During the 11 years that The Carol Burnett Show was on the air, designer Bob Mackie created some 17,000 costumes for the cast to wear. Among them was a “dress” made out of green velvet curtains that Burnett wore as Scarlett O’Hara in a 1976 sketch called “Went with the Wind.” Parodying the 1939 epic film that had made its network-TV premiere only a month before, Burnett tells her millionaire suitor (played by Harvey Korman) that “I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist it.”
Mackie “created all those,” Burnett tells SF Weekly. “He made me look like Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. He called it ‘Mildred Fierce.’ He made fake hairy eyebrows and pasted them on.”
Charismatic comics and outright hams have tried to revive the variety show over the intervening decades, and almost everyone has failed. Even Maya Rudolph and Martin Short couldn’t do it, relegating the format to the status of a B-plot at award ceremonies and other confabs where a bunch of stars are all in the same room at once. Burnett has a theory as to why that is, and it basically comes down to budget.
“We had a 28-piece orchestra,” she says. “We had 65 costumes a week. We had two guest stars, 12 dancers, we had a terrific company with Harvey, Vicki [Lawrence], Lyle [Waggoner], and later on, Tim [Conway]. In essence, we mounted a Broadway-type musical comedy revue every week.”
Burnett wanted the show to look theatrical because that was her background, and she would encourage the stagehands to change sets as quickly as possible to keep up the atmosphere of a live show. Noting that it will sometimes take five hours to tape a 22-minute sitcom episode, she says that what gave The Carol Burnett Show its spontaneity was the rapid pace of taping. Audiences would be in and out in about two hours, about the length of a Broadway show. And in between, Burnett would do question-and-answer sessions that sometimes got a little nutty.
On Thursday, Oct. 18, Burnett will bring “An Evening of Laughter and Reflection” to Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, and there’s plenty of opportunities for audience engagement.
“I’m flying without a net,” Burnett says. “We open the show with seven, eight, nine minutes of my favorite Q&As on the show to get the audience primed for what the evening is going to be: question and answers. Then I come out, we bump up the lights, and ushers with flashlights and microphones in the audience just say, ‘Raise your hands.’ And off we go! I will pepper the evening with some of the musical guests that we had, some of the movie takeoffs that we had, and that’s about it. It’s a 90-minute show.”
Burnett, now 85, got her start in New York in 1954 as Hurricane Carol bore down on the city. She took that as a positive omen, and paid $18 each week to share a one-closet bedroom with four other young women in an all-female dormitory called the Rehearsal Club. (Affluent theater-going women subsidized the balance of their housing costs.) Hard work led to a series of breaks, and The Carol Burnett Show started in 1967. While not as topical as its lightning-fast contemporary, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, or the edgier Saturday Night Live, the fact that it lasted until 1978 is sufficient proof of its popularity. And although it’s become known for brilliant ad-libs and moments when the actors broke character, Burnett insists those moments were few and far between.
It happened “oh, I would say maybe seven percent of the time in 11 years,” she says. “Usually, it was Tim Conway’s fault. He would instigate it and it was never on purpose. Never. I mean, Harvey would just get so mad at himself, but Tim was out to get him. We would do two shows on Friday, one around 5 p.m. and another at 7:30 or 8 p.m., with two different audiences. … On the first show, Tim would do the sketches just the way we rehearsed them, and then he’d go to the director and say, ‘Did you get all the shots?’ Because that was our safety take. And then he would go crazy on the second show and do stuff we’d never seen before, and that was gold. Ninety-five percent of the time, we would show what Tim did on the second show as opposed to the first show.”
Burnett insists that although network executives initially believed a woman couldn’t carry a variety show, CBS never interfered with their creative control. A consequence of this was that The Carol Burnett Show got away with something else that would be impossible today: hiring a youthful newcomer.
“No network would let me hire Vicki Lawrence,” she says. “She had no experience. She was 18, just out of high school. Today, between the networks and sponsors there may be 40 people who are going to put in their two cents’ worth to tell you how to do a show.”
Referring to the sketches that later became the sitcom Mama’s Family, Burnett adds that Lawrence “started out as my kid sister and ended up as my mother.”
Although Burnett is known for tugging on her ear every time she appears on TV — originally a signal to her supportive grandmother that she was doing OK, and now mostly a habit — she doesn’t consider herself to be a superstitious actor. But as with the hurricane with the same name lashing Manhattan 64 years ago, Burnett’s career has had a few poignant coincidences. Lucille Ball sent her flowers every year on her birthday, and even though the red-headed comedienne passed away on Burnett’s birthday in 1989, the bouquet still arrived.
“She always sent me a card: ‘Happy Birthday, Kid,’ ” Burnett recalls. “She called me Kid because she was 22 years old than I, and I woke up and turned on the TV and got Good Morning, America or The Today Show and they said she had died that morning. She was a good friend, and I got flowers that afternoon — and I was gobsmacked. But bless her heart. She was so good to me, a really good friend.”
Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection, Thursday, Oct. 18, 8 p.m., at the Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland. $67-$177, paramounttheatre.com