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Carol Burnett On Her Signature Ear Pull And Accessing A Wide Audience

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. "The Carol Burnett Show," one of TV's classic variety shows, ran on CBS from 1967 to 1978. In terms of musical variety, it's a significant chapter in TV history. Carol admired the work of Sid Caesar on TV's first great sketch series, "Your Show Of Shows," at the start of the '50s. By the end of the '50s, Carol was on TV herself as a supporting player on another very popular variety series, "The Garry Moore Show," which gave equal weight to comedy and music.

And in 1967, she began hosting her own musical variety series on CBS at a time when even her own network had doubts that a woman could carry a variety show. But "The Carol Burnett Show" ran for 11 years and, for a time, was part of what's still thought of as the best night of television ever shown. It was a Saturday night lineup that began with "All In The Family" and "MASH," continued with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Bob Newhart Show" and concluded with "The Carol Burnett Show."

Carol's show has been available to watch pretty much ever since, but the episodes have all been heavily edited. Musical performances and other parts of the show were cut out because it cost too much to secure the rights to include them - until now, that is. For the first time, Time Life is presenting, on Amazon Prime Video, Roku and other streaming platforms, 65 complete one-hour episodes from "The Carol Burnett Show" hand-picked by the star herself.

The collection includes Carol's musical duets with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Mel Torme and Bernadette Peters and such classic skits as her parody of "Gone With The Wind" and the Tim Conway dentist sketch - and even the skit when Conways exasperated office manager, Mr. Tudball, first meets and hires his super ditzy secretary, Mrs. Wiggins, played by Carol Burnett.


CAROL BURNETT: (As Mrs. Wiggins) Here's my resume.


TIM CONWAY: (As Mr. Tudball) I suppose at least I could give you the courtesy of going through this. You...


BURNETT: (As Mrs. Wiggins) There's my name there.

CONWAY: (As Mr. Tudball) Wanda Wiggins?

BURNETT: (As Mrs. Wiggins) Wanda Wiggins, yes.

CONWAY: (As Mr. Tudball) Wonderful, catchy little name there.


CONWAY: (As Mr. Tudball) Well, I suppose I could ask you a few questions. Do you take shorthand?

BURNETT: (As Mrs. Wiggins) No.


CONWAY: (As Mr. Tudball) Have you had any filing experience?

BURNETT: (As Mrs. Wiggins) No.

CONWAY: (As Mr. Tudball) You type, don't you?

BURNETT: (As Mrs. Wiggins) I don't know. I've never tried.


BIANCULLI: Today, we're featuring two conversations with Carol Burnett, one with Terry Gross from 2003 and a new one with me recorded last week. Let's start with Terry's interview. She spoke with Carol Burnett on the publication of an updated edition of Carol's memoir, "One More Time," and shortly before she was celebrated as a new honoree at the Kennedy Center.


TERRY GROSS: Carol Burnett, congratulations on your Kennedy Center honor, the republication of your memoir and the new forthcoming production of "Once Upon A Mattress."

BURNETT: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: And welcome to FRESH AIR (laughter).

BURNETT: Thanks, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Now, the book of yours that's just been published with a new afterword is a memoir about your childhood and your coming of age. When you were young - you know how some people see life as a tragedy and some people see life as a comedy? You're largely a comedic actress. When you were growing up, did you see the comedy in life?

BURNETT: Yes, I think I did. I had a lot of laughs with my grandmother and my mother. They had great senses of humor. And people who read the memoir and have read it, they think, oh, my gosh, that was a real tough upbringing. But I never felt that. We were poor. And both my parents died, eventually, of alcoholism. But I was kind of in the same boat with a lot of the kids in the neighborhood. Everybody was poor. And a lot of their folks had drinking problems. But we found a way to survive and to play and to laugh and thrive in a funny way.

GROSS: Now, you were raised primarily by your grandmother even when your mother was alive, right?

BURNETT: Yes. Actually, my folks, my parents, came to Hollywood from Texas and left me there with my grandmother. They were hoping that they were going to strike it big out here in Hollywood. And then they divorced. And so my grandmother and I followed my mother out to Hollywood in 1940. And momma lived in an apartment building one block north of Hollywood Boulevard but, really, a million miles away from Hollywood. You know, it was just the neighborhood.

