BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—It was one of the greatest variety shows of all time, and when “The Carol Burnett Show” went dark in 1979 so did the genre.
Though the show lasted 11 years it began with a whimper. “When we first started, it was Monday nights at 10 o’clock, and we were opposite `I Spy’ and `Big Valley,’” recalls Burnett at a press gathering here.
“Then, I remember they moved us to Wednesday, and I think we were opposite ... `Adam 12’ and we just tanked. And then, they got the idea to do the lineup on Saturday night, and that’s when the magic happened.”
What clicked was a cast of zanies—including Tim Conway, Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence—all of whom could do just about anything on stage, spearheaded by the multitalented Burnett.
“The synergy was just right and wonderful ... I feel sorry for anybody kind of starting out today that might want to do what we did, because I don’t think it can be done anymore,” says Burnett.
“I don’t think a network would have the faith in it, nor would they want to put the money into it. It would cost a lot more now to do what we did then.”
What they did then will be featured Nov. 5 on PBS when it airs “American Masters—Carol Burnett: a Woman of Character.”
She doesn’t watch television much these days, Burnett admits. “Now, it’s all pretty much reality shows, and they can only go so far. And I miss the good dramas and I miss good comedies. And I do miss variety. I mean singing, dancing, sketches, costumes, guest stars. I mean, maybe somebody can come back and a network would have the faith in someone who would do that. I can think of a few people who would be wonderful, but it’s really the suits, they run it.”
Born to alcoholic parents, Burnett was raised by her grandmother and attended Hollywood High School. Originally she wanted to be a journalist or a cartoonist and began studying journalism at UCLA.
“At one point I entertained the idea of having my own comic strip and writing it, and I would draw constantly—but then, my other love was, when we had the money, my grandmother would save up and we would go—I was raised in Hollywood and so our theaters were the Pantages and Grauman’s Chinese and the Egyptian and so forth, although we would go to the second runs.
“And so there were times when we would see as many as—because they would be double features—as eight movies a week. Growing up in the `40s and the `50s, I am so grateful for that, because the movies of that era—you know, somebody might look at them now and say, `Oh, they’re so old-fashioned and so forth.’ But they gave this little girl hope. The bad guys got their just dues, and the good guys always came through. And I was kind of raised without cynicism because I love the movies, and so I never felt cynical. I never felt angry. I never felt that I couldn’t do anything. I had really a Mickey (Rooney) and Judy (Garland) mentality.”
Once she started to perform at college, she says she imagined herself in New York. “I just knew I had to go to New York because I wanted to be Ethel Merman and Mary Martin, and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t go to New York. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”
Following a performance at a party, a wealthy socialite staked her trip (which she repaid). “I’d never been further east than Texas, didn’t even know where I was going to stay. That’s how stupid I was. But I found my way, and I was never frightened. And I really think it was because I was naive and—but maybe you even want to call it a little bit stupid, but I never was frightened ... I just thought life was a movie and this is going to end OK.”
After a series of odd jobs she landed a role on a couple of daytime shows and developed a following when she included the specialty number, “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles” (then secretary of State), in her nightclub act.
“That was written by Ken Welch. And I was appearing at the Blue Angel at the time, a nightclub act, and that was my opening number. And it was about a girl who was crazy. It was like the Elvis Presley craze at the time, and then Ken said, `Wouldn’t it be funny if we wrote it about a young girl going crazy over John Foster Dulles?’ who was aptly named. And I cracked up. I said, `Oh, my God, that is funny.’
“So we did it and started to get some noise and attention. And Jack Paar asked me to come on (his show), and I did the number, and then I went back to the Angel that night to do the second show. And the phones were ringing off the hook. One of them was a man named David Waters, who was Mr. Dulles’ television adviser.
“And he said, `Mr. Dulles didn’t see it. Could you go back on the Paar show on Thursday night and do it?’ I said, `It’s fine by me.’ So I went on Thursday night, and then Ed Sullivan had me do it that Sunday night. So I did the song three nights in a week,” she says.
“And the following Sunday, Mr. Dulles was on `Meet the Press.’ And I was watching. It was all very serious. And then finally the last two minutes, they’re ready to sign off. One of the interviewers said, `Well, now, Mr. Dulles, on a lighter note here, just what’s going on between you and that young lady that sings that love song about you?’ And I’m going, `Oh, my God.’ And he got twinkly-eyed, and he had this little grin. Dulles was grinning. And he said, `Well, I make it a matter of policy never to discuss matters of the heart in public.’”
One of the best series ever on television, “My So-Called Life,” arrives on DVD Oct. 30. It not only made a star of Claire Danes, it also made her a woman. Today she says of the experience: “It was such pleasure to tell people how it is to be teenager and how complex it is and how wonderful and stimulating it can be. Also I got to really dig into my own adolescence because I was going through similar experiences of (her character) Angela—living kind of parallel lives. Also it was the best way to break into this business, working in such a warm, loving, caring environment. And everybody was so bright and creative and everyone was on my side.”
Veronica Mars is mixing with the “Heroes” this week when Kristen Bell arrives as a new character, Elle, on the NBC hit. Though she won’t reveal too much about the character she does say, “She doesn’t have many boundaries which I think is the really interesting part of playing this character on this particular show because the whole first season has been about these, you know, fairly good-natured people in trying to embrace these confusing abilities and being very (conflicted) as to how they should be using them. And Elle is not that way at all. She very much enjoys her power and enjoys the emotional power it gives her over other people ... And I think the depth at which they’ve written Elle, this character, she’s so conflicted and sort of comes across as such as vixen, it’s so much fun to play with.”
Some of the senior folk find Fox’s “Family Guy” a little too gamey for polite company. But creator and co-executive producer Seth MacFarlane says the show is careful to offer something for everybody. “The thing that I try to do with `Family Guy’ is to kind of have this balance between the classic and the edgy. You know, we do a lot of poop jokes, but at the same time, we use a 45-piece orchestra every week with a full string section. And we don’t try to shock for shock’s sake. If something is just shocking and not funny, then we’ll cut it out. And we have these table reads every week, which we do for each episode, in which we have a very good cross section of artists and people from the outside and writers, and the studio network is there. And no one is shy about gasping in horror if we have crossed the line, and so it’s a very good barometer. So we do try and—we’re never out to shock for the sake of shocking.”
The show will be celebrating its 100th episode special Nov. 4.