Listen: Carol Burnett on Her ‘Unbelievable’ Emmy Nod, ‘Ridiculous’ Network Notes

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.”

Listen to this week’s podcast for free below and at Apple Podcasts:

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?'”

New episodes of “Remote Controlled” are available every Friday. Subscribe on iTunesStitcherSoundcloud, or anywhere you download podcasts. You can find past episodes here and on Apple Podcasts.

Let us know what you think of Variety’s podcasts! You can email us at podcasts@variety.com to offer comments, suggestions, and ideas for interview subjects you’d like to hear from. 

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Bill Bellamy Joins Octavia Spencer Netflix

    Bill Bellamy Joins Octavia Spencer Netflix Series 'Madam CJ Walker'

    Bill Bellamy has joined the cast of the forthcoming Netflix limited series “Madam CJ Walker,” which tells the story of the black hair care pioneer and mogul. The four-part series hails from executive producers LeBron James and Octavia Spencer, who will also star as the titular Madam. The series is inspired by the book “‘On Her Own Ground’ [...]

  • Ken Burns PBS

    BBC Boards 'American Crime Story: Impeachment,' Ken Burns’ 'Country Music'

    The BBC has acquired FX’s “American Crime Story: Impeachment” and Ken Burn’s upcoming PBS documentary series “Country Music,” the broadcaster announced Wednesday at the Edinburgh TV Festival. “American Crime Story: Impeachment” will air on BBC Two in the U.K., while “Country Music” has been picked up by sister channel BBC Four. “Impeachment: American Crime Story” is [...]

  • Sean Spicer Emmys

    Sean Spicer, Lamar Odom Join 'Dancing with the Stars' Cast

    Sean Spicer must have been practicing his dance moves since leaving the White House in 2017. The former press secretary will join the cast of “Dancing with the Stars” which will premiere its 28th season Sept. 16. Other bold-faced names to join the cast include actor James Van Der Beek, former Laker Lamar Odom, “The [...]

  • Small Hand Susan Hill

    Channel 5 Beefs Up Scripted Slate in U.K.

    U.K. broadcaster Channel 5 has unveiled a slate of original dramas, marking the latest step in the Viacom-owned broadcaster’s push into scripted content. The new dramas include a two-hour ghost story from Awesome Media & Entertainment and Two Rivers Media called “The Small Hand” adapted from novel by “The Woman in Black” author Susan Hill; [...]

  • YouTube logo

    BBC Studios to Explore 'The Edge of Science' for YouTube Originals

    The BBC’s production division, BBC Studios, has won its first YouTube Originals commission, “The Edge of Science.” Starring presenter and science enthusiast Rick Edwards and YouTuber Colin Furze, “The Edge of Science” will carry out a range of stunts and experiments to explore if it’s possible to levitate. The presenters will meet the scientists behind [...]

  • Kirsten Dunst'On Becoming a God in

    Kirsten Dunst Talks 'Little Women,' 'Interview With a Vampire' Reboots

    Kirsten Dunst was just 11 years old when she skyrocketed into stardom as Claudia in “Interview with a Vampire,” but now Dunst says her age is the only thing keeping her from reprising the role in a hypothetical reboot. “I mean I’m too old, right?,” she told Variety at the premiere of “On Becoming a God [...]

  • A Planned Parenthood clinic is seen,

    Variety to Forgo Annual Emmy Party for Donation to Planned Parenthood

    Variety has decided to make a donation to Planned Parenthood in lieu of hosting this year’s annual Emmy Awards nominees party in partnership with Women In Film. The decision comes in response to Planned Parenthood’s Aug. 19 announcement that it will drop funding over the current administration’s “unethical” rule blocking the organization from discussing its [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content