And she got us a single room, which faced the lobby of the building. And momma was down the hall. And so nanny - that was my grandmother - and I lived in this one room. But the doors were always open. And momma was in our place as much as we were down the hall with her. So - but I did live and stay and sleep in the same room as my grandmother. We had a Murphy pull-down bed from the wall. And I slept on the couch.

GROSS: Now, two things I read about your grandmother that seem totally contradictory to me or at least difficult to live with as a package is that, one, she was a hypochondriac. And, two, she was a Christian scientist.

BURNETT: (Laughter).

GROSS: Was she both?

BURNETT: Go figure.

GROSS: Yeah.

BURNETT: Go figure. She was a hypochondriacal Christian scientist. She would have (laughter) Mary Baker Eddy's "Science And Health With Key To The Scriptures." And she would hold that book. And she would read it and what we call, she would know the truth. In other words, there is no illness. There is no evil. There is no this and that. But then she was constantly (laughter) feeling her pulse...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: ...And saying, oh, my god, I'm dying. Get me a phenobarbital.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: So you know, (laughter) she had all the bases covered. If God didn't come through for her and she didn't know the truth well enough, I would have to run in and, you know, get the pills and give it to her.

GROSS: Was she a dramatic hypochondriac? Did she have a theatrical flair about it?

BURNETT: Yes. Yes. Yes. And she could kind of look like she was going to faint, you know, and lie down and fan herself, you know, with her hand and put a wash rag on her forehead. But then if somebody came and said, hey, let's go to the movies, she'd be up and out...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: ...Ready to go.

GROSS: Now, your parents were both drinkers. They were alcoholics. Did they become different people when they drank?

BURNETT: Yes and no. Actually, my dad drank before my mother did. He - in fact, at one time, I remember seeing momma break a bottle of his that she'd found and pour it down the sink. But daddy, when he drank, just became sweeter. He was - there wasn't a mean thought in his body. He was - I've always said he was like a drunk Jimmy Stewart...


BURNETT: ...You know? He just got sweeter. But he was ineffectual. He couldn't hold a job. You know, he was just a hopeless - he had that disease. Momma didn't start drinking until later. And she wasn't living with daddy then. But she started heavily in her 30s. And she was a mean drunk. She could really get mean and vicious and angry. Again, that frustration, you know, just came out. You know, it was just totally a hundredfold, I guess you would want to say, when she drank. She was very witty, and she was very beautiful at first.

GROSS: Was she mean to you when she got drunk?

BURNETT: Yeah, yeah. She could be mean to me, too. Yeah. And then she and Nanny would go at it, you know. And sometimes I would just sit in the corner and draw. I, at one point, entertained the idea of being a cartoonist and having my own comic strip, and I could almost just ignore them while they were arguing because it was like background music, you know. And, yeah, she would be unreasonable. You know, she would accuse me of something - and I was a good kid. I was a goody-two-shoes, actually. And she would accuse me of ridiculous stuff when she drank.

BIANCULLI: Carol Burnett speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Carol Burnett. Sixty-five episodes of "The Carol Burnett Show" are being shown in full for the first time since her series left the air more than 40 years ago. Terry Gross spoke to her in 2003.


GROSS: Now, you grew up in Los Angeles. You went to Hollywood High. How do you think your encounters with the world of show business were any different growing up in Los Angeles and going to Hollywood High than they would have been had you, say, stayed in San Antonio? Were you...


GROSS: Were you connected by geography to the world of Hollywood?

BURNETT: No, not at all. It could have been a different name. The difference was we had all these movie theaters on Hollywood Boulevard. And my grandmother would save up enough money because way back then, before I turned 12, my - it was 11 cents for me to go to the movies, and it was a quarter for my grandmother.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: You know, and we would see - on average, in the '40s, we would see eight movies a week because we would go to two movies during the week and then two on the weekend. But they were all double features - second runs is what we called them. You know, so I'd see eight movies a week. So that was my connection to Hollywood, but that could have been in San Antonio also.

And Hollywood High, the three years I went there, they didn't have a drama class, of all things. So that whole - my high school years were - Mama said, you know, you ought to take up journalism, and I did at Hollywood High. And I got very interested in that and took the journalism course and became editor of the Hollywood High School News and wrote a column. And I even interviewed a movie star, Joel McCrea. And that was fun. So that's what I really kind of thought I was going to be. So - and Mama kept pushing it because that's what she wanted to do.

