The ever-youthful Carol Burnett talks about her show with kids on Netflix
Carol Burnett and her Tarzan yodel returned to series TV for the first time in decades with the recent arrival of Netflix’s “A Little Help With Carol Burnett.” The unscripted chat show features Burnett and a rotating cast of pre-K and grade schoolers candidly discussing everything from the meaning of love to technology to parenting advice: “Bribery always works,” said one of her more astute co-stars.
The 12-episode series, created by Burnett, also features regular Russell Peters and guests such as Wanda Sykes, DJ Khaled and Lisa Kudrow. Burnett, who got her first big TV break as a regular on “The Garry Moore Show,” co-created and hosted what’s now considered the gold standard of variety comedy, “The Carol Burnett Show.” The show, which debuted in 1967 and ran for 11 seasons, was recently celebrated in a 50-year anniversary special on CBS.
Today Burnett is touring the country, as she has done for decades, engaging audiences in the sort of hilarious and honest Q-and-A routine that made her a fan favorite. The bubbly, animated Burnett, 85, sat down before a taping of her Netflix show to discuss her return to series TV, the state of comedy today and why she chose to work with children, even though they quite literally made her sick by sharing their little germs on set.
Burnett: Please excuse the way I sound. I can’t remember the last time I had a cold. I think it’s the routine. OK, and maybe the kids. At the end of the show they’ve been coming up and doing this “Family Feud”-type group hug. But today when we say goodbye, I’m going to high-five, then use hand sanitizer.
Q: Why did you choose the format of impromptu interviews with kids for your return to series TV?
A: I just love kids, especially at this age because they don’t censor themselves. At the top [age range] we have 8-year-olds, and they start as early as 5. So whatever comes out is just gold. You know, when they get to be a little older they start to be aware ‘I should say this, or I shouldn’t say that.’ Life gets in the way. This just appealed to me because it’s so simple. It writes itself, and you just never know what’s going to come out of their mouth.
Q: Isn’t there a saying in show biz: Never work with animals or kids? For many performers, that unpredictability would be terrifying.
A: But I go around the country quite often during the year and do Q-and-A [sessions] without having any plants in the audience. I’m used to flying without a net. But it’s the kids that are the [stars]. I’m just kind of the wrangler, and Russell Peters is terrific. They’re the gold of this show, not me being, well, whatever I am. [Laughs.]
Q: What about watching comedy TV now? Can you enjoy it with without judging it as a performer and show creator?
A: I’m a good audience. But it’s so different today. Without sounding like an old fogy because I’m not, I can take all kinds of comedy, but there’s too much of this edgy thing rather than just out and out, silly belly laughs.
Q: What do you think the difference was between doing a comedy show back then versus now?
A: I’m happy we were when we were, because something happened that just wouldn’t now: The network left us alone. It wasn’t judged by committee. Now all the execs want to get in on it. There are 45 writers, and everybody has a hand in it. And we just barreled through like a live show. And CBS left us alone. Also, I never would have been able to cast Vicky Lawrence today.
A: Because she had no experience. She was 18, right out of high school. But we saw something in her. It took her about one full season to start to come into her own. But today they’d never take on an 18-year-old who just graduated from high school. Are you crazy? And maybe even Harvey Korman because Harvey had been a second banana on the Danny Kaye show. And so today it would be “Well, everybody’s seen him on Danny Kaye. Let’s get somebody else.”
Q: Who was it that gave you all this freedom?
A: Mr. (William) Paley at CBS. He said, “We trust you.”
Q: That’s amazing, especially for a woman in the 1960s.
A: I never would have had this if I hadn’t had a contract that I signed when I was leaving “The Garry Moore Show.” I signed a 10-year contract with CBS, which would require me doing one special a year and two guest shots. My agent came up with the caveat that within the first five years of the contract, if I wanted to push that button and do a variety show — our variety show — CBS would have to put it on whether they wanted to or not. I signed thinking I’ll never be a host. But the last week of the fifth year, my husband and I just bought a house and we’re looking at each other, and I said maybe we ought to push that button. So I called … a big mucky muck at CBS … . He said, “You know, Carol, variety is a man’s game. It’s Sid Caesar. It’s Jackie Gleason, it’s Milton Berle and Dean Martin. It’s not for you gals. He said, “But we’ve got this great pilot sitcom we’d love you to do called ‘Here’s Agnes.’ Here’s Agnes! [makes a goofy face]. I could just see it now.”
Q: How different things could have been.
A: Right. Here she comes! I said I don’t want to be Agnes every week, I want to be different people. I want to have music. I want to have guest stars. I want to be like Sid Caesar, and [because of the contract], they to put us on the air or we wouldn’t be talking today. They had us written off. We were going to go on in September, and they thought they’d probably have to have a replacement in February.
Q: How fast did the show catch on?
A: We went on Monday nights at 10, and we were opposite “I Spy” and “Big Valley,” and those were big guns, but we did well. We survived two or three years there. And then they got the bright idea to move us to Wednesday night opposite “Adam-12” at 8 o’clock and we tanked. But Mr. Paley liked the show. And that’s when they moved to that wonderful Saturday night lineup which was just gangbusters with “All in the Family” and “MASH.” Mary [Tyler Moore], Bob Newhart and us. Everybody thrived.
Q: It was a tumultuous time. How important was it to provide an escape for viewers? Like right now, people also feel overwhelmed, and comedy is thriving.
A: You’ve just answered your own question. [Laughs.] It’s of utmost importance. Right now, [there’s chaos] every 10 minutes. It’s not just every so often that things hit the fan, it’s every 10 minutes. Look at how fast journalism moves now.
Q: It’s exciting and exhausting.
A: I was going to be a journalist.
A: I was editor of my junior high paper and at Hollywood High. And then I went to UCLA to major in journalism, but they didn’t have a major in journalism. So I saw a theater arts/English major where I could take playwriting courses. I enrolled and as a freshman had to take an acting course among other things. So I took this acting class and we had to do a scene, so I picked something that I thought would be light … and I got laughs. And I thought, “This is a good feeling. I think I want to do this.”
Q: Your new Netflix show is full of the kind of spontaneity that “The Carol Burnett Show” is still famous for. You, Vicky, Harvey and Tim (Conway) made each other laugh quite a bit back then, breaking character.
A: We’ve been accused of breaking up on purpose, but we never did and we didn’t do it that much, but people seem to remember it well. What we did was a mini musical comedy revue every week, like a Broadway show. So we would not stop if anything went wrong. Sometimes we have booms coming in the shot. We just said screw it, keep going unless the scenery falls down and knocks us out. We would tape an hour and 15 minutes with all the musical numbers and all of the sketches and costume changes. I’d have a bet with stagehands that I could change [costumes] faster than they could move that chair over there because I didn’t want to keep the audience waiting. Now I’ve done guest shots on 22-minute sitcoms where they take five hours.
Q: Is that how you’re approaching “A Little Help With Carol Burnett”?
A: It’s kids, so we’ll see. But they really put things back in perspective. It’s about having fun.
Q: And they have no concept of who you are, do they?
A: No, and it’s wonderful.
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