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Carol Burnett Reflects on the Character-Driven, Extravagant Style of ‘The Carol Burnett Show’

In 1967, Carol Burnett was under a contract with CBS that included a clause allowing her to “push the button” within the first five years of her 10 year deal and be given 30 episodes of one-hour variety programming. It was a unique situation, given that at the time many in the industry, including the then-head of the network who gave her the contract, thought variety shows were made for men. Yet, Burnett, whose main goal when she first graduated from UCLA and moved to New York to embark upon a career in entertainment was to be a “musical comedy person,” saw an opportunity to do what she loved without any strings or concerns.

So she pushed that button, so to speak. “The Carol Burnett Show” was born, and 50 years later she is celebrating its decade-long legacy and the future performers it inspired with a new special airing on CBS Dec. 3.

“Just before the curtain went up and I was going to come out and do Q&A for the first time, on our very first show, Harvey [Korman] and Vicki [Lawrence] and Lyle [Waggoner] and I did a group hug, and I said, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen, but let’s just go out there and have fun.’ That’s all it was about,” Burnett tells Variety. “For those 30 shows we were just going to have a ball. That was the idea. We didn’t know if we’d ever get to do any more than those, but we knew we had 30 shows, and we were going to make the most of them.”

Prior to getting her own show, Burnett was a regular for three years on another CBS variety show, “The Garry Moore Show.” It was there that she realized what she would want for her own show, were she to get one. “Garry, who was the kindest, most wonderful gentleman in the world, would sit around on Monday at the table read and he might have a joke or a funny line or something, and he’d say ‘Let’s give that to’ someone else who could say it funnier. And that’s what I always wanted, too. It could be anybody’s sketch, and we’d all support each other,” Burnett says. Five years after leaving “The Garry Moore” show, she got her chance.

“The Carol Burnett Show” first premiered on Sept. 11, 1967 with regulars Korman, Lawrence and Waggoner alongside Burnett. Tim Conway was a frequent guest and went on to become a regular in later seasons. Each week, the cast was supported by a 28-piece orchestra, 12 dancers, two guest stars and a repertory company, performing original live sketches and song and dance numbers. “You can’t do what we did today,” Burnett says, noting “the talent is there” for such a production, but times have changed too much to allow for the scope of show that “The Carol Burnett Show” delivered, let alone the length of individual segments.

“They can do variety shows, but it couldn’t be the same extravaganza that we did,” she says. “We really went all out. We did a musical comedy revue every week.”

The show got renewed, and went on to run for a decade; in 1977, while the original format was still airing in primetime, episodes were also recut for a syndicated series called “Carol and Friends.” Though the syndicated version lost many of the musical numbers, due to time constraints as well as cost, sketches like the movie homages of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “The African Queen,” “Gone With The Wind” and “Double Indemnity,” as well as recurring characters like those in “The Family” and Mrs. Wiggins, were given a second life.

“We didn’t do topical humor that much,” Burnett points out. “We were more character-driven than worried about referring to Nixon or whatever was going on at the time, so it holds up. Funny is funny. You look at the dentist sketch. That’s 45 years old, and I dare anybody to watch that and not get hysterical.”

While Burnett can’t think of any topic or type of character she outright nixed through the years, she does note that she always tried to be mindful of not doing a character too often. Her whiny, nagging wife character of Zelda to Korman’s George, for example, was one she liked in the beginning but felt could become overbearing if performed in too many episodes.

Still, some of Burnett’s personal favorite characters are ones that were repeat visitors. Eunice, who she calls a “pitiful person [that I] just loved playing,” Stella Toddler (“a cartoon, always getting beaten up, and I enjoyed doing the physical stuff”), and the aforementioned Mrs. Wiggins (“who, I like to say, the IQ fairy never visited!”) are all examples of characters near and dear to her heart.

But Burnett also has a soft spot for some of the lesser-known moments, many of which are now those musical numbers, like takes on Gershwin, Jule Styne and Cole Porter, as well. “They were just unbelievable, worthy of a Broadway show,” she says.

She also got great personal satisfaction by parodying movies because she was “a real movie nut” growing up, and she takes great pride in the long list of talented performers who kept coming back year after year. “The Carol Burnett Show” boasted such legends as Lucille Ball, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé, Betty White, Diahann Carroll, Bing Crosby and Alan Alda.

After the show came to an end in 1978, Burnett and her own unique theater troupe would reunite for specials designed to celebrate classic moments from the show. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the show’s premiere, they are doing that again, reminiscing with everyone from costume designer Bob Mackie (who created an average of 65 costumes per show during its run), to guest star Bernadette Peters, to the next generation of comedians Burnett has inspired, including Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Jim Carrey, who, as a young boy, wrote Burnett a letter asking to become a regular on her show. “It was just a plethora of goodies. I was overwhelmed,” Burnett says of the anniversary celebration.

And although there have been things through the years that Burnett has seen as inspiration for potential sketches (“The Kardashians, of course!”), she doesn’t have a desire to try to recreate the magic of “The Carol Burnett Show” because she knows just how special that experience was. Burnett says that the network “pretty much left us alone” and trusted them to make something entertaining.

“Artists need to do what artists do,” she says. “And CBS, in all of the years the show was on, understood that.”

This meant that even when a horse on-stage for a production number started to go to the bathroom during Burnett’s song, no one stepped in with a “technical difficulties” card. Instead, the show rolled with the moment that became one of the most famous bloopers in television history, just as it would with any time a cast member’s improv (usually Conway’s, per Burnett) would cause another performer to break.

In fact, Burnett can only recall one time that the network stepped in. She was scheduled to play a nudist being interviewed from behind a fence —  and, when asked what nudists do for fun, reply that they have dances. This was going to prompt the follow up question of how nudists dance, to which Burnett was originally supposed to reply “carefully.” But, she says, the network thought that might be too risqué. So they changed the joke to “How do nudists dance?” Answer: “Cheek to cheek.” Though Burnett still isn’t quite sure how that snuck through, she acknowledges it’s a more memorable line.

“My goal, when I went to New York, was to be on Broadway, but I got sidetracked by this little thing called television, and I realized I liked it even better than doing the same thing eight times a week. It was like summer stock,” she says. “I could do different characters every week, and that appealed to me. I had the best of times, and I’m so happy I was around then at the age I was then at the time when television was not as nitpicky as it is today.”

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