To think that Carol Burnett, who just turned 86 this past week, can still find ground she hasn’t yet conquered seems highly unlikely. As the recipient of multiple Primetime Emmy’s, a Tony Award, the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, a Kennedy Center Honor, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and as of this year a special Golden Globe Category named in her honor, you’d think there couldn’t possibly be room on the shelf for any more physical accolades.
“Well, there’s always room,” she says with a laugh.
On May 5th, Carol Burnett is up for her first ever Daytime Emmy (and 25th overall Emmy nomination) for the Netflix series, A Little Help. With the show, we see Carol Burnett take a concept that seems so simple, but so few of us ever think to do when we have an issue: Ask a child. In a way that only she can, given her overall warm demeanor, she gets these kids to be so authentically themselves and provide solutions to issues posed by her celebrity guests. And where most adults would maybe have the tendency to talk down to the kids, she gets right down to their level. Even the seats she and her guests sit in are nearly eye level with the kids.
And of course, you cannot talk to Carol Burnett without bringing up some of her other career accomplishments, namely the thing that made her an icon to multiple generations on The Carol Burnett Show. She has imaginably heard every question you could ever ask her, given that she still tours the country doing her popular Q&As. And yet when faced with questions about the past, she is always happy to answer them, thus sending you into a place of sheer childlike wonderment.
Do you still find yourself getting nervous before award shows?
Yes. I get very nervous, because I really don’t think I’m that good at acceptance speeches or just giving speeches period. I’m okay with presenting an award to somebody because then it’s all there. But if I have to get up and do a ‘thank you’ speech, I get pretty tied up.
I did love your speech at the Golden Globes this year where you asked if you get to accept the Carol Burnett Award again next year.
(Laughs). I’ll be going to the Golden Globes but I won’t be presenting that award or anything. I’m just gonna go and cheer everybody on.
Let’s talk about A Little Help. I love that the show seems right at their level, that you’re not talking down to them. Was that something you set out to do?
Well I’m very good with kids and I don’t talk down to them at all. And they appreciate it. Maybe they don’t verbalize that they appreciate it, but I think they do. Talking to them like “You’re so much wiser.” So I love kids, especially the ages that we had on A Little Help, because they ranged from 5 years old to 9. And that’s a perfect age because once they get to 10 years old, they start to censor what they might say. Whereas kids from 5 to 9, they just blurt out what they’re thinking. And it’s always so much fun. They just tell the truth as they see it and they don’t couch their answers or their advice.
Is there a secret to finding the right kids?
We auditioned a lot of kids. And they were real kids. They weren’t actors, not that kids can’t be actors that aren’t real. But we didn’t want any actors. We wanted just kids. Plain old kids. And so we auditioned by having a grown up problem. And then we put maybe 3 or 4 kids together on a couch or something. And then the ones that raised their hands and gave the cutest answers would be the ones we wanted to hire.
Have you found that those who grew up watching you are now introducing their own kids to your Netflix show? It’s sort of a shared experience, I imagine, between parents and their kids.
Yeah, it’s very sweet. Also I go around the country and I do 90 minutes of questions and answers, like I used to do on my show. And because of A Little Help, because of METV, because of DVDs that are out and YouTube, I’m getting fan mail from 10 year-olds and teenagers. I’m so touched and moved by that, by these little kids. And they write me the sweetest letters, and I answer. Sometimes they’ll want me to call them and give them some advice. Like several have done productions of Once Upon a Mattress, which is a Broadway show I was in 100 years ago. And a lot of schools put that on. So I’ll get mail saying “Well, I’m playing Princess Winifred and I know you did. How could I approach that character?” And if they leave me a phone number, I’ll call them rather than just to write them back. Because it’s easier to talk to them than to put it on paper.
And I’m sure it’s a big thrill for them to get a phone call from you.
(Laughs). Yeah. And it’s only with little kids. I don’t do it with grown ups or anything like that. But I do it with little kids.
Do you still get kids coming up and saying their favorite movie is Annie?
