In 1957, shortly before she stepped onto the stage for her second guest appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Carol Burnett learned that her New York City nightclub routine was the follow-up act to Elvis Presley. Since Presley had recently joined the Army, Sullivan had planned a spectacular salute.
As Burnett began performing, the large marching band that had been honoring Presley and the studio audience of screaming teenage girls enamored with “The King” fell silent. In her memoir, Carrie and Me, Burnett wrote they just sat and stared at her for the remainder of the hour.
But she came back; big time. In 1962, a resilient Burnett won a Peabody “Personal Award” for her comedic performances and an Emmy for her performance on “The Garry Moore Show.”
At 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater, Burnett — the stage, TV, film and voice actress, comedienne, singer and best-selling author — will present “An Evening with Carol Burnett.”
She is putting on only three such shows.
Burnett’s is the only performance at Chautauqua Institution to have sold out before the season even began.
She will use the improvised, give-and-take, Q-and-A format that Garry Moore excelled at with his audiences during the three years she appeared regularly on his TV variety show.
CBS Executive Producer Bob Banner pressed Burnett to adopt it as the warm-up portion of “The Carol Burnett Show,” the hourlong weekly variety show comprised of comedic sketches, music, dancing and guest stars that aired from 1967 to 1978. Reluctantly, she agreed to give the intimidating Q-and-A concept a shot for a couple of shows. By the third week, both she and the audience had warmed up to it and were having fun.
Neither Moore nor Burnett used “plants” in the audience. The warm-up part of their shows was completely unscripted. It still is. The difference now is that Burnett will talk to the audience for nearly 90 minutes.
“I’ve been doing this well over 25 years,” Burnett said. “People ask, ‘What’s Tim Conroy like in real life?’ And about Vicki Lawrence: ‘How did you discover her?’ I have stories that I tell.”
She does have a plethora of tales.
“I had an odd contract with CBS, where it was my option on whether I wanted to do a variety show,” Burnett said. “They said it’s a man’s game. It’s Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Dean Martin. They wanted me to do a sitcom, and I said, ‘No, I want to be different people.’ I’d learned so much working with Garry Moore.”
There is more to be revealed if someone asks, including how Burnett convinced CBS and audiences that a comedy variety show was also a woman’s game.
“We had so much fun,” Burnett said. “Those 11 years weren’t a challenge. The challenge was when I did ‘Friendly Fire.’ I hoped that the audience wouldn’t look at me as Carol the goofball. Comedy is my love.”
Even after so many years, Burnett still relishes performing for an audience.
“You can get their feedback, even when you’re doing something serious,” she said. “I’m not that thrilled with what I do on film because there’s no audience — aside from the director. I’m like a warhorse. Once that curtain raises, I go until it falls. In film, you sit around a lot. It’s a whole different ballgame.”
Burnett need not have been concerned about being irrevocably perceived as a goofball. She played Peg Mullen in “Friendly Fire” so convincingly that she was nominated for a 1979 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Special.
Lawrence, a teenager resembling Burnett who had won the Miss Fireball Contest at Hollywood Park shortly before landing the role of Burnett’s kid sister on “The Carol Burnett Show,” played the cranky Mama in the recurring play-like feature about a dysfunctional family called “The Family.” With a South Texas accent and a “god-awful” outfit, Burnett portrayed a mean Eunice, Mama’s married daughter. Years later, Lawrence starred in the spin-off show, “Mama’s Family.”
Along with Burnett, Lawrence and Conroy — who was a monthly or bimonthly guest until the show’s last three years, when he appeared weekly — “The Carol Burnett Show’s” repertoire featured two other players.
Harvey Korman, who had been “second banana” on “The Danny Kaye Show,” was an integral member of Burnett’s “TV family” during all but the final year of her show’s 11-year run.
Lyle Waggoner, who was originally cast as the handsome announcer and commercial pusher for whom Burnett would go gaga, had such fine comedic delivery and timing that the show’s writers were soon including him in sketches.
Although Burnett chose to end “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1978, three of the five cast members performed in four postscript episodes titled, “Carol Burnett and Company,” which aired the following year. A year before the original show ended, the comedy sketches were edited and produced as half-hour episodes. For many years, they were in syndication as “Carol Burnett and Friends.” MeTV began airing them in January 2015.
Burnett is currently working on “The Lost Episodes.” She said that the first five years of “The Carol Burnett Show” have never been seen since they were first aired.
Those who were unable to purchase a ticket for Burnett’s sold-out show this evening and those whose curiosity will be peaked after seeing it can take heart: Several of the stories — and many others — she will share can be found in her memoirs: This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story, and One More Time. In 2012, Burnett co-authored a children’s book. With George Mendoza, she wrote What I Want to Be When I Grow Up in the mid-1970s.
Currently, Burnett is writing a book titled In the Sandbox, “about our show.”
No matter the genre, most of her screen and stage performances have received acclaim. It has been uncommon for Burnett not to have been nominated for, or also to have won, at least one highly coveted honor in any given year since 1959, when she was nominated for a Tony Award for Once Upon a Mattress. Thus far — not counting Tonys — she has won 44 major awards and honors, and earned nominations for 33 others.
She was also honored with a star on the “Walk of Fame,” which was placed along Hollywood Boulevard in front of the old Warner Bros. Theater. Burnett had worked there as an usherette during the summer of 1951, when she was a freshman at UCLA, until late one weeknight when the manager ripped the epaulets off her maroon and gold uniform. If asked this evening, she may reveal the reason her boss, Mr. Batton, fired her.
Burnett has been a recipient of several eminent honors spanning her career. Last year, she received the Harvey Award from The Jimmy Stewart Museum. Two years ago, she earned the Mark Twain Award for American Humor, and Hollywood High School held a ceremony designating “Carol Burnett Square.” The Television Critics Association bestowed upon her its Career Achievement Award in 2006, she received the TV Lands “Legend” Award in 2005, and in 1987 she won the ACA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy.
In Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush presented Burnett with the 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom two years after she had earned the Kennedy Center Honors.
Burnett is looking forward to receiving the Screen Actors Guild’s 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award in January 2016.
“Yeah,” she said, “it’s a big honor.”