Just ask Carol

Staff writerApril 1, 2011 

  • What: "Laughter and reflection with Carol Burnett: A Conversation with Carol where the Audience Asks the Questions"

    When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St.

    Cost: $49-$131

    Details: dpacnc.com or 680-2787

One rarely gets a chance to converse with a performer of the stature of Carol Burnett, who has been in show business for more than a half-century - more than a decade of that as host of "The Carol Burnett Show."

And yet she keeps at it, with a roadshow that gives audiences a chance to ask ... well, anything. She brings it to Durham on Saturday, so bring your questions. We caught up with her by phone from Los Angeles.

Q: Do you think a sketch-style program like "The Carol Burnett Show" could work on prime-time television today?

I do, although it would have to be done differently because how we did it would be too expensive. We had a 28-piece orchestra, dancers, singers. The costs would just be prohibitive, so you'd have to come up with a different take on it. But the talent's definitely there, and "Glee" being such a hit is bringing music back to living rooms.

Q: Speaking of "Glee," what was it like doing that cameo as Sue Sylvester's mom?

Oh, I loved doing it. Jane Lynch, I just adore her. So it was great for the two of us to lock eyeballs in those scenes, a lot of fun. I really admire what they do. The kids on that show are terrific.

Q: "The Carol Burnett Show" always closed with you getting that episode's guests to sign an autograph book, right before you'd sing "Carol's Theme." Whatever became of those books?

I have a few of them. The rest are in storage somewhere. I'm not sure what will become of them - first I'll have to find 'em. I might donate them to UCLA, or the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian has the Scarlet O'Hara dress from the show, on a mannequin behind Plexiglas with a photo of the "Gone with the Wind" sketch that it was in. It's in a Bob Mackie display. I'm told that everybody who sees that just starts laughing. It was Bob Mackie's brilliant idea, that curtain rod across the shoulders. I still think it was one of the funniest moments ever on TV.

Q: You must get some strange questions in this format (her Q&A with audiences).

When I call on somebody, it's always random. I tell people to raise their hand; I'll call on you and then yell out your question. I do get a lot of the same ones over and over - what Tim [Conway] and Harvey [Korman] were like in real life, how did I find Vicki [Lawrence]; do the Tarzan' yell. A lot of questions I can count on, so I develop certain set stories for those. And sometimes you can tap dance around things.

Q: What was the strangest question to come up?

Well, you never know when a new one will pop up. One lady in the balcony in San Antonio, my hometown, asked, "Carol, if you could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours and then pop back to yourself, who would you be and what would you do?" The audience started laughing just from the look on my face. So I said a quick prayer in my mind - "OK, God, I'm gonna open my mouth and whatever comes out is your fault." So I did, I opened my mouth not knowing what I'd say. And what came out was, "I'd be Osama Bin Laden, and I'd kill myself." The audience laughed a whole lot and I said, "Thank you, God." It was surreal, like speaking in tongues.

Q: That's nice.

Yeah. Another time, a kid in the audience raised his hand and said, "It's my 24th birthday; would you give me a hug?" So I had him come up; the audience sang "Happy Birthday"; I gave him a hug; he went back and sat down. A few questions later, a nice-looking man in a suit and tie said, "It's my birthday, too." The audience laughed and I said, "Come on up." But I decided to play with him. He started to hug me and I said, "Not so fast, we've got to get to know each other first. What's your name?" Bob, he said. "How old are you?," I asked, and he said 40. "Have you ever really thought in terms of an older woman?" Gosh, no, he said. "Bob, are you involved with somebody else?" Sort of, he said. "What do you mean, 'Sort of'?" "Well," he said, "I'm a priest." Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned! There were two nuns in the front row laughing hysterically.

Q: What sort of career advice do you give aspiring performers?

There's not one piece of advice I can give any better than to keep on keepin' on. There's not just one way to do it. There are a million stories of people who have been successful, and none of them are the same. Everybody's got their own doors they have to open up and go through. But the main thing is to be prepared. Try out for school plays, and get in as many chances to perform as you can. That's how you learn. You have to have the fire in your belly to want it badly enough that you can take rejection. After I got to New York, I pounded the pavement to all these cattle-call auditions, and I'd have these close callbacks where I wouldn't quite get it. But I was never crushed. "Well," I'd think, "it's her turn. Someday my turn will come. This one was not meant for me." But that can be hard.

Q: What was your hardest-to-take near-miss?

I auditioned for a show Richard Rodgers was taking down to Florida, a revival of "Babes in Arms." It would have been fantastic, two songs I could've belted out. But the director wanted to go with a name instead. I was crushed. But right after his call, the producers of "Once Upon a Mattress" called me to come audition. I did, and I knew I'd get it because I'd visualized myself working on my first show with George Abbott - and he was the director. By the time I got back home from the subway, my phone was ringing and I got the part. That production of "Babes in Arms" never did make it to Broadway, but I did. My kid sister, who I was raising, told me that old cliche: One door closes, another opens. It was my turn.

Q: Your daughter, Carrie Hamilton, died nine years ago. Do you ever miss her any less?

No. In fact, I'm doing another book. A lot of it is about Carrie. Well, all of it is, in fact. I've saved many of her writings and outlooks. She wrote a journal as a Christmas present once, of a whole year. So I'm putting that into this format of a mother-daughter relationship book with Carrie. There's some stuff she wrote that's just very funny, insightful. I hope readers will take to it. We'll see. I've just started, but it's already over 100 pages.

david.menconi@newsobserver.com, or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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