Carol Burnett: A Life of Comedy, Characters, and Connection

Carol Burnett

I’m Alan Alda, and this is Clear+Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Carol: You look at our show. You can see me supporting Tim Conway or me supporting Harvey, Harvey supporting Vicki, or Vicki supporting me. It was a true rep company, which is what I wanted so that everybody could shine, everybody could score a touchdown.
Every Saturday night for 11 years, Carol Burnett communicated a sense of family to the entire country. She did alongside other skilled comic actors. But it wasn’t just skill. There was always a sense of community among the actors and we in the audience felt we were invited in as part of the gang. It was fall down funny, belly laugh humor that new generations are still discovering. And they are still reacting to the warmth, still feeling that sense of family. I wondered how she did it. So we set up in a studio near her home in California, and we had a talk.
Alan: Carol, I am so happy to have you on the other end of the microphone here. This is so good.
Carol: Well, I’m happy to be with you and to see you. It’s been too long.
Alan: I know it. I know. Talk about how long it’s been. Once when we were working together, I don’t know whether it was in 6 Rms Riv Vu or when we were making Four Seasons on your show, we figured out that we grew up together and didn’t know it.
Carol: That’s right. I lived in one room in an apartment building with my grandmother one block north of Hollywood Boulevard.
Alan: Right, and I lived one block north of Holly … There’s a song like this. I lived a block north of Hollywood Boulevard. It was Yucca Street.
Carol: Yucca and Wilcox. We used to as a kid I was around 10 or 11, as a kid we would roller skate up and down going towards Hollywood Boulevard and back and around the block and everything. You and I got to talking about years ago when we first started to work together, and you said that you remember hearing us or seeing us out of a window roller skating because your dad, Robert Alda, was making a movie at Warner Brothers called The Gershwin