GROSS: Right.

BURNETT: And - yeah.

GROSS: Was there a point when you realized that's what she wanted to do and not necessarily what you wanted to do?

BURNETT: After the fact. So when I got into UCLA, I thought I was going to major in journalism, but they did not have a major in journalism. But then I majored in theater arts English because then I could get the playwriting courses. No matter what, when you major in theater arts, whether you want to write or be a director or design scenery or whatever, when you're a freshman at UCLA then - I guess it's still the same way - you had to take an acting class.

And so I was kind of terrified about it and had to get up in front of some people. And I did a scene with a guy who was in the class that was a comedy scene, and they laughed. And I thought, well, that's really nice, you know (laughter). I like that. I just felt validated, you know. And it was a high all through high school and junior high. I guess you could describe me as being one of the nerds. You know, I was quiet. I was not particularly attractive. I had friends. I had a lot of buddies, but I was not what one would call very popular.

But after I did a few scenes, you know, in this acting class, and then I got cast in a couple of one-acts at UCLA, people on campus would come up, even seniors and graduate students, and say, God, we really liked you in that and so forth, and why don't you come over on the lawn here and have lunch with us today? And all of a sudden, I started to get popular. And I said this on a couple of interviews (laughter) you know - it was a great way to meet guys. I thought, this is really kind of what I want to do. But I wouldn't tell my grandmother, and I wouldn't tell Mama...

GROSS: Were you afraid they'd shoot it down and tell you you weren't pretty enough...


GROSS: ...You're not pretty enough, you're not - whatever?

BURNETT: Yeah. You got it. Yeah. So...

GROSS: And did they ever get around to telling you that?


BURNETT: Well, like Mama, you know - and I don't want to lay this on her because she didn't really know what she was saying at the time. She was saying, listen - be a writer because no matter what you look like, you can always write. And so that kind of imprints a little message.

GROSS: It's very nice.


BURNETT: She didn't - she really - she's just saying, you know, no matter what, you can always write. You know, and she was being very supportive because I actually was a pretty good writer. But then I got into musical comedy workshop at UCLA doing background in the - "South Pacific." They were doing a scene from "South Pacific." And the student director said, can you carry a tune? And I said, yeah, because Mama and Nanny and I would always sit around the kitchen table. Mama played the ukulele, and we would sing and harmonize. And I said, yes, I can carry a tune. And he said, well, would you be the chorus of the "Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" scene? And I said, sure.

So I got in. And I got so brave I started to belt, sing very loudly. And he said, you're pretty loud. And I said, oh, I'm sorry, I'll tone it down. And then he said, no, no. He said, I'm going to do a scene from "Guys And Dolls," and would you be in the scene with me, and would you play Adelaide and sing "Adelaide's Lament," which was a comedy - wonderful comedy song from "Guys And Dolls." And I thought, oh, my Lord, you know, sing alone, sing solo? And he said, well, she's supposed to have a cold. And I said, oh, well, then I'll do it because she wouldn't have to sound good.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: You know, I could always cough or sneeze or, you know, something (laughter) like - so that was the first time I ever sang in public was that scene. And then I got involved in opera workshop. And I thought, this is what I want, is musical comedy. So the following semester we were going to do a scene - I think it was from "Call Me Madam," that Ethel Merman had starred in on Broadway.

And I got up the nerve to tell Nanny and to tell Mama that I was going to be performing. And they said, really? And I said, and I'd like you to be there. And they came. And afterwards, Mama - actually, Mama got sober. I mean, she - I hadn't seen her looking that good in a long time, but she kind of dressed up for it and put on her old red coat and came in. And Nanny was there.

And afterwards, backstage, they were very complimentary. Mama hugged me, and she said, you were really good kid, you know. And I just - I started to cry, you know. It was - and they were very supportive until I said, this is what I want to do with my life. And then it was like, hey - you know, they wanted to hit me with a reality stick.

GROSS: You knew you wanted to get to New York. After you fell in love with acting, you knew you wanted to get to New York. You knew you didn't have the money to get there.


GROSS: And you ended up getting a thousand dollars from someone who saw you do a sketch at a party and thought you were really talented...


GROSS: ...And became like your benefactor. And they were anonymous, I believe. Or was it just that you're keeping them anonymous from the rest of us?

