Audiences coming to Carol Burnett’s shows at Tilles Center on Tuesday, Oct. 22 and Wednesday, Oct. 23 can expect a few surprises, but she's fine with revealing the ending. It’s hardly a spoiler alert to say that she’ll close with a few bars of “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together” and a tug on her ear.
Fans of Burnett’s popular CBS series that ran from 1967 to 1978 remember that weekly signoff, her signature gesture that she began back in 1955. Burnett was making her TV debut on ventriloquist Paul Winchell’s Saturday morning show and was looking for a way to say “hi” to her grandmother. “So that became my way of saying ‘Hi, Nanny, I love you. The check is on the way,” says Burnett, 86, in a recent telephone interview.
As for the rest of the Tilles show, “An Evening of Laughter and Reflection Where the Audience Asks Questions,” it's modeled after the opening of Burnett’s variety hour. The comedy veteran has been doing the show since the early 2000s and she loves the spontaneity of the show.
“I never know what people are going to ask,” she says. “I’m flying without a net and that’s what makes it so much fun. It opens with seven minutes of clips of some of the funniest Q&A s on my show. Then I come out and they bump up the lights. There’ll be ushers in the audience to take questions.”
Sometimes, the questions are obvious: How did she discover Vicki Lawrence? Was Tim Conway as funny in real life as he was on television? And, of course, can she still do her famous Tarzan yell? (The answer: "It's not always there.")
The most surprising question she recalls getting — and the equally surprising answer — happened about 10 years ago. “I was in Texas and called on a lady in the balcony, and she asked ‘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?’ I said a prayer,” she recalled. “Then I said ‘I would be Osama bin Laden and kill myself.’ “
But that’s about as topical as Burnett has ever gotten. In fact, she has just one request of her audience: “No questions about politics. It’s too depressing.”
HER SPECIAL GUESTS
Interspersed with questions will be clips of comedy sketches and musical numbers featuring the cream of show business: Bing Crosby, Liza Minnelli, Ray Charles, Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball and Sammy Davis Jr., to name a few. Among Burnett’s favorites were regular visitors Bernadette Peters, Ken Berry and Steve Lawrence. While those three were known primarily for their musical talents, Burnett relished the chance to let all of her guests display their comedy chops.
“We would always try to put our guests in the sketches,” she says. “That’s why people loved coming on our show. On ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ all they could do was sing. We let them do it all.”
Easily the most famous — and arguably the funniest — sketch was “Went With the Wind,” a spoof of “Gone With the Wind,” in which Burnett played Starlet O’Hara and series regular Harvey Korman played Ratt Butler. Burnett got one of her biggest laughs when she came down a staircase wearing a dress made of drapes — complete with curtain rod.
“The writer who wanted to do that sketch had written an essay on ‘Gone With the Wind’ in college, so he had every beat of that movie,” she says. “They were rereleasing the movie in theaters at the time. So we figured, for those of you who don’t have time to watch it in four hours, here’s our version.”
Spoofs of “Sunset Boulevard,” “Mildred Pierce,” “Laura” and dozens of other classics were a staple on Burnett’s show, borne out of her lifelong love affair with movies. “Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, my grandmother and I would see as many six to eight movies a week,” she says. “That was my escape. And then I would play act the movies with my best girlfriend.
“The writers we had were so good,” she adds. “I might ask them to do a Joan Crawford movie I remembered and they’d hunker down and have it in three weeks. The sketches appealed to people even if they hadn’t seen the movie, and they were doubly funny if you knew the movie.”
Though “The Carol Burnett Show” was one of the most popular shows of the ‘70s, Burnett can’t imagine it ever being done today.
“The networks wouldn’t spend that kind of money. Today you couldn’t have a 28-piece live orchestra, 12 dancers and 65 costumes a week. We were doing a Broadway show each week. They wouldn’t want to put the money in it and they wouldn’t have faith in it,” she says.
Burnett is also saddened by the current state of comedy on television. “I am so tired of jokes about bodily functions,” she says. “Today's shows just aren’t as funny. ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ and ‘Newhart,’ they were classics and they weren’t trying to be edgy.”
Still, Burnett does have a list of current performers she wished could have appeared on her show.
“I would want the usual suspects — Tina [Fey], Amy [Poehler], Kristen Wiig. Martin Short is hysterical,” she says. “And I’d love to get Meryl Streep.”
Burnett had hoped to return to television in a series called “Household Name,” about a 96-year-old former film star forced to rent out her mansion to a young family. But after shooting the pilot, ABC asked for changes and Burnett didn’t like the end result. Network interference was something Burnett never faced from CBS boss William Paley.
“Mr. Paley left us alone. He said you guys are the artists, I’m the businessman, you guys do what you do,” she says.
Fans can see Burnett in a cameo role in “Carrie and Me,” an upcoming Netflix movie based on her book about her relationship with her daughter, actress Carrie Hamilton who died in 2002 at age 38.
Meanwhile, Long Islanders can catch her at Tilles, where one of her favorite moments will be a clipfest devoted to two longtime cast members — Korman, who died in 2008, and Conway, who died in May. You never knew what Conway would do, but it was always sure to break up Korman. “I dare everybody to watch that and not lose it,” she says. “So many of the sketches we did were like that, and I think it’s because it’s not topical. We just wanted to do character stuff.”
'Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection Where the Audience Asks Questions'
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 and 23, Tilles Center, 720 Northern Blvd., Brookville
INFO $68-$248; 516-299-3100, tillescenter.org