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Carol Burnett: a bucket, a mop, and a long career

The Carol Burnett Show ran 11 seasons, and what else could be said at the end of its run but, "We're so glad we had this time together." Family entertainment in the very best sense, the hour-long weekly program featured skits, music and comedic what-have-yous. Perhaps its coziest moments were the segments where the comedian said "Let's bump up the lights," and proceeded to take questions from the audience. She's using that Q&A format for her Laughter and Reflection with Carol Burnett concerts in Canada. Before the tour, the lantern-jawed laugh-maker took our questions, as well as three from Globe and Mail readers.

You have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, your show won some 25 Emmys and you were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. But what was the favourite compliment you've personally received?

I'll drop a big name on you here: Jimmy Stewart, who I'd loved from the first time I saw him in a movie. My grandmother and I had to gone to a movie - I was three or four years old, and my feet couldn't touch the floor of the movie house. I remember seeing that voice and hearing that voice and feeling that I would know him some day. I told my grandmother, "I know him," she said, "No, you don't," and I said, "Well, it just hasn't happened yet."

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And eventually it did happen?

Yes. Years later, I did become acquainted through mutual friends, and on my final show he surprised me. They hid him in one of the dressing rooms, to keep me from seeing him. Tim Conway came on stage and said that we had a special guest. And there was Jimmy at the piano, singing his favourite song, Ragtime Cowboy Joe . He came over and gave me a kiss and complimented me on our 11-year-run [from 1967 to 1978] and then he talked about how much I meant to him. I was a puddle.

You entertained us for years, but who is it that makes you laugh?

My favourite comedian, of course, is Tim Conway. He has a way about him - being that belly-laugh kind of funny, and he has the improvisational skills too. I've never seen anybody better. I remember Johnny Carson saying that Tim made him laugh more than anybody.

It must have been quite a scene in those days. Is there one party or one night that stands out above the others?

Okay, here's another big name. Harvey Korman came into rehearsal one Monday, after he had been at a party on the weekend. He said, "Guess who was there?" I said, "Who?" and he said, "Cary Grant, and guess what? He came over to me and said The Carol Burnett Show was his favourite show and that he never misses it, and then he went to the hostess and asked where the television was, so he could watch it, right in the middle of the party."

Everybody was a fan it seems. Did you meet Grant?

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I did. Two weeks later I was invited to a party at [singer]Peggy Lee's house. It was wall-to-wall celebrities, a bucket of worms. It got very quiet all of a sudden, when Peggy answered the door and there was Cary Grant, bigger than life. I ran to the closet to get my coat, and told my husband Joe I wanted to leave. He said, "Don't you want to meet Cary Grant? He likes the show." I said that's exactly why I wanted to leave, because I knew I'd say something stupid. So I'm putting my coat on, and there's a tap on my shoulder and it's Peggy with Cary. She asked me where I was going, and said that Cary wanted to meet me. I looked up to that face of his, and I was so thrown I was watching his mouth move but I couldn't hear anything - my ears were going "boom, boom, boom," because my heart was pounding. Then his lips stopped moving, so I realized it was my turn to say something.

I can only imagine what you said to him.

I swear to God, this is what came out: I said, "Oh, you're a credit to your profession." I wanted the floor to open up. Later, when we were driving home, my husband said, "You were right, we should have left."

Did you see Grant again?

Yes. We later became friends, and he would invite us to go the races with him and his wife at Hollywood Park racetrack. He used to say, "I would like to be Cary Grant. I'm not even Cary Grant." What people thought of him was not exactly who he was. In some of his early movies he was a tumbler. He could do slapstick and pratfalls and all kinds of things before he became the Hitchcock Cary Grant.

Sounds like Cary Grant was Dick Van Dyke.

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You know what? That's a very good comparison. Exactly.

Here's a question from one of our readers: 'Was Carol Burnett ever a dancer? I always thought that she had something of a ballerina figure and wondered if that was something she had ever done?'

[Laughs]Maybe we'll make that the best compliment I ever had. Actually, I can't dance. Whatever movement I ever did in the Gary Moore Show or my show or on stage I learned from the choreographer. I used to get into such a state when I knew I had to do a few steps in a finale or something.

What was your best career decision?

Many years ago, this would be 1959, I had an offer for a six-week run of an off-Broadway show called Once Upon a Mattress , for which I would be paid $80 per week. I had a manager at the time who said he could book me in Las Vegas at $1,500 a week. I said no, I'm going to do Once Upon a Mattress . It would be my first venture on to a New York stage, it ended up running a year, and it would be my introduction to Broadway.

Another question from a reader: 'What do you think is the reason that the variety show as we've known it has fallen by the wayside?'

I think the culprit is money. The networks don't want to spend that kind of money on a variety show. We had a 28-piece orchestra, 12 dancers, guest stars and all kinds of music, sketches and jumping around and so forth. At one point, back then, there were nine variety shows on the air.

You mentioned the late Harvey Korman. You must miss him.

I miss him dearly. I put him on a pedestal, right across from Conway. What Harvey possessed was that he was one of the best actors I've worked with, and he had the comedic chops to go with that. He was always true to the character - he never totally went for laughs. He made me better.

And our final question, from a reader: 'I have always wondered if the chemistry you all shared was shaped by a producer or yourself, or if it just grew out of the talent involved?'

It was a gift from the gods. The network didn't have much faith in us. They had kind of cancelled us is in their minds after the first half of the first year. I remember I got Vicki [Lawrence]and Lyle [Waggoner]and Harvey, and we all got together and I said, "Look, we don't know how far this is going to go, so what we're here for is to have fun, and that will be our legacy even if we were only on for six months." And that was it. It was a family, that's what it was. It wasn't planned, we just said, "Let's go for it."

Laughter and Reflection with Carol Burnett plays Toronto's Massey Hall Friday night , Regina June 14, Saskatoon June 16 and Vancouver Sept. 24.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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