Yes, yes. And I always say “Well I’m not that mean lady. I was just pretending.” But I don’t scare them, at all. It’s kind of interesting because she was not a very nice character. But I don’t think she was frightening to a lot of kids. They kind of laughed at her.
When you were doing the press rounds last year, you talked about how much easier it is to work with Netflix than it is to work with a network in this day and age. Even after having said all that, would you ever consider maybe doing it again should the right project come along?
I don’t think so. Because when I did my show, way way back in, as they say, the covered wagon days, William Paley was the head of CBS, he was the big honcho there, and he said to all of his shows on CBS, “You guys are the artists, I’m the business man. So you do what you do and I’ll do what I do.” They left us alone. Even the first day reading a script for that week’s show, we never had anybody from the network come and hear us read. We just read the script in my office and then we went and started to rehearse. Today, I’ve been a guest star on some shows, and the first table read there’s maybe 50 people in the room. And every one of them had a different note to give. And it was just total nitpicking and interference. And they didn’t leave us alone. I had it so good that, no, I wouldn’t want to.
And also, if we were doing the show today, no network would let me hire Vicki Lawrence.
You hired her off of a fan letter.
That’s right. And she had no experience, she had no professional experience at all. Right out of high school, 18 years old. No way would that happen today. They would say “No, you can’t hire her. And look what happened.” Even Harvey Korman, who had been a supporting actor on The Danny Kaye Show, today they would say “Oh no. We’ve already known him. You’ve got to get somebody else.” Mr. Paly, as I said, said “You guys are the artists. You go do what you do. And I’ll leave you alone as long as the ratings are good. I’m not going to bother you.”
And Netflix doesn’t even release ratings. So it seems like a good place to be.
Yeah, Netflix was fine. They were there when we were auditioning the different kids, but that was about it, and then they left us alone. I really liked that. It helped because you can’t please everybody. So many of these network people, they’re maybe in their 20s or so, and they’re telling us how to be funny.
Well, I’m in my 20s and I’d never have the guts to give you notes on how to be funny.
(Laughs). Well I did a pilot a couple of years ago for ABC, and that was one of the things that drove me nuts. And the pilot was very funny. It was called Household Name. And it went very well, the audience really ate it up. It was terrific. And then the network said “We want it rewritten because we want to change two of the actors in it.” And then they also wanted to make it more generic. And they just kind of ruined it. I loved the people who we had, these two actors that they wanted to replace. And then they wanted to rewrite the pilot. And then the gentleman who wrote it, Michael Saltzman rewrote it according to their notes. I read it and I said “Michael, it’s not as funny as what you wrote before.” And he said “I know that. This is what they wanted.” And I just said “Bye bye.” I said “I’m too old for this.” I had such a great run back then with The Carol Burnett Show and we just had a ball for 11 years without any interference.
Let’s jump around a bit. I love that the early episodes, which haven’t been seen on TV in 41 years, are up there. You do come from that television era where things get lost, entire shows would get recorded over. Did you ever worry the same fate would become of your show?
Well, we were the first variety show to ever go into syndication. We never imagined that we would because it was usually half hour sitcoms that would go into syndication. We did. No I never really thought about that. I think that was done more in the 50’s and early 60’s perhaps. And also one of the reasons why the show has lasted this long and keeps going like the energizer bunny is because we were never very topical. We just went for the belly laughs and we didn’t focus on what was happening in the news. We were just a musical comedy variety revue every week.
I feel like you can’t have a show these days that isn’t topical.
Right. I’m not against it, but I would like to see more belly laughs coming out rather than comments. I’m a fan of satire, but there’s also room for slapstick that you don’t see very much anymore. The way Tim Conway would do stuff and all of us, you know. We were just clowns.
Is it still fun for you to revisit the old show and reflect on it?
I enjoy it. I recently published a book about our show. So I had to watch a lot of the DVDs that I have. I have the whole show, all 11 years. And I watched several just to jog my memory. There were some sketches that I liked very much, and some I didn’t care for. (Laughs). You know we had to deliver every week, but I think most of the time it holds up because the premise was so pure. I dare anybody to look at the dentist sketch with Tim and Harvey and not lose it because it’s so funny and that’s well over 40 years old. And it holds up. It should go in the time capsule. It’s one of the funniest sketches ever on television.
