LOS ANGELES — Carol Burnett was back in the sandbox, as she calls it.
The veteran entertainer had returned to Stage 33 on the CBS Television City lot in Los Angeles — the original home base of “The Carol Burnett Show” — to tape a special celebrating the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking comedy-variety show, which premiered in 1967 and ran for 11 years.
The series had almost been a sitcom called “Here’s Agnes.” But Burnett, a cast member on the variety series “The Garry Moore Show,” had wanted a 28-piece orchestra. She wanted a repertory company and guest stars. She wanted costume changes.
“I had this terrific and unheard-of contract that read if I wanted to push that button, the network would have to give me 30 one-hour comedy-variety shows,” Burnett, 84, said during the October taping. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ And they said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Carol … all comedy-variety shows are hosted by men — Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Dean Martin … It’s not really for you gals.’ ”
She added: “Well, here we are, 50 years later.”
The two-hour special, which will air Dec. 3 on CBS, features Amy Poehler, Jim Carrey and other celebrities paying homage to the pioneering sketch show.
Does it even feel like 50 years have passed?
Are you kidding? No! In fact, 25 years ago, we did a 25th reunion, and that just seemed like 10 minutes ago that we did that! Time has a funny way of changing. When you’re young, it never goes fast enough, and when you get older, it’s a blink of an eye. Where did it go?
Taking questions from the audience is a hallmark of the show that you’ve kept going. Why do you revel in doing it?
It keeps the old gray matter ticking, you know? You have to be on your toes — you can’t be thinking about what you’re going to do tomorrow, what you did yesterday. And so it keeps the brain going, really.
Has there ever been a question you just didn’t want to answer?
No, but there was one that threw me for a bit. It was about nine years ago. Some lady raised her hand … and it’s all random. And she said, “Carol, if you could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours and then pop back into being yourself, who would you be and what would you do?” And the audience went, “Woo!” I’m going, “Oh, my God!” And I’m thinking, “Would I want to be Cary Grant?” And I swear, I said a prayer. I said, “OK, Lord, I’m gonna open my mouth and whatever comes out is gonna be your fault,” and I swear I didn’t know … it was surreal. I didn’t know I was gonna say this until I said it. I said I’d be Osama bin Laden, and I’d kill myself. The audience went crazy, and I just said, “Thank you, Lord.”
It’s interesting that you are doing the answering because you had originally wanted to be a journalist —
Yeah. I was editor of my junior high school paper and I was the editor of the Hollywood High News at Hollywood High School. In fact, when I was a senior, I got the brilliant idea to interview famous people who went to Hollywood High. Joel McCrea was a big movie star way back then, and I interviewed him. And then I had one all set up for Lana Turner and somebody (told) on me and told the principal I was gonna cut a class, so I never got to interview her. But years later, she was a guest on my show.
What do you think “The Carol Burnett Show” would look like today? Do you think it would have found a way for the sketches to have some sort of commentary on the politics of today?
No, because that’s not what we were about. We were about doing a musical comedy review a week. It was like a little Broadway show. I think that’s why it has held up all these years: Funny is funny. We always went for that, and we got a little more serious when we started doing the family. Those were pretty heavy … the, you know, dysfunctional family and stuff. The writing was so good. There wasn’t one joke in it. It was all character-driven. All of that’s situation.
What can you tell me about your Netflix show? How is that going?
Oh, it’s so cute! These kids, they range from 5 to 9 years old, and they are presented with grown-up dilemmas — which is perfect because they’re not censoring themselves yet. So they just blurt out what they’re thinking, and some of them are just gems!