Carol Burnett doesn't regret any of the roads not taken in her career. "None at all, I'm so grateful. I didn't expect to be on TV, I started out wanting to be on musical comedies on Broadway," she says. And she doesn't skip a beat when explaining how she's kept a positive attitude throughout an eventful and not always easy life: "Oh, I'm just kind of a positive person, I guess. I don't know if I was born that way – guess I was, ha!"
Not that she's Pollyanna, but she is upbeat. The Carol Burnett on the phone from California in 2012 sounds little different from the woman who entertained millions of families on television between 1967 and 1978: unpretentious, straightforward, bright and considerate enough to apologize for being stuck in traffic and calling a few minutes late. The actress brings her one-woman show "Laughter and Reflection with Carol Burnett" to the Long Center on Tuesday, in which she answers audience questions and tells stories from her long and, well, storied career. Burnett remains fairly active in show business well into what most would consider their retirement years (she'll be 79 on April 26), doing voice acting for animated movies — recently "The Secret World of Arrietty" — and occasional appearances on programs including "Glee" and Joan and Melissa Rivers' quasi-reality show. She's also a writer who has published two memoirs and is working on a third, but she'll always be best known for the TV show, and she's just fine with that.
"I'm very happy that my time was when it was, because I had the best time, the best fun," she says. Burnett is happy with her legacy of — say it without shame — family entertainment, from the days before institutionalized cynicism and postmodern irony. She seems never to tire of the endless stream of people who come up and tell her they grew up watching her show – along with, of course, their families. "What I really love," Burnett says, "is when they say we used to make a point, we'd all sit down and I remember watching with my grandmother or my nieces or whatever."
In that world before cable, DVRs and YouTube, if you wanted to catch a must-see program you had to plant yourself in front of the set at a fixed time each week. Often, this meant a variety show – descended from vaudeville, mixing comedy, music, a dance troupe, guest stars and a genial host or hostess who tied it all together with snappy patter and maybe a song or two. Burnett didn't invent the format, but in the minds of many who watched first on Monday, then Wednesday, and finally Saturday night, her show, chock-full of movie parodies, TV-commercial takeoffs and character-based comedy sketches, and eventual winner of 25 Emmys, exemplified the genre. (In 1973 it was the dessert course in one of the greatest single evening lineups of prime-time network TV ever, Saturday night on CBS: "All in the Family," "M*A*S*H," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show," "The Carol Burnett Show.")
Within this something-for-everyone milieu, the hosts and hostesses assumed rigidly stylized personas that changed as little as their theme songs. Cher was an exotic singing clotheshorse forever insulting seemingly hapless Sonny, Dean Martin a bad boy winking and crooning his way through life, Jackie Gleason a smooth, self-satirizing blowhard with an appetite exceeded only by his ego. The Smothers Brothers were your hip, politically aware cousins, and Ed Sullivan the stiff uncle who never got half the jokes. In this landscape, Carol Burnett was the anti-diva: a cheerful woman without a gram of vanity who delighted in playing the goofball, trying on satirical personas with the unselfconsciousness of a 5-year-old in a costume shop, but who also reminded people of their sister or best friend, or perhaps a dream version of their mom.
Amid all the variety-show hosts, Burnett was the one who stood in for the members of the audience, because she looked and behaved like one of us — except for being a markedly gifted comic actor who made it all look effortless. Unlike today, when televised entertainment has become nearly synonymous with conflict and cutthroat competition, she fostered a famously collaborative atmosphere on her own show and with her core repertory players: Harvey Korman (who died in 2008), Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and, later, Tim Conway. When it was noted that Korman was a perfect foil for her, she says, "I was his foil at times, too. We would bow to the other one in a sketch. Sometimes the funniest parts were given to Harvey. It was a rep company in the true sense of the word."
Although the Burnett show wasn't broadcast live, it was filmed in front of a studio audience and had a very live feel (Tim Conway cracking up Korman and the others during a sketch became a signature gag in itself). "It would have been a live show had we been in a studio that could accommodate flies," Burnett says, referring to an open space above the stage used to hide scenery between uses. "Between sketches we had to roll the scenery out into the hall. I used to make a bet with the stagehands: I can make my costume change quicker than you could bring the furniture in. I couldn't stand keeping the audience waiting; it's much harder to get them to laugh. We'd be out of there in two hours with music, with dancing, with costume changes, with a 28-piece orchestra."
When the show ended — by Burnett's choice — it seemed as if a certain age of entertainment had put out to pasture for good. What succeeded it was, of course, the younger, cynically hip sensibility of "Saturday Night Live," which ran concurrently with the last three seasons of Burnett's show.
