Carol Burnett will indulge Lyric audience's curiosity about her lush comedic career

April 02, 2010|By David Zurawik | | Sun TV Critic

Carol Burnett wants to make one thing perfectly clear about her appearance Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore.

"I want everybody to know that the show is about questions and answers," she said in a telephone interview last week. "I want to stress that I'm not getting up there and doing sketches or songs or anything like that. I just come out and show a few clips of some of the favorite old questions and answers on our show, and then we just bump up the lights, and for 90 minutes, we wing it."

I couldn't think of any other performer I would rather watch and listen to as she "wings it" - engaging her fans in the kind of intimate conversation she helped invent for the TV variety show genre. With her celebrated CBS series that ran from 1967 to 1979, Burnett gave us a model for audience-and-performer interactivity long before the media world came to understand the tremendous power of a great artist in honest two-way communication with her fans.

Burnett is a great artist, and there is not an ounce of hype in that statement. The honors she has accrued are remarkable. Her show won 22 Emmy Awards - at a time when the statue meant something. And she herself has won six Emmys, a Tony, a Peabody and five Golden Globes.

No woman has won more People's Choice Awards than Burnett, and her lifetime of achievement has been celebrated with the Kennedy Center Honors (2003) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005).

Burnett, who ranks alongside the late Lucille Ball as one of TV's greatest physical comedians and beloved entertainers, says she was reluctant at first to just sit down with a studio audience and see where the conversation would go as the cameras rolled. But her producer, Bob Banner, another pioneering figure in the variety genre, pushed her to give it a try.

"When Bob first suggested it, I thought, 'Oh, I can't do that.' I was terrified," Burnett says. "And I remember the first time I went out there, I was scared to death that they wouldn't raise their hands and ask questions. And then, I was scared that they would."

But "after the first three airings of the show," Burnett says that members of the studio audience arrived expecting to have a conversation with her.

"And then, it started to be some of the best fun I ever had, because everything was off the cuff," the 76-year-old performer says. "I mean, nothing was planted. And you could just tell, because you couldn't write some of those questions that were asked. And it really took off. Bob said it was important for me to let the audience get to know me personally before we started the body of the show where I'd be onstage with my teeth blacked-out or in a funny wig or whatever. It was a brilliant idea he had, and finally, I just came to love going out there and seeing just what the heck was on people's minds."

Burnett is adamant about having an honest conversation and letting the audience members at the Lyric drive it where they will Saturday night.

"I call on people at random, so there are no plants, and there is nothing like, 'I'll take this one, but not that one,' " she says. "I don't know what the questions are going to be - I have no idea. And I'll just say, 'OK, the lady in the pink over there,' and she'll ask me something, and I'll answer. And some of them ask about Tim [Conway] and Harvey [Korman, her sidekicks over the years], and I have some Tim and Harvey stories that I share."

To say that we will not see the likes of "The Carol Burnett Show" again goes beyond understatement.

"You couldn't do that kind of show today, because the networks just won't pay for it," Burnett says. "Beyond the Bob Mackie costumes, we had a 28-piece orchestra, two major guest stars a week, plus 12 dancers and singers. I mean, we did a mini-Broadway revue every week. And now, that's just history."

And we are the poorer for it as a culture. But fortunately, we have one of the medium's great artists very much alive and well - and willing to share her memories with us.

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