Can you believe Carol Burnett has never hosted Saturday Night Live?! Never even been asked?! It’s a surprising, but true fact we learned when the Emmy-winning TV legend talked to Yahoo TV this week about her new Carol Burnett Show memoir, In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox.
The book, full of anecdotes about the 1967-78 variety series that won 25 Emmys, covers the history of how Burnett created the show (after rejecting CBS’s offer to star in a sitcom called Here’s Agnes), how she cast her co-stars (Vicki Lawrence owes her career to a piece of fan mail she wrote to Burnett), the co-star she once fired (and quickly rehired), and all the characters (Mama, Eunice, Mr. Tudball, Mrs. Wiggins, and the rest) who are still making us laugh via the recently released DVDs and YouTube channel dedicated to The Carol Burnett Show.
Burnett, who shares fun stories in the book about guest stars like Alan Alda, Lucille Ball, and Jimmy Stewart, also talked to us about how the costumes created by incredibly prolific designer Bob Mackie were key in creating some of the show’s most memorable moments, and hinted that there may be a new Carol Burnett show in Netflix’s future.
Congratulations on the book, which is a perfect collection of anecdotes and memories of all the things fans loved most about The Carol Burnett Show.
Oh my gosh, thank you, that’s really thrilling to me. You wonder when you’re finally going to give birth after two years. I felt like an elephant. “How is it going to be received, and are people going to really be interested in reading all of that?” You don’t know when you live with it that long.
What made you write this biography of the show now?
The reason I did this was because I was getting calls from writers who wanted to write about my show, and they wanted to interview me. And since I’m a writer, the penny finally dropped, and I thought, “You know, I should write this, because I’m the one who was there.” Yeah, I watched, I got out all the DVDs, the 11 years, and went through almost all of them. I didn’t watch them straight through, because there were some sketches that I remembered, but I wanted to jog my memory about those that I didn’t remember. It was fun to see how raw we were the first few shows and even the first season, and then how we started to grow and blossom. Vicki [Lawrence], of course, because she was 18, and how she was like a sponge, absorbing and learning. Even Harvey Korman, who was a brilliant comedic actor from the beginning, even he was growing and blossoming, and I certainly did.
What’s nice is that the DVDs, the YouTube channel… it’s exciting for me, because I’m getting fan mail from 10-year-olds. And teenagers, and young people in their twenties, who hadn’t seen the light of day when we went on. It proves to me that when people say, “How did it hold up so well?” that funny is funny no matter what kind of costumes you might be wearing. Also, what we did — I guess we did it on purpose, I can’t remember — was not get topical that much, so that the comedy is not, “Oh, well they’re referring to something that happened 40 years ago.” Today, you’ll watch say, “The Dentist” sketch with Harvey and Tim [Conway], and that’s as funny as you can get, and that’s over 40 years old. It holds up.
Do you think that’s why it’s been so tough for people to have a successful variety show today, that they’re being too topical?
Saturday Night Live is all topical, certainly with what’s going on today in politics. That works. Whether or not it will still work 30 years from now, who knows? I think of Dean Martin. That holds up. Dean holds up because he was just loose and funny and had a good time. I think some of Sid Caesar’s stuff would hold up. I think all of those because they just didn’t get into what was happening in the news today.
You mentioned Saturday Night Live. You’ve never hosted. Is that something you might ever do?
If I’m asked.
You’ve never been asked to host SNL?
That’s shocking. Well, there is a Facebook page, with more than 95,000 likes from people who want you to host, so maybe this season.
Oh, thank you!
When fans approach you about The Carol Burnett Show, which characters do they most often talk to you about?
Certainly the movie take-offs, “Went With the Wind.” Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins. “The Family,” with Eunice and Ed and Mama. Those were kind of unusual for a weekly variety show, because they were almost, I don’t know, too hard to watch at times, that dysfunctional family. John J. O’Connor, from The New York Times, wrote about it. He said it was very unusual for a variety show to put those kinds of characters [on]. One time we were rehearsing one of those sketches, “The Family,” and Maggie Smith was a guest. It took place in a schoolroom after school. Maggie was a schoolteacher who called us in because Ed and Eunice’s son, Bubba, was a school bully. The whole point of the sketch was that after she had these conversations with the family, she realized why poor little Bubba was the way he was. It was because of these awful people. One of us, just for fun, in the rehearsal hall one afternoon, said, “Let’s just do this straight without putting the spin on the characters, with the accents and all that.” We did… it was devastating. There wasn’t one laugh at all. Then you put the spin on the characters and the costumes and the way they were, and it was hysterical. That was a testament to the quality of the writing of those particular sketches. I thought the writing was absolutely brilliant.
You mentioned in a recent interview that you’ve talked to Netflix about doing a show. Would it be a variety series?
I might do something. I’m not sure what I’m after next. I really can’t comment on that one.
Would you want to do another variety show or maybe revive Mama’s Family?
No, because that was right for the time it was on. You can’t go back again, because nothing would ever be as good as it was in people’s minds, in people’s memories. Also, we’re all older, it’s a different kind of situation today on television, and just let it be where it is in the time capsule, because that’s where it belongs.
Are there people who you want to work with that you haven’t yet?
Oh gosh, you name it. I’ll go out on a limb… Kevin Spacey. Meryl Streep. Because they are funny, and they are musical. Of course, they can do everything else, too, but I’m just thinking how versatile they are. Did you ever see Kevin on The Actor’s Studio? I fell on the floor. James Lipton interviewed him [imitating] various movie stars. He said, “Okay, Mr. Pacino, how do you feel about…” and then Kevin would go into being Al Pacino. Yeah. I mean, he would have been a stand-up comic way back in the day. He even did Katharine Hepburn. I thought, “My goodness, he’s brilliant.” And Meryl Streep can do no wrong, and she’s quite musical, and she’s very funny.
You calculated in the book that Bob Mackie, who really launched his career designing every costume on your show for all 11 seasons, made more than 17,000 outfits during that time. The “Went With the Wind” dress, the iconic curtain rod dress, is in the Smithsonian. Are there any other Mackie costumes from the show that stand out for you?
Originally, Tim Conway wrote the Wiggins and Tudball sketches. Mrs. Wiggins, he envisioned, was this doddering old lady. When I went into costume fitting that week, Bob said, “You know what? You’ve been doing a bunch of old ladies lately. Let’s make her different… make her a blonde bimbo.” He put me in this tight black skirt. It was an old skirt, and it bagged in the behind. I said, “Bob, you’re going to have to take this in, because I’m kind of flat back there.” He said, “No, stick your behind into it.” I stuck my behind into where it was bagging, and that’s how I got the Wiggins walk. That waddle thing when her butt is sticking out? That was Bob. He gave me my character. I used to say I didn’t know half the time how I was going to do a character until I knew what I was going to be wearing.
Did you keep any of the outfits he created for the show for your personal wardrobe?
I have a couple of beaded jackets that he made, and they’re just as good today as they were back then.
Carol Burnett’s In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox is now available from Crown Archetype.