When the executive producer of her classic TV show first approached comedian Carol Burnett about doing a question and answer segment at the top of the program, her first reaction was, “Oh gosh, no.”
“What if they didn’t ask questions?” Burnett asked. “Or worse yet, what if they do?”
The producer suggested they compile the questions in advance and have plants in the audience fire them off at Burnett, but she said no. She figured that if they were going to do it, they had to be real with it.
“The first two or three times were pretty dull,” Burnett says. “But after that, people who saw it on TV and then came to the show knew to raise their hands, and came armed with questions, and it got much more interesting.”
“The Carol Burnett Show” ran from 1967 to 1978. Her show’s weekly Q&A segment is as memorable as the “Gone With the Wind” sketch, characters such as Mrs. Wiggins and Eunice, and the ear-tugging and Tarzan yell.
Burnett is still busy working at age 77. She was nominated for an Emmy this year for her role on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” She also has taken her Q&A segment on the road. The tour coincides with her recent book “This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection.”
“I just bump up the lights and people raise their hands,” she says. “I call anybody at random and never know what they’ll ask or say,” she says of the evening, which opens with clips from the TV show. “I just kind of wing it, fly by the seat of my pants.”
In this Q&A, Burnett answers questions about her Q&A tour.
Q. How did the Q&A segment start on the TV show?
A. Back then when shows had live audiences, before they started to film or tape, they’d send comedians out to tell jokes, warm up the audience. Our executive producer said why don’t you go out and warm up the audience so they can know you as Carol Burnett before I start putting on wigs and blacking out my teeth. It was important to let the audience get to know me, and that evolved into the Q&A.
Q. Are the questions today any different from what they were on the TV show?
A. They’re not that different. People are fun, and a lot of them have great senses of humor.
Q. What’s the most common question?
A. There’s a few, like people asking what was the funniest thing that happened with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. I have two or three anecdotes I can tell. People ask can I do the Tarzan yell. I have a story about that, and then I do the Tarzan yell. They ask how did I discover Vicki Lawrence, and I have a cute story about how that came about. ... But most of the time it’s questions I’ve not had before.
Q. What’s the craziest question you’ve been asked?
A. This was a couple of years ago in San Antonio, my hometown. There was a lady in the balcony. I pointed to her, and she asked if I could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours and jump back into being myself, who would I be and what would I do. My mouth dropped open. The audience was laughing, and I’m going, “Oh, my heavens.”
My mind is going a mile a minute and I’m saying a quiet prayer, “Dear Lord, open my mouth and whatever comes out is your fault.” I opened my mouth and had no idea what would come out of me. I said I would be Osama Bin Laden and I would kill myself.
Q. Any question ever made you uncomfortable?
A. I’ve never gotten anything embarrassing. Sometimes people want to be political, but that’s not what this evening is about.
Q. Why don’t variety shows work on TV anymore?
A. I don’t know. It goes in cycles. Years ago, it was Westerns, doctor shows, detective shows. Variety was quite prominent in the early ‘70s with Dean Martin and the Smothers Brothers, and Sonny and Cher, and Jim Nabors and Flip Wilson and “Laugh In.” But they all went the way of the dodo bird. But at least musical theater is coming back. Thank God for “Glee.”
Q. How did your upcoming role in “Glee,” as Sue Sylvester’s mother, come about?
A. I just like the show. I said I would like to do a guest shot on “Glee” and next I heard I got the offer. I love Jane Lynch and Matthew Morrison. That’s going to be fun.