Carol Burnett: Reflecting With an Old Friend

Reflecting With an Old Friend

Comedy legend Carol Burnett returns to Fort Worth’s Bass Hall, as if we’d never said goodbye.

published Friday, April 20, 2012


It was a packed house for Carol Burnett, a sea of silver heads, some dating back to being fans from The Garry Moore Show. Busses lined the block at Bass Hall, full of retirees shipped in for the show. This was a big night. The seniors were tittering and twittering, excited for what was to come. The crowd—which did include some middle agers, a few youth and a smattering of gays—was predominately women, all dressed up in their Bob Mackie memories to see their heroine, the woman who inspired them, who they cried with over her daughter’s loss, who they admired and wished that they could sing like that, joke like that, act like that, and swoon in the arms of Lyle Waggoner.

As soon as Carol Burnett walked on stage, the audience was on their feet. Not many people get a standing ovation before they open their mouth. It was a love fest, waves of memories prompted by multiple montages of Burnett’s favorite guest stars, singing duets and movie parodies. Attendees sighed and whimpered as the stars of yesteryear went by, a young Burnett with her silver screen heroes like Bing Crosby, Eydie Gorme, Andy Griffith, Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, and her great pal Julie Andrews. By the end of the two hours it was a sentimental group orgasm.

Billed as Laughter and Reflection with Carol Burnett, it was questions from audience alternating with video clips and stories. Live Q&A is not as easy as you might think, Burnett having to graciously decline as every other questioner asked her to take a picture with her or sign some memento, though the request from a cowboy for a waltz on stage was granted. Some questions were standards—to do her famous Tarzan yell – and some were unexpected, including a request that all 2,000 fans present sing Burnett a happy birthday song. Amid all that sweetness, one was never to forget that Burnett is a master of the quip. The question “What do you attribute your success to, talent or the casting couch?” prompted the instant answer: “My talent on the casting couch.”

Audience prompts spun off a surprising amount of stories, with several of them revealing how much costume designer Bob Mackie influenced The Carol Burnett Show comedy. The famous curtain dress from the Went With the Wind parody went from simple fabric flows from a curtain rod to yellow curtain cord belt, yellow fringe edging and ridiculous pillbox hat when given the Bob Mackie touch. The odd walk of the Mrs. Wiggins character—”A blond whom the IQ fairy never visited”—came from Mackie adding a outsized bustle to the costume which required that Burnett thrust her rear into it.

The evening’s theme was friendship, especially Burnett’s friendships with her co-stars, starting with her love of Harvey Korman. Stating that Tim Conway’s mission in life was to destroy Korman with laughter, she screened the video clip of the famous dentist sketch in which Conway keeps accidentally anesthetizing his body parts. She described conversations with her life-long friend Julie Andrews as spanning from boyfriends and bars, to husbands and kids, to menopause and sore joints, leaving Metamucil as the next decade’s logical topic.

But everyone in audience considered Burnett a friend, someone they spent time with and depended upon. On one side of me was a middle-aged woman who kept saying “Oh, my dad loved that one” and remembering how watching the show with her late father was their bond. For my friend Elizabeth who accompanied me, The Carol Burnett Shows was a weekly moment of sanity in a chaotic and impoverished time after her parents divorced. A letter from my friend to Burnett when the show’s end was announced saying that she didn’t know how she’d continue without the show prompted a nice note and a pair of signed photos in return.  For me, The Carol Burnett Show was a refuge for crazy outsiders, a rare place where I fit in.

Like her friend Betty White, Burnett is also in her 80s and looking amazingly well and going strong. Burnett had a recent guest spot on Glee and was even cast as a murderess on Law & Order: SVU. An audience suggestion that Burnett host Saturday Night Live prompted a big round of applause. (A double bill with White would be stupendous.) Lending her voice to various animated movies and YouTube clips of The Carol Burnett Show that receive millions of views keep her popular with the younger set. The complete catalog of The Carol Burnett Show will be released in September.

Someone asked the question that I’d wanted to ask: “What is the best lesson you’ve gotten from your life?” Her sensible reply was to not to take things too seriously or personally, especially rejection: “Sometimes it’s just not your turn.” Burnett then went on to relay that her best wisdom came from her daughter Carrie during her final hospital stay from metastasized cancer. When Carrie was asked by a nurse why she was always in a good mood, Burnett relayed that “Carrie said ‘Every day I wake up and decide’ and that’s key, to decide, ‘that today I am going to be in love with my life.’ I have never forgotten that.” Burnett is the queen of gentle pathos.

Gracious and kind sums up Carol Burnett, the underlying ethic that infuses everything she’s done. Think about how she changed the way America thought. She paved the way for gay rights, not by overtly trumpeting them, but by simply accepting everyone. (Though Conway and Korman were pretty much honorary gays.) She celebrated the oddball, the nonmainstream, the tenderhearted, the broken. Women admired her unclassic beauty, her willingness to be open to everything, even to take a pratfall. She inspired legions of women to be themselves, to accept themselves, and achieve their dreams.

Thank you, Carol. You mean a lot to so many of us. You are quintessentially American, the America we hope to be. Thanks For Reading