Carol Burnett previews her 50th anniversary special — and why Vince Gilligan is in the audience

Carol Burnett (Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS)
Carol Burnett (Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS)

Even if you can’t remember a time when your comedy memory bank didn’t include Mrs. Wiggins, Eunice Higgins, and Marion from “As the Stomach Turns,” it’s still tough to believe The Carol Burnett Show is 50 years old.

“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it,” Carol Burnett tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It seems like it was just yesterday, you know? Twenty-five years ago, we did a reunion special for our 25th [anniversary], and that went so fast … it’s amazing. But what a thrill to think that we’re still kind of viable after 50 whole years.”

Burnett and her comedy cohorts from the Emmy-winning sketch comedy series have reunited again for CBS’s The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special, a celebration that will also include guests — i.e. famous Burnett fans — including Martin Short, Jim Carrey, Bill Hader, Harry Connick Jr., Jane Lynch, Maya Rudolph, Jay Leno, and Stephen Colbert.

Burnett previewed the special, as well as her upcoming Netflix reality series A Little Help With Carol Burnett, and told us how one of the creators of her favorite TV show — Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul — ended up in the anniversary special audience.

Yahoo TV: Les Moonves pointed out that if The Carol Burnett Show was airing originally today, we’d be seeing clips go viral every week. Are you happy that you weren’t doing a show in the time of social media, or do you think it would have been fun?
Carol Burnett: Well, the thing is, I don’t … yes, that would have been fun to see the clips like that if that had existed all those years ago, but I don’t think we could do today what we did back then. No network would do it because of the cost. We had a 28-piece orchestra, and 12 dancers, two guest stars a week, and an average of 65 costumes a week.

You were really doing a Broadway show — a new production — every week.
That’s exactly right. We were doing a musical comedy review every week, and it was always different, so it was kind of like summer stock.

Carol Burnett (Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.)
Carol Burnett (Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.)

But with the most amazing costumes and music.
Yes, absolutely, and musicians, and guests, and the talent that we had. Also, you know, back then the network would hire the artist, and then they would leave us alone. Today, everybody’s got to put their two cents worth in. Instead, [William] Paley and [David] Sarnoff and all of those people … they’d say, “OK, you’re the artist, we’re hiring you — go do what you do,” and they left us alone. I think today … I’ve been on shows as a guest and stuff like that where everybody has something to say. Whether they have the talent to make it better or not, I don’t know, but it’s like they rule by committee and that’s not the way to do it. What we had was a good producer, we had a great head writer and writing staff, and the buck stopped, really, with the big executive producer, and that’s me … and our head writer. The network would just say, “Go do your thing.” And that doesn’t happen [today]. Also, I was thinking about it: If I were doing this today, they would never let me hire Vicki Lawrence. She was 18 years old, fresh out of high school, no experience. That would not ever happen today.

That is really sad to think about.
I know. We just saw something in her, and it took a full season for her to start to blossom, and Harvey [Korman] took her under his wing. He was great with her — taught her how to work with props, and how to not just listen for your cues to say a line … you’ve got to really be in the moment with the other actor and all. And she’s so funny. She said she learned comedy in front of 30 million people a week. She went to school in front of 30 million people, and look how she developed. I was fortunate. I’m happy that we happened at that time in television history because we made television history and what we did could not be done today.

What was it like being back on that original The Carol Burnett Show sound stage for the anniversary special?
I did a couple of specials from there since we stopped doing the show, but it still always just rings a bell for me when I walk onto that stage, and I look out into that audience. It’s the best stage I’ve ever walked on in Television City because it’s like a little theater. I’m sure you’ve been to tapings where you’re in tiers, the audience is above the stage, and they’re looking down on the actors. I always call it the lions versus the Christians. But on Stage 33, you’re above the audience, and there are no cameras that are in front of you and the audience. There are two to the side, and then two in the back, and that’s it, so that the audience is really seeing us without having cameras in the way. When you see the special, you’ll see what I mean. Because there are no cameras on the stage that are in the shot or in the way of the audience, really — the audience is really seeing theater.

Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, and Carol Burnett (Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.)
Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, and Carol Burnett (Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.)

Do you re-create any of the classic sketches in the special?
Oh, no — you can’t go back like that. No, we sent out invitations, because we wanted to make it where people would come on the show and talk about some of their favorite moments, and everybody said yes, so it was a plethora of goodies with our guests. We have segments where we’re sitting on the couch talking, we do a salute to Harvey and show some of his wonderful moments. … I sat with Jay Leno and Bill Hader for that. We salute Tim [Conway] and his work, and that was with Jim Carrey and Martin Short. Vicki came on and we talked with Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Kaley Cuoco, and Beth Behrs. We talk about Vicki and how I discovered her, and then we show Vicki’s first appearance on stage when I brought her out for a Q&A. She was 18, and just so wet behind the ears. It was so cute. I said, “Anybody have any questions for Vicki?” She’s 18, and she was so nervous, and somebody said, “How old are you?” and she said, “I don’t know.” It was so cute.

Vicki Lawrence and Carol Burnett (Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS)
Vicki Lawrence and Carol Burnett (Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS)

Do any of those spectacular Bob Mackie costumes make an appearance?
Yep. We have a whole salute to Bob, and he’s on the show. We talked about how he designed an average of 65 costumes a week — everything that you saw on everybody. All the funny stuff, all the pretty stuff — everything. You know, it was Bob who came up with the curtain rod idea [for the “Went With the Wind” sketch], and that’s in the Smithsonian now. So 65 costumes a week, 276 shows over 11 years, comes to a little more than 17,000 costumes he designed.

Did you do a live Q&A with the audience for the special?
Yes. I did just three questions, and I didn’t know it ahead of time, but one was from Tom Selleck, and another was from Pat Boone. They were in the audience. I just happened to call on Tom … “Oh my God, Tom!”

Jay Leno, Lyle Waggoner, Carol Burnett, Martin Short, Kaley Cuoco, and Beth Behrs (Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS)
Jay Leno, Lyle Waggoner, Carol Burnett, Martin Short, Kaley Cuoco, and Beth Behrs (Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS)

Your Netflix series, A Little Help With Carol Burnett, premieres in 2018. Have you filmed everything for that?
Yep. We did 12 episodes already. It’s very cute. The kids are adorable; their ages range from 5 to 9, and that’s perfect because they’re not yet censoring themselves so they just blurt out whatever’s on their mind. They’re just gems, some of the things these kids come up with. We present them with adult dilemmas. People come on, adults, and say, “How am I going to propose to my girlfriend?” and so forth. And then these kids give them advice.

Is it good advice?
Yeah, some of it was profound. I can’t remember the question that one of the adults asked, but one little girl, she said, “Well, you have to go with your heart.” I mean, wow. That’s pretty profound coming from a 6- or 7-year-old.

What are you watching on TV these days? Is there anything that you really love?
I’m into cable more than anything. I love Better Call Saul and Fargo. I think Vince Gilligan is a genius. I got to meet him. He came to the [special taping]. And the party afterward, because we’ve been trading messages. When I’ve had a driver drive me to work for the studio, that driver also drives Vince. I said, “Oh, you know Vince Gilligan?” And he said, “Yeah,” and I said, “Oh, tell him I love him.” And then the next time, Jason, the driver said, “Well, he’s a big fan of yours, and they watch MeTV all the time.” I said, “Well, we’ve got to get me his email.” So we’ve been emailing. Then I invited Vince to the show and he came, so we got to lock eyeballs and meet, and it was great.

Can you imagine a circumstance where the two of you would work together?
Well, I don’t know. I would love to. I’m such a fan. That imagination of his is wild, just wild.

The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special airs Sunday Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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