When The Carol Burnett Show premiered on CBS in 1967, the producer was not thrilled by Burnett’s idea of opening the show with an audience Q&A. “He said, ‘Oh my God, no … what if nobody asks anything?’ ” recalls Burnett from Los Angeles.
One of the program’s most beloved bits, the dialogues feature prominently in Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter & Reflection Where The Audience Asks The Questions, which comes to Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace May 9. “What I like about [performing] is that it keeps the gray matter ticking, and that’s fun,” says the 84-year-old icon, who’s won everything from Emmys to Golden Globes to the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Burnett, whose appearance also features video clips from her show’s iconic sketches, gives her two cents on variety shows, Chagrin Falls native and co-star Tim Conway and her favorite guests.
Q: What were the strangest audience questions from the show?
A: A lady once raised her hand and asked if she could go to the bathroom. So, I brought her up onstage and took her back to the women’s room while we were still taping. Another lady asked if I had ever had a sex change.
Q: The Carol Burnett Show averaged 30 million viewers a week during its 11-year run. What made it so special?
A: That was an era of great variety shows, but I was told those shows were a man’s game — it was really not for “you gals.” I didn’t want to be the same character every week. I wanted it to be like a Broadway show. We had a 28-piece orchestra, two major guest stars a week and Bob Mackie designed 60 to 70 costumes each week. No network could do that show today. The cost would be prohibitive.
Q: How difficult was it to stay in character when doing sketches with Harvey Korman, Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence?
A: We cracked each other up, but none of us did it on purpose. We struck gold when we had Tim on with Harvey. It was actually Tim’s goal in life to get to Harvey. I wanted the feeling that it was a live show, so we always kept the studio audience happy. … If they were laughing, we knew the people at home were laughing.
Q: Who were your favorite guests?
A: Steve Lawrence was one of the funniest sketch players I’ve ever worked with. We had a sketch with Ray Charles as a piano player in a bar. He told me no one had ever asked him to do anything like that. Gloria Swanson wrote me a fan letter because we were doing Sunset Boulevard. She came on the show and worked like a Trojan. Bette Davis was a fan but she wanted too much money [laughs].