Now I’m sure everybody who meets you or speaks with you wants to talk about their favorite moment from the show. But is there a moment that you are surprised more people don’t bring up?
Well there were a lot of takeoffs we did of movies that were really as good as the one that we did of Gone with the Wind. But people mainly talk about the Gone with the Wind sketch, as we called it “Went with the Wind”. And it was brilliantly written, but we also did great takeoffs on film noirs. We did “Double Indemnity, African Queen,” “Laura,” Bette Davis movies, Mildred Pierce. All of them. Brilliantly, brilliantly written. I give credit to all of our writers. I enjoyed doing the family. Eunice, Vickie was Mama, Harvey was Ed. I liked that, too, because it was character driven. There were no jokes in it. If we played it straight, without putting a spin on it with the Southern accents and so forth. And in rehearsal, one of us said “For kicks, just as an experiment, let’s just play this straight without the accents.” And it was a very serious little one act. And then we put a spin on it and it got to be funny.
You mentioned going on the road and doing your Q&As. Is there something about being on the road that still excites you?
Yes. I just got back. A couple of weeks ago I was in Texas and Atlanta. And then I’m going out next month and I’m going to be in Nashville and North Carolina. And it’s good for me because it keeps the old brain matter ticking. I have to be on my toes because there are no plants in the audience. I’ll just say “Yes, you in the second row in the yellow blouse. What’s your question?” So I have to be in the present moment. You can exercise your brain just as you can exercise your body. It’s good brain exercise because I can’t be thinking about what I did yesterday or what I’ll do tomorrow. I have to be in the now so that I could come up with a good answer or retort.
And if that wasn’t enough, the movie you’re doing with Tina Fey about your daughter Carrie just got announced. Does it make you nervous to have such a personal story being committed to film?
No actually, I’m just thrilled. I’ve written 4 books, and the one about Carrie and me was very personal, because she was my baby. And I wrote this book, I called it Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story. And in it I talked about the rough years when she was into drugs as a teenager and then after she got sober how she blossomed and bloomed and made several movies and she was directing and writing songs and so forth and so on. And doing very well. She had a regular role on Fame for several seasons. And then she got cancer. But she was very special, and not just because she was my daughter. But she never met a stranger, she had a great sense of humor, she loved people, she was curious, and adventurous. And I wanted to share that with people. That you can go through adversity and come out the other end and have a really wonderful love affair with your kids. So I wrote that.
So Steven Rogers who wrote and produced I, Tonya, he read the book and he said “I want to give this to two writers I know, they’re brothers, and see what they think.” And they fell in love with Carrie. And they’re very passionate about it and they came and talked to me about how they want to approach it. And I liked the idea, so with Steven Rogers and the brothers, Ian and Eshom Nelms we went to several studios and so forth and pitched the idea. And Focus came through and that was the one we wanted more than the others. And I thought “Oh my Gosh. It’s going to be a movie.” And aside from Steven Rogers and the Nelms brothers connected with it, so did Tina Fey and I’m thrilled with that because I just love her and love her work. So we’ve got a good team and the brothers will have a first draft in about another month. So we’ll go from there.
Do you still have those moments where all of this and everything feels surreal?
At times. I look back and see everything that I’ve been through both professionally and personally and I thought “Whoa. I should be more tired but I’m not.” (Laughs).
This final question is something I ask of everyone, and I am so excited to hear your take on it. What do you want your legacy to be?
Well, that I made them laugh when it was the most needed. And I get that a lot in my fan mail. That they were in the dumps and so forth and they watched our show and they laughed and got better. And that’s really important.
You really have helped people just through laughter.
Well, I hope so. I know when I was little and things were kind of tough at home and everything and if I’d go to the movies, I fell in love with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. And they would make me laugh and make me happy. So I could forget, at least for a while, the things that were bringing me down.