BURNETT: I'm keeping them - this...

GROSS: Got it.


GROSS: So you knew who they were, but we don't know. OK.

BURNETT: Right, right.

GROSS: So with that thousand dollars, you got to New York, and you started performing there. And you ended up being on television in the pretty early days of TV, in the formative years. In 1955, for instance, you were on the Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney show.


GROSS: And this is, you know, a show of ventriloquists and dummies that all the kids watched.

BURNETT: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: All the kids watched it. And, you know, what did you do on the show?

BURNETT: I was the girlfriend of the dummies.


BURNETT: And I was just kind of like a sidekick. I didn't do too much comedy because that was all the dummies, you know. Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff were their names. So, actually, I kind of sang a lot on the show with Paul Winchell and with the dummies. You know, we'd do little duets and stuff. And I was only on a short while. Then I started - then I was off the show. And in '56, I got a part as Buddy Hackett's girlfriend on a short-lived show called "Stanley," which I think was the only live sitcom ever on television.


BURNETT: And then I met Garry Moore, who was at a daytime show. And he put me on that show, and that started our friendship and relationship so that when he got his nighttime show, which was a wonderful variety show, he had me as a guest a couple of times and then once - Martha Raye was going to be on. She was a hysterical comedian. And she got sick, and Garry's office called me on Sunday - and he went live on Tuesday - and he said, can you come over and learn the show? Man, I was out of there so fast (laughter). And I - boy, I ran over there. And Garry explained to the audience that I had, you know, just come in and learned it. And they were very receptive. So then he asked me to be a regular weekly, and that was a big, big break.

GROSS: Carol Burnett speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. After a break, we'll continue their conversation and hear another new conversation with Carol Burnett talking about her hand-picked, just-released hours of "The Carol Burnett Show" on streaming video. But, first, here's an example of one of the musical treats this new unedited collection is presenting - a duet between Carol and Bing Crosby. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BING CROSBY: (Singing) I'm your humble servant, ever in your debt.

BURNETT: I've got one. (Singing) Would you acquiesce...

CROSBY: Good word. My choice.

BURNETT: (Singing) ...To a brief duet?

CROSBY: (Singing) I acquiesce.

BURNETT: (Singing) Let's sing.

CROSBY: (Singing) You name the tune.

BURNETT: (Singing) Sing a song.

CROSBY: (Singing) I love to croon.

BURNETT: (Singing) Sing out loud.

CROSBY: (Singing) I don't sing that way now.

BURNETT: (Singing) Sing out strong.

CROSBY: (Singing) Get Bob Goulet now.

BURNETT: (Singing) Sing out good things, not bad.

CROSBY: (Singing) A spirited round of le brimley (ph) with zest.

BURNETT: (Singing) Sing out happy, not sad.

CROSBY: (Singing) That's really the kind I do best

CAROL BURNETT AND BING CROSBY: (Singing) Let's sing, sing a song and make it simple to last your whole life long. And let's make sure it's good enough for everyone else to hear. We're going to sing, sing a song.

CROSBY: (Singing, vocalizing).

BURNETT: (Singing, vocalizing) Forget your troubles and just get happy.

CROSBY: (Singing) Yes, happy.

BURNETT: (Singing) You better chase all your cares away.

CROSBY: (Singing) Sing hallelujah, come on, get happy. Getting ready for the judgment day.

BURNETT: (Singing) The sun is shining brightly like the...

CROSBY: (Singing) The sun is shining. Come on, get happy. The Lord is waiting to take your hand...

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to Terry's 2003 interview with Carol Burnett. Sixty-five episodes of her classic variety series "The Carol Burnett Show" are now being presented by Time Life unedited for the first time on Amazon Prime Video, Roku and other streaming platforms. Before launching her own variety series on CBS in 1968, Carol Burnett had starred on Broadway in "Once Upon A Mattress" in 1959. That same year, she began appearing as a featured player on a golden age CBS musical variety series, "The Garry Moore Show."


GROSS: Did you have a sense that, you know, TV was in its infancy then and that the rules could be made up as you went along, that things weren't fixed in stone yet?

BURNETT: Oh, no, I did not. To me, it was a stepping stone to Broadway. I still, you know - and at the time, I was in a show called "Once Upon A Mattress" off-Broadway, and so I was doubling. I was doing Garry's show and "Mattress." But "Mattress" was my big love. I didn't think I was television material...