Although in "SNL's" early days producer Lorne Michaels reportedly heartily disliked what he viewed as Burnett's mainstream, middle-of-the-road comedy style and steered his writers sharply away from that, Burnett herself didn't reciprocate the hard feelings.
"Oh, I loved it," she says. "I loved the whole thing. (John) Belushi and Gilda (Radner) and Chevy (Chase) and all of 'em." She denies that she and her staff saw "SNL" as new competition from younger guns. "When we had our show; there were nine variety shows on the air. I used to love to watch ‘Laugh-In.' Sometimes we would get writers from ‘Laugh-In' who wanted to come in and write long sketches." (No mention if a young Michaels, who was a writer for "Laugh-In" for a while, was among them.)
Although several Facebook groups sprang up advocating for Burnett as an "SNL" host in the immediate aftermath of Betty White's appearance in May 2010, Burnett said she hasn't gotten the call from Michaels, and isn't losing sleep over it. "At one point," she says, "I said, you know, who can top what Betty did?" (Though Burnett doubtless appreciates the support she gets from social-media mavens, she eschews that scene herself: "I figure there's enough going on in life without being a slave to that.")
It wasn't until 1986, when Burnett published her autobiography "One More Time," which covered her life to about 1960, that she revealed there was much more to the woman people thought they knew from the Tarzan yell and the charwoman getup. Her story is, by now, familiar to her fans: how she was raised by her eccentric grandmother, who provided a sense of stability when her alcoholic parents, who divorced early in her life, couldn't; how she succeeded through, in addition to considerable talents and imagination, a number of well-timed breaks that took her from studying theater at UCLA to early struggles in New York, before landing a role in the supporting cast of Garry Moore's TV variety show in 1959 and a leading part that same year in the musical "Once Upon A Mattress."
Years before her own show began, Burnett was so well-regarded in the Broadway musical establishment that she was offered the lead in the original production of "Funny Girl" — and turned it down. "Well, that was 1962 and I was doing a show on the road in the summer," she says, "and one of the places was Detroit and (producer, director and choreographer) Jerome Robbins flew in to see it. We had breakfast together the next day, and I was reading it in front of him. I said, ‘I can't do this; I'm too Texas. If you want a star, you should get Anne Bancroft. If you want to make a star, you should get Barbra Streisand.' " When asked if Streisand ever thanked Burnett for the huge career boost, she demurs, "I don't think it was my doing that she got the role. I'm just one person who was a big fan. She had been a guest on Garry's show."
Burnett is glad she never delved into political material, pointing out that it generally doesn't age well. "I always felt that for me, because I am political but not on camera — I'm a clown — my whole deal was I wanted to do movie takeoffs and sketches people could identify with," she says. Nor did she care about starring in a sitcom — no music, and limited chances for guest stars. "Variety was what I loved, and I loved music. I got my start on ‘The Garry Moore Show,' which was one of the best shows ever, and I did love doing those shows every week. So you couldn't do that in a sitcom."
Those who remember Burnett's show only for its many movie parodies should remember the "Family" sketches, about a couple named Eunice and Ed and Eunice's mama (Vicki Lawrence's signature character), that got progressively darker from one season to the next and were as much about character studies as punch lines. Also, according to Burnett, they were Texans. "When we did it for the first time for the writers, they were stunned that we did it with a South Texas accent," she says. "But then we started to get (positive) letters from that part of the country."
Burnett is working on a book about her daughter Carrie Hamilton, who died of cancer in 2002; like her mother, she was an actress and writer. "It's coming along very well," Burnett says. "Luckily, I saved tons of letters and notes and emails that we exchanged back and forth. She was quite a force, and she wrote very funny and very insightful, and I just want to bring her essence to the pages. A year or so before she passed away she was working on a story, ‘Sunrise in Memphis,' about a bohemian girl's adventure going with a cowboy to Graceland. What I have done is include chapters throughout the book from her story, and Carrie herself decided to take the journey to Graceland in her jeep, by herself, and she was writing me some of the adventures, if you will, of her road trip to Graceland while she was also writing pages on her story."
Burnett might be, as she describes herself, "a clown," but she also seems to be one of the few remaining people in show business who is a fully functioning grown-up. If you come to the show you might get to ask her a question yourself, or just say: Thanks, Carol.
Does she miss the old days? "Sometimes I miss them, but I don't say ‘I want to go back.' It's a waste of time. You can't go back again." Then a second passes and Burnett adds, with a laugh, "I look at the Kardashians and say ... oh, could we have fun with that!"