and stuff. The writing was so good. There wasn't one joke in it. It was all character-driven. All of that's situation.
What can you tell me about your Netflix show? How is that going?
Oh, it's so cute! These kids, they range from 5 to 9 years old, and they are presented with grown-up dilemmas — which is perfect because they're not censoring themselves yet. So they just blurt out what they're thinking, and some of them are just gems!
When we were auditioning some of them, a lady came in with a dilemma saying she was gonna marry this gentleman who is raising his two young children. He's a father. She said, "What can I do to make the kids like me? I don't want them to think I'm some evil stepmother," and one of the kids said, "Bribery always works." I mean, that's just priceless!
Over the past couple of weeks we've seen women in front of and behind the camera come forward about their experiences with sexual harassment and sexism in Hollywood. What feelings has that brought up for you in terms of how Hollywood has or hasn't changed?
Well, I was never exposed to any of that, thank God. … I was never exposed to this casting couch thing or any of it, but I have to say, I'm glad all of this is now in the news, you know? But what disturbs me is that it took this long when it was such an open secret. That bothers me that now they're all coming out and saying, "Oh yeah, we're distancing ourselves," when they should've done it years ago.
What I don't like is the fact that, again, I'm quoting what I've read, that publicists and lawyers would set these girls up. They knew what was going on! Now, everybody's saying, "Oh, terrible, terrible. This is awful," and they didn't say it until it became known. That's the thing I'm not happy about. I understand why the women didn't come forward right away.
And it's rampant, not only in show business but in other fields. It's where these men with power think they can rule the roost, but I'm glad this is happening.
Well, I watch cable, and I'm crazy about Vince Gilligan. I loved “Breaking Bad.” And I’m into “Better Call Saul.” You know, I just think the writing is incredible, and the acting! I mean, it's just ... and he's got an imagination that won't quit! And I love “Fargo.” On the comedy side, “black-ish” is really good. “Modern Family.” “Big Bang Theory” is very clever ... but I don't say "Oh, I got to sit down and watch that now." If it's on or something, I'll watch, but my appointment television is really Netflix and cable, you know?