GROSS: Why not?

BURNETT: ...At all.

GROSS: Why not?

BURNETT: Well, once I auditioned for something called - oh, I forget. Oh, gosh. It was like "Star Search," only not. You know, it was "Reach For The Stars" or some kind of a show like that. And the emcee came out and he said, you're very good, dear, but you're too loud for TV (laughter). So that was - you know, again, somebody said that, so I accepted it. And when Garry hired me, I was kind of surprised, you know? So I just kind of thought, no, I'm a belter, and I'm a comic, and I belong on the stage. And - but in doing Garry's show, that's when the bug bit about doing different things every week.

GROSS: Oh - and not doing the same show every night on Broadway?

BURNETT: Correct. And so I could do these different characters and be dressed differently and become different people, sometimes three or four different people in one show. And I liked that. And I liked having the rep company feeling and a family. You know? And...

GROSS: You're describing "The Carol Burnett Show." That's...

BURNETT: That's exact...

GROSS: ..."The Carol Burnett Show."

BURNETT: That's exactly right. I patterned our show after Garry and, of course, after Sid Caesar, you know, who was a past master at it and had the great rep company and did all these different characters. And I thought, this is what I mean - because you could do musical comedy. You could sing. You could have guests. You could have interesting people to work with, but you'd still have your little family core to work with, also, that you could rely on. And that was the most fun.

GROSS: Well, one of the things your show, "The Carol Burnett Show," was famous for was your movie parodies.


GROSS: And you said earlier that when you were a kid, you'd go to maybe eight movies a week with your grandmother. Are there movies from your childhood that you ended up doing parodies of on "The Carol Burnett Show"?

BURNETT: Oh, yes - "Mildred Pierce" - Joan Crawford, "The Postman Always Rings Twice" - Lana Turner, "Gilda" - Rita Hayworth, "Gone With The Wind" - Vivien Leigh. Even something as remote as a movie called "Born To Be Bad" with Joan Fontaine - and we called it "Raised To Be Rotten."


BURNETT: And so - I mean, even - and, oh, we did "A Double Life." No, "A Stolen Life" - Bette Davis, where I play - where she played a good twin and an evil twin. So there were just so - I would just go to the writers and I'd say, can we do "Mildred Pierce"? And they would get the film and run it. And sure enough, I mean, it was just great. In about three or four weeks, we would have the sketch.

GROSS: Is it fun to do the kind of glamour roles that you figure you're probably not going to get 'cause you're a comedic actress and you don't think of yourself as the glamorous type? So is it fun to do those glamour roles but to do, like, the comic version of them?

BURNETT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I remember Bob Mackie putting me in all white, and I had a white wig practically. Lana Turner in "Postman Always Rings Twice" always wore white. And oh - and I had the eyelashes on and the - you know, the white shoes and the white slim skirt and the blouse and the thing, you know - and white earrings (laughter) and coming down the stairs because her first entrance in "Postman" is just showing her legs walk down the stairs and this sexy music and John Garfield just gaping at her. And Steve Lawrence played the Garfield role, and Harvey was the husband we murdered, you know (laughter).

BIANCULLI: Carol Burnett speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with Carol Burnett.


GROSS: You mentioned Bob Mackie, who did the costumes for your show, and he's - God, he's designed so many, like, really extravagant gowns over the years. I mean, you know, he did Cher's clothes, too. So what - go ahead.

BURNETT: What he did on our show, which people don't know - don't realize. He designed everything you saw on our show, including the wigs, including the makeup so that whatever - not just what I wore but what the guests wore, what the cast wore, whatever, you know. And he created all of those hysterical looks. And he created Eunice's look. He created Mrs. Wiggins, Mr. Tudball. All of the - he designed literally 50 costumes a week - five-oh costumes a week.

GROSS: Did he design for Harvey Korman in drag?

BURNETT: Yes, yes, yes. That's all Bob. And of course, the greatest sight gag ever, I think - one of the greatest - was his idea for the "Gone With The Wind" sketch with the curtain rod dress.

GROSS: Describe it.

