By Kathy Blackwell | March 3, 2016 | People
We chatted with comedian Carol Burnett on growing up in San Antonio, why she thinks her show continues to be so popular, and what she's proudest of in her career.
The Austin Film Society’s star-studded Texas Film Awards on March 10, which will include presenters such as Ethan Hawke, this year will honor Sony Pictures Classics co-founder Michael Barker, actress Chandra Wilson (Grey’s Anatomy), actor Jesse Plemons (Fargo, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights), and the original queen of sketch comedy, Carol Burnett. Burnett, a San Antonio native raised by her grandmother, left Texas for Hollywood when she was 7 but returns often. The TV favorite, who will also appear at the Long Center on March 12 for "An Evening of Laughter and Reflection," shared some memories, her plans for a new book this year, and some signature laughs with Austin Way.
How would you describe your 1930s childhood in San Antonio?
CAROL BURNETT: We were poor but so was everyone else we knew. We benefited from the WPA, which provided us with food and some clothing. Were were fine; I didn’t go hungry, and I didn’t go without clothes. I went to Crockett Elementary School and the first time I ever performed was in the first grade where we did a play about Pinocchio. I was the Blue Fairy. My grandmother made me a little blue dress, and we got some kind of stick and wrapped paper around it so that it could be my magic wand. We lived in an old house on West Commerce Street and I used to roller skate out front. The sidewalk was so buckled that I kept falling down, so finally my grandmother let me roller skate in the house. That house was going to be torn down, but it was moved to another area on West Commerce Street. Now, it’s a school for underprivileged kids and the families, and it’s absolutely terrific. I went there after it had been moved—I looked down and the skate marks are still there! I’ve been back fairly often because I do Q&As around the country, so I’ve done quite a few evenings in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Fort Worth, so my roots are still there.
You’ve received so many incredible honors recently, including January’s Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and now this.
CB: I'm just grateful I'm still around [laughs], and that people still think of me.
Why do you think The Carol Burnett Show holds up so well almost 40 years after it went off the air? Did you stay away from issues of the day on purpose?
CB: We were never that topical. Mainly we just went for the laughs—that’s why it holds up. I’m getting fan mail from children because of the DVDs and YouTube. I'm talking 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds, teenagers, and young adults who weren’t born when we did our show. I dare anybody to watch Tim Conway and Harvey Korman doing the dentist sketch and not laugh, and that’s over 40 years old. Funny is funny. It’s good that we did not get too topical. We weren’t thinking at the time that this would ever continue, and we just didn’t go that route. The Smothers Brothers were terrific—they were doing it, and that was their thing. But I’m more of a clown and a comedic actor, that’s what all of us were. I wanted a true rep company where I would not necessarily be the star of every sketch. I would be supporting Harvey and Vicki [Lawrence] and Tim in certain sketches, and they would support me. Even though my name was at the top of the show, we were a true rep company. I wanted everybody to shine and have their moment because it only made our show better.
What do you think of today’s comedy scene?
CB: Because of my background, I’m drawn to comedic actors. Ed Wynn was a top vaudeville comedian with the Ziegfeld Follies, and way back when I was doing The Garry Moore Show, he was a guest in his 70s. We were just in awe of him. One afternoon during lunch he was talking about the difference between a comedic actor and a comic, and Garry Moore said, 'What’s the difference?' and Ed said, 'A comic says funny things, like Bob Hope. A comedic actor says things funny, like Jack Benny.' I don’t like to get out there alone; I want to be in a scene with a comedic actor that I can lock eyeballs with and play tennis with back and forth, and back and forth.
Did you ever do improv on the show?
CB: We did some, especially when Tim got on a roll [laughs]—we never knew what he was going to do. But we would stick pretty much to the script because we had such good writers.
What are you working on right now?
CB: I’m turning in my fourth book about our 11 years on the show. It features how we did it, how it came about, anecdotes about the cast and guest stars, and things that happened behind the stage and off-camera. It’s called In Such Good Company and comes out in September. I had to watch all 276 shows. [Laughs] I felt like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard because I wanted to jar my memory!
What are you proudest of when you look back on your career?
CB: The show, definitely the show. Career-wise, I was grateful I got to do some stuff that wasn't necessarily comedic, like Friendly Fire and a few other things and some movies where I was playing not for laughs. But I prefer the laughs.
photography by jason merritt/gettyimages