Long before celebrities were encouraging Reddit users to "ask me anything," Carol Burnett was doing the same with fans — but from a stage, with nowhere to hide if things went south.
The six-time Emmy winner, who used question-and-answer sessions to warm up the studio audience for 11 seasons of her variety and sketch comedy series The Carol Burnett Show, brings her touring show, Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection Where the Audience Asks the Questions, to the Kimmel Center on Tuesday.
As always, she won't know the questions in advance. She will be bringing along some clips.
In a recent phone interview, the 83-year-old Burnett talked about flying without a net; the ABC sitcom pilot, Household Name, that could have her back on TV next season as an actress who sells her house to a family with the provision that she continues to live there; and the one question that nearly stumped her.
Here, edited and condensed, is our own question-and-answer session with Burnett:
You were doing these Q&As long before it was common for performers to share so much of themselves with their fans. How did that start?
We decided [on Carol Burnett] not to have the usual warm-up comedian. Because Garry Moore, whom I worked for when I was real young, on his [variety] show, he would go out and take questions from the audience, to warm them up. But they never taped it. I remember the executive producer said, "You know, Carol, you're going to be doing a lot of characters with wigs and black your teeth out and wearing fat suits — it would behoove you to go out as yourself in front of the audience so they get to know you before you put on all those crazy outfits and do all those crazy characters." So it worked. And there were never any plants in the audience. It was all very up-and-up, and honest.
And the show you're bringing here?
After the show went off the air, a few years after that, it was decided that maybe I could just go out, since I did that on my show, and see if it works. So I've been doing this for well over 20 years, going out every once in a while, during the year, to different venues. It's not really a one-woman show; I'm not doing a stand-up, I am engaging the audience, and I always hope that they're going to come ready to have some fun and ask some fun questions.
I kind of fly without a net. It's also fun for me. You have to really be on your toes. You can't be thinking about yesterday, or what you're going to be doing tomorrow, because you've really got to be in the present moment when somebody asks a question and hope that I'll have a fun kind of an answer.
Do you ever have a moment when someone's asking a question and you're briefly at a loss?
There was this one time — you have to remember this was like nine years ago, OK, that's very important — and I was in Texas, and a lady raised her hand, up in the balcony. I remember she was wearing pink, and I said, "OK, the lady up there in the front row of the balcony in pink," and she said, "Carol, if you could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours, and then pop back into being yourself again, who would you be, and what would you do?"
And the audience went, "Whoa." And I — oh, my God, that was the weirdest question. Now remember, nine years ago. And I said a prayer to myself. I said, "OK, OK, Lord. I'm going to open my mouth and whatever comes out is going to be your fault."
And I swear I did not know what was going to come out, but what came out was, "I'd be Osama bin Laden, and I'd kill myself." And the audience went nuts, and I just said, "Thank you, Lord."
You're not on Twitter, but Tim Conway is. Has he tried to talk you into joining?
Yes. You know, life is complicated enough. I'm fairly computer-savvy, and that's enough for me. Who cares what I had for breakfast?
Is there one particular question you get at every appearance?
Well, if I call on the people that ask for it, yeah. There are a few, like, "Would you do the Tarzan yell?" or, "How did that come about?" Or, "How did you discover Vicky Lawrence?" Or, "What's Tim Conway like — is he as funny in real life?"
You're doing an ABC comedy pilot. Had you been looking to come back to series TV?
No, not really. A friend of mine who's a producer/writer, Michael Saltzman, called me and said, "Can I come out and have lunch? I want to talk to you about something." And he was a [producer] for Murphy Brown and Mad Men, and he presented me with this idea and I thought it could be fun. So he took the idea to Amy Poehler, her production company. So she's signed on. They went around and talked to the networks about it, and it was picked up.
One of the things that always impressed me about your career was your friendships. Lucy loved you. Julie Andrews. Who are the performers you admire now?
I'm more into sketch performers, or comedic actresses [or actors], than I am stand-up. I can appreciate stand-up, but it never was my thing. So the people are the usual suspects: Amy Poehler, Tina [Fey], and Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. And Marty Short. Of course, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin.
When I was in my 20s and I was on The Garry Moore Show and one week, we had, I don't know if you know who this man was, but he was a star in the Ziegfeld Follies, he was a famous comedian way back in vaudeville, and his name was Ed Wynn. [Wynn also played Uncle Albert, who loved to laugh, in Mary Poppins.]
We were sitting around a table talking during lunch and got on the subject of comics vs. comedic actors. And he said, "Well, a comic says funny things, like Bob Hope. A comedic actor says things funny, like Jack Benny." And that really stayed with me — I want to be the kind of person who says things funny.
What makes you laugh on TV these days?
Actually, I don't watch much, except some cable, and usually it's Homeland or House of Cards. I do watch Life in Pieces [on CBS]. I do have fun watching that.