BURNETT: Well, when we did "Gone With The Wind" the takeoff, there's a scene when Scarlett O'Hara - Rhett Butler is coming to call on her. And she doesn't want Rhett to know that they're poor. So she rips the draperies down, the green velvet draperies down, and says - and she's going to make a dress. Well, the writers had written that I come down the stairs with the draperies just kind of hanging on me, which would've been funny enough. But I went into costume fitting that Wednesday. And Bob said, I have an idea. And he had the dress draped over a curtain rod, which fit over my shoulders...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: ...And ran straight out, tied with the fringe around the waist. And, I mean, it was the silliest looking thing you've ever seen in your life. And I fell on the floor. And then when we did it, you know, on the taping, the audience - the laugh just wouldn't stop when I made my entrance. And then I came down the stairs. And it was very hard on me because it was - I was biting the inside of my cheek not to laugh myself because the reaction of the audience was just phenomenal. And Harvey, you know, looking so like Clark Gable - and he was brilliant in it. And then his line was, Scarlett, that - you're magnificent.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: That dress is just gorgeous. And then I say, thank you. I saw it in the window and I just couldn't resist it. Now, you can't...


BURNETT: ...You can't beat those lines with the look of that, you know (laughter)? But what fun.

GROSS: Did your grandmother live to see any of your performing success?

BURNETT: Nanny lived to see - Momma died before I did anything really. She did see me do the Jack Paar Show and Ed Sullivan. And then Nanny lived to see me do "The Garry Moore Show." And she lived to see me on Broadway. And (laughter) she - one time, we came out to Hollywood to do two or three weeks of "The Garry Moore Show." And Nanny came and was sitting in the audience. Now, she loved to get dressed up. And she had great legs, so she'd wear her skirts a little bit short. And she liked to put rouge on. I mean, she was OK, you know? But she would kind of gild the lily a bit.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: And she would wear bright colors and all. You know, she really liked to doll up. Anyway, she's sitting in the audience. And Gary Moore comes out. And he says, now, I understand Carol's grandmother is in the audience.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: She's the little lady who raised our Carol. Nanny, Nanny, where are you? Stand up. Well (laughter), Nanny stood up and clap - clasped her hands over her head and did, like, the - (laughter) you know, the winners' look.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: She just clapped her hands over and bowed, took all these bows and like she was the star, you know, of the show (laughter). And she was hysterical. And I wanted to die. I was so embarrassed in the ways that Gary got the biggest kick out of her. And yes, yes. She did get to see me do a few things.

GROSS: Look; I just want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been such a pleasure to talk with you.

BURNETT: Oh, my pleasure, Terry. Thank you. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Carol Burnett speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. Burnett talked earlier about singing "Adelaide's Lament," a song from "Guys And Dolls." Here's a version she recorded in 1961.


BURNETT: (Singing) In other words, just from worrying whether the wedding is on or off, a person can develop a (coughing) cough. You can feed her all day with the Vitamin A and the Bromo Fizz, but the medicine never gets anywhere near where the trouble is. If she's getting a kind of a name for herself and the name ain't his a person (coughing) can develop a cough. And furthermore, just from stalling and stalling and stalling the wedding trip, a person can develop la grippe. When they get on a train for Niagara and she can hear church bells chime - the compartment is air conditioned and the mood sublime - then they get off at Saratoga for the 14th time, well, a person can develop la grippe, la grippe, la post nasal drip, with the wheezes and the sneezes and a sinus that's really a pip. From a lack of community property and a feeling she's getting too old, a person can develop a bad, bad cold.

BIANCULLI: Carol Burnett from the reissue Let Me Entertain You, Carol Burnett sings. After a break, I'll speak with Carol Burnett in a new interview about Time Life's release of 65 handpicked, unedited episodes from her classic TV variety show. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're devoting today's show to Carol Burnett, whose classic CBS variety show from the '60s and '70s is being released unedited for the first time since its original run - 65 shows for starters, but I hope there are more to come. Since these new editions of the classic "The Carol Burnett Show" are complete, viewers watching them on Amazon Prime Video, Roku and other streaming platforms get all sorts of surprises, especially musical ones. Here's one that seemed to surprise even Carol. Partway through the very last show of the series, the curtain opens and seated at the piano is Carol's favorite performer, Jimmy Stewart. She shrieks in excitement. And he plays the piano and sings.


JIMMY STEWART: (Singing) The roughest, toughest man by far is Ragtime Cowboy Joe.


