Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.
In this week’s episode, Variety’s executive editor of TV, Debra Birnbaum, talks with comedy legend Carol Burnett, who scored her 23rd Emmy nomination for “The Carol Burnett Show 50th Anniversary Special.”
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Even with six Emmy Awards under her belt, Burnett is still immensely grateful at the recognition by the TV Academy, as well as audiences. “To have this happen now, it’s kind of unbelievable,” Burnett says. “I was happily surprised.”
The program, which is in contention for variety special, celebrated the 50th anniversary of “The Carol Burnett Show,” the variety series which ran from 1967 to 1978, and won 25 Emmys over the course of its run.
“We weren’t timely, but what the comedy was is timeless,” she says. “We were never topical. It just wasn’t our bag. I’m a clown, and we just wanted to have belly laughs. It wasn’t our thing to get political. I think that’s why it’s viable today.”
For the 50th anniversary special (which will be released on DVD on Sept. 11), she was joined by her original costars like Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner, and famous fans from Amy Poehler to Stephen Colbert. Burnett says she was “thrilled” to meet them all.
“The cherry on top of the sundae for me was Harry Connick Jr., because I’m such a fan and we’re friends, and he was born the day we premiered 50 years ago,” Burnett says. When Connick Jr. performed the closing song, she says she “was so overwhelmed” with emotion, she could barely sing.
But she says a variety program like “The Carol Burnett Show” wouldn’t work in the current television landscape, both because of production costs and lack of creative control. “Funny is funny,” she says, “but they couldn’t do it today.” While “Saturday Night Live” is also a live sketch show, she says it can’t compare to what they accomplished on her program — which required a 28-piece orchestra, 12 dancers, two guest stars a week, and 65 costumes a week (equaling 17,000 over the course of 11 years) designed by Bob Mackie.
And back then, she had the freedom to hire 18-year-old Lawrence, who had no professional experience, and she credits then-CBS chair Bill Paley with having faith in her — but that wouldn’t be the case today, she says. “No network today would let me hire her,” she says. “Today they don’t let the artists do what they do best.”
Burnett recently did a pilot for ABC, which was written by Michael Saltzman and produced by Poehler, but ended up pulling out of the project due to the excessive notes the team was given, which she says ruined the comedy. “I thought, I don’t want to put myself through that. I had the best, and why put up with that? It’s just ridiculous today,” she says. “[They were] telling somebody like Amy and Michael and me how we should do comedy.”
She laughs recalling how Mackie had to change the costume on a little girl about 10 times. “I didn’t like the way they wanted to do it, and I didn’t like the interference,” she says.
That’s in sharp contrast to her experience at Netflix, where she’s been doing a talk show “A Little Help With Carol Burnett,” where she interviews kids about helping adults. She still especially makes time for her child fans when they write to her.
“There are times when I’ll [write back], but I’ll only do it if it’s a little kid. I might get a letter saying, ‘I’m going to be in a school production of ‘Annie.’ And I’m going to be playing Miss Hannigan, do you have any advice for me?'” Burnett says. “And if they put their phone number in, I’ll call them. So I just dial and say, ‘What do you want to know?'”
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