Burnett is ready to turn a new pipe dream into a live and funny show

November 01, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK — New York--Maybe it is a pipe dream.

Television hasn't had a successful variety program since -- well, since "The Carol Burnett Show," and here's Carol trying to launch a successful variety program. At least it has a proven name.

"The Carol Burnett Show" premieres at 9 tonight on CBS (Channel 11), 13 years after the network closed it the first time. The time slot is hardly the best. The network has had a hard time drawing flies Fridays. It has banished its new 8-to-9 p.m. shows -- "Brooklyn Bridge" to Wednesdays and "Princesses" to nowhere -- naming no permanent replacements. Its 10 p.m. program, "Palace Guard," has gone on hiatus after two whole broadcasts.

Will her show, the last regular new program of the season, get a fair shake?

bTC "I don't care," said Ms. Burnett. "Seven or eight years ago, I reached a point in my life where I can let go of things over which I have no control." She's in it for the fun and the challenge. Let the network executives worry about the ratings.

Things were different when she left home for New York in 1954. She was the one worried about success, but her mother and grandmother never gave it a thought. More concerned with her safety in the big city than her show-biz career, "they thought the whole thing was a pipe dream," Ms. Burnett said. Two years later she started appearing on "The Garry Moore Show" and "The Ed Sullivan Show." "Then, my grandmother told everybody it was her idea."

Ms. Burnett made these comments at a little lunch CBS staged for her. She is a raconteuse par excellence, pushing the fine points of her new show, telling stories about the old days. Most of it's a script, repeated in such a way that it sounds spontaneous until you hear it again or read it later.

But when that happens, there's little lost. It is her script, every word. Who knows? If anybody can revive variety, it will be this sublimely talented 58-year-old girl next door.

From the little bit shown to critics, the new "Carol Burnett Show" seems pretty much a continuation: a little music, lots of jokes and sketches with guest stars, and a resident company of cut-ups that includes two carry-overs, Richard Kind and Megan Fay, from last season's "Carol and Company" on NBC, as well as Jessica Lundy, who last year played the perky reporter opposite Edward Woodward on "Over My Dead Body.

Just as she did for 11 years in the late '60s and '70s, Ms. Burnett will answer audience questions at the beginning of the show and get guests' autographs at the end.

Some of her visitors in the first couple of weeks will be B. B. King, Tony Roberts, Martin Short, Robert Townsend and Delta Burke. Tim Conway plans to drop by for one of the last of the 13 episodes CBS has ordered so far.

"People say, 'You're going back,' " Ms. Burnett said. "But this is what I do."

She's especially happy to return to CBS Stage 33, more of a theater than a TV studio. "It's the best stage in television. It's more of a mom- and-pop feeling. . . . It's a hot little house."

And she'll keep things hot by avoiding the constant reworking of scenes and extensive post-production effort that she thinks makes most "live-audience" shows seem like dead fish.

"The mentality is always, 'We'll fix it in [post-production],' and it gets to be 1 or 2 in the morning. It's like a telethon. . . . The liveness is what I want to get back, so that it's OK to forget a line and it's OK if you drop something and have to pick it up and cover."

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