STEWART: (Playing piano, singing) He only sings jazzy music to the cattle as he swings back and forward in the saddle on a horse - a pretty good horse - with the syncopated gait and the roar of repeater. It has such a funny meter how they run when he fires that gun, so the Western folks all know that he's a high-falutin', rootin', tootin' son of a gun from Arizona - ragtime cowboy, talk about your cowboy, ragtime cowboy Joe.


BIANCULLI: There are moments like that throughout these episodes, from the opening hour to that final installment. I spoke with Carol Burnett by phone last week to discuss the new release of her classic series.

Carol Burnett, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

BURNETT: Well, thank you for having me. How are you?

BIANCULLI: This is very exciting. What's happening is that Time Life is releasing 65 full episodes of your show across all 11 seasons. And variety shows never come back with full episodes because there's all these contractual rights and union contracts to get them full. So this is really a treat. Time Life says that these are handpicked episodes from across the 11 seasons. You get the opening one. You get the closing one. You get a couple of the classic ones. And you get some real surprises. So I'm wondering, if they are handpicked episodes, are those your hands?

BURNETT: Pretty much, yeah, pretty much. See, about two or three years ago, I was working on a book about our show which was published, and I had to watch all 276 shows. I felt like Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard." I didn't watch them all the way through because I knew what the musical numbers were, and I knew what some of the sketches were. So I would fast-forward. But then there were some sketches and numbers that I had forgotten. You know, in 11 years we did all those shows. And so it jogged my memory. Now, not every show is a gem. Believe me, I know that. But I picked even some that weren't all the way really terrific because there might be one sketch or one number that would be a standout that would be worth putting that show on. And so, yeah, I had a lot to do with it.

BIANCULLI: Now, you came out of "The Garry Moore Show" and learned a lot of stuff there about what you wanted to do and what you didn't want to do. And if I have this correctly, you signed a contract with CBS when you left "The Garry Moore Show" in '62 that was like a 10-year contract, that you had to do a couple of specials and a couple of guest spots for the network. But in exchange for doing that, you know, in addition to whatever money you got, that if in the first five years of that contract you told CBS they had to give you, like, a 30 episode pay or play one-hour show just by your asking for it. And at the end of it, that's how you got "The Carol Burnett Show." Is that true?

BURNETT: That's absolutely true. When they first made up the contract and that clause was in there, I thought, oh, gosh, I'm never going to want to be a host of a variety show. It was - I just wouldn't know how or anything. So I never thought about it until the end of the fifth year was approaching. And I remember my husband and I had just put a down payment on a house in California. And we had two little girls at the time. And we're looking at each other, and we realized we better push that button, and we would get at least 30 shows, you know.

And so I remember it was the last week between Christmas and New Year's. And I called New York and talked to Mike Dann. one of the vice presidents at CBS. And he said, oh, did you have a good Christmas? So forth and so on. And I said, yeah. And I said, you know, I'm calling now because I want to push that button. And he said, what button? And I said, you know where you have to give me 30 one-hour variety shows? He honestly didn't remember. So he said, I'll get back to you. Yeah, OK.

And so I'm sure he got dozens of lawyers out of Christmas parties that night, you know, to go over the contract. And he called the next day. And he said, well, yeah, I see that Carol. But you know - and this is true - he said, comedy variety is a man's game. He said, it's not for you gals. He said, you know, it's Sid Caesar, it's Milton Berle, it's Jackie Gleason, and now it's Dean Martin. And he said, we've got this terrific little sitcom for you that we'd love you to do called "Here's Agnes" (laughter). I could just picture it, you know.

BIANCULLI: I love that you remember it. Do you remember what Agnes was supposed to do or it was just one they had sitting around?

BURNETT: No because I said at the time I wasn't even considering it. I said, I don't want to be Agnes every week. I want to have a rep company. I want to do a comedy variety show. And they had to put us on, which was unheard of. And I remember we thought, well, OK, at least we'll have 30 shows. And we wound up having 270 some-odd shows. So it paid off. And I remember we - I wanted to get a rep company, you know, like Sid Caesar have with Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner and Howie Morris.

BIANCULLI: On "Your Show Of Shows," yes.

BURNETT: Yeah, "Show Of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour." And so we put together our little rep company. I'd seen Harvey Korman on "The Danny Kaye Show." And Danny's show was going off the air that year. And Harvey would be available. And I just thought, we need a Harvey Korman. And then finally, knowing that he was free, we said we need the Harvey Korman.

