Q & Andy: Carol Burnett

Published March 9, 2016

She helped shape the sketch-comedy paradigm that still rules late night, but there is only one Carol Burnett. Raised in Hollywood, toughened in New York, and then lauded for her vaudevillian genius on television and in movies, Burnett has been—from the beginning of her landmark Carol Burnett Show in 1967 through her terrific turns in a variety of shows, movies, and Broadway plays since—a kinetic comic marvel. And she still is. This month she will be honored at the Austin Film Society’s 2016 Texas Film Awards, and she is preparing for the release of her fourth book, In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox (Crown Archetype), a behind-the-scenes account of The Carol Burnett Show.

ANDY WARHOL: What did you have for breakfast?

CAROL BURNETT: What I usually have: blueberries, pomegranates, shaved almonds, yogurt, and coffee, while I do my crossword puzzles from The New York Times and L.A. Times. It’s kind of my morning meditation.

WARHOL: How were you discovered?

BURNETT: At UCLA I did a scene in an acting course and the students laughed, so that was a discovery, in a sense. The big breaks came years later when I went to New York. I struggled for a while, but when I was cast in an Off Broadway show called Once Upon a Mattress, that kind of put me on the map. Then The Garry Moore Show asked me to be on every week. From then on, I was never really unemployed.

WARHOL: What was your first job?

BURNETT: Just to earn some extra money, I was an usherette, as they used to call them, at the Warner Brothers Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. They put us in these really stupid outfits: harem balloon pants, a jacket that had epaulettes on it, and a hat that looked like a fez. The manager was kind of nuts—he would make us cut square corners across the lobby to go to our posts. I was fired. This was when movies would run continuously and people would just come in and sit down, even in the middle of the movie, and wait and wait until it started all over again and say, “Oh this is where we came in.” It was bizarre. One time, I was standing in front of aisle two and this couple came in and wanted to be seated right away. It was the last five minutes of an Alfred Hitchcock suspense movie. I was a movie nut and I said, “Oh please, you don’t want to go in the last five minutes, it will ruin the whole movie for you. Get some popcorn, go get a drink of water. It will start over again and you can see it from the beginning.” They were arguing with me and I was really trying to be nice and say, “It’s going to ruin it.” The manager came up and ripped off my epaulettes and fired me. I was drummed out of the corps. The nice part is, years later, they said, “Where do you want your star on Hollywood Boulevard?” It’s right in front of that theater. A few short years ago, they were redoing the theater inside, so I have the door to aisle two, which I’m looking at right now, in my home.

WARHOL: Who was the nicest person you worked for?

BURNETT: Garry Moore. He had a very popular television comedy variety show, and he was so generous to all of us. We’d be sitting around the table reading the script for that week, and if he had a line or a joke that he wasn’t comfortable with, he’d say, “Give this to Carol—she can say it funnier than I can.” I learned from him, even though your name might be in the title, you have to spread it around—you have to let other people score the touchdown, because it only makes the show better.

WARHOL: Is there anything you regret not doing?

BURNETT: Not really. I’m so happy with what has happened in my life. We all get where we’re going by circuitous journeys, and some of the setbacks are warranted. When I was in New York in the early years, I was up for a very tiny role in a Broadway show, and it was down to this other girl and me. I thought I was going to get it, but I didn’t. But I didn’t get depressed because what came to me was, “It’s her turn. This belonged to her. My turn will come.” When things are a disappointment, try not to be so discouraged.

WARHOL: What’s your favorite movie?

BURNETT: Oh gosh. Someone will say “how cliché-ridden are you,” but It’s a Wonderful Life [1946]. I have always loved that film since it first came out when I was a kid and my favorite actor was Jimmy Stewart. I got to know him very well later on. It’s just so uplifting, even though at the beginning it gets kind of dark, and pretty heavy in the middle. I was just recently rewatching Forrest Gump [1994], which I love. It’s worth rewatching.

WARHOL: When do you get nervous?

BURNETT: If I have to make a speech. I’m going to receive the SAG Award this month [for Lifetime Achievement], and I’m nervous about that.

WARHOL: What’s the craziest thing a fan has sent you?

BURNETT: It’s not crazy, but it was out of the blue. Years ago, we came home from dinner with the kids and my husband. We would always go in through the back door, and there was a puppy in a basket with a card, “This is for you, we love your show.” A little girl puppy, mixed breed. We named her Fern, I don’t know why.

WARHOL: Do you think that it is vanity to worry so much about what you look like?

BURNETT: I don’t worry that much anymore. At my age, forget it.

WARHOL: Have you been to the White House?

BURNETT: Yes. The first time was when I met President Kennedy in 1961. I went with Judy Garland and Danny Kaye. We were going to do a show for his inauguration. When we were in the Oval Office, Kennedy said “C’mere, look down at the floor here.” There were these notches in the floor leading out to the garden, and he said they were from Eisenhower’s golf cleats. President Eisenhower would wear his golf shoes into the Oval Office and then walk out onto the lawn and putt. The next time I was in the Oval Office was with Nixon, when I was chairman of the Easter Seals, and they had buffed the floor, which I think was terrible, because that was history. And then the last time was a couple years ago with President Obama, when I got the Mark Twain prize in Washington. I told President Obama about the cleats, and he said, “Oh no, they buffed him out!” He didn’t know that story.

WARHOL: What kind of clothes do you like now?

BURNETT: Sweatsuits. I’m in one now.