BIANCULLI: How did Tim Conway come to your show in the first place?

BURNETT: He was a guest years ago on "The Garry Moore Show," but he did a standup thing. And we didn't do a sketch together. But I thought, this guy is really funny. So we hired him to come on as a guest, and he did a standup thing. And then he was in a sketch. And we put them together with Harvey, and they hadn't known each other before. And it was just magic. And so finally, we were able to have them on every week. And, oh, I miss him. I miss Harvey. I miss Lyle. We had the best of times, you know. And I know this sounds Pollyannish (ph), but we loved each other. We were a family.

BIANCULLI: When I think of your show, one of the things that I think about is midway through the run, 1973, there was a Saturday-night lineup that I still consider the best night of television in all of television history, that on CBS, on the same night, you had "All In The Family," "M*A*S*H," "Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Bob Newhart Show," and then you were the closer. I mean, that's a lot of pressure and a lot of prestige. What was that like to be part of that all-star team back then?

BURNETT: Well, it was wonderful (laughter), you know. And back then, you know, there were only three networks, so we were getting audiences of 30 million, you know. It's amazing. And I was so proud to be a part of that - I called it a team. I agree with you. It was one of the best nights of television ever.

BIANCULLI: Your famous earlobe tug...

BURNETT: (Laughter) Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...What I do know is that it was a signal to your grandmother, if I've got this right, and that you did it for the first time on your first TV appearance, Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney, way back in the '50s. Is that where you actually did that?

BURNETT: Yeah. I remember I got the job of "The Paul Winchell Show," and it was going to be live on the Saturday morning. And my grandmother lived in California, and I'm in New York. And I called her, and I said, Nanny, you've got to watch me; I'm going to be on television next Saturday morning on "The Paul Winchell Show." And she said, well, you got to say hello to me (laughter). I said, Nan (ph), I don't think NBC's going to want me to say, hi, Nanny.

So we worked it out that I would pull my left ear, which meant, hi, Nanny, I love you, I'm fine. And so that became our signal. And then - I tell this later on - that after I became more successful, it meant, hi, Nanny, I love you, I'm fine, your check's on the way (laughter). You know, so then after she passed away, I just kept doing it, you know. And so I said, OK, it's for my kids and for Nanny.

BIANCULLI: If a pandemic year is not a year to look back on everything and appreciate and take stock, I don't know what is. So how do you look back on your career to date right now?

BURNETT: Well, I think I can say, I'm glad I'm as old as I am because I've done it. I feel sorry for some people in the business and performers - because I can relate to that - that are just getting started and another cut off at the knees because of the pandemic. I was lucky enough to have been in the right place at the right time, and so I feel very fortunate. I was still working before COVID hit. I was going around the country doing 90 minutes of Q&As. And so we had to cancel this year or postpone it until the future. So I was going out and doing stuff. And then I - before it hit, I did a cameo role on Netflix, and I would only do things that I would think would be a lot of fun and not take too much out of me, you know.

BIANCULLI: I think you've earned that at this point. It's been wonderful to talk to you. And good luck with this. I think it's so great that the full shows are being out there for new audiences and new generations to discover and for older people to dive in.

BURNETT: Thank you. I just feel so happy. But because of YouTube and because of Time Life and all of this, I'm getting fan mail from 10-year-olds...

BIANCULLI: It's fantastic.

BURNETT: ...And teenagers. It's just - it's a thrill. It's absolutely a thrill.

BIANCULLI: Well, I hope you get some fan mail from this. Thank you very, very much, Carol, for being on FRESH AIR.

BURNETT: Thank you, David.

BIANCULLI: Carol Burnett speaking with me last week. A new collection of 65 complete one-hour episodes has just come out from Time Life, which includes musical numbers that were not included in previous collections.

Monday on FRESH AIR, author Neal Gabler will talk about the late Senator Ted Kennedy and the decline of American liberalism. Kennedy was a progressive force in the Senate for decades, but Gabler says his personal conduct helped to undermine the moral authority of liberalism. Gabler has published the first volume of a two-part biography of Kennedy. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Diana Martinez. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


BURNETT: (Singing) I'm so glad we had this time together just to have a laugh or sing a song. It seems we just get started and before you know it (crying) comes a time we have to say so long. There's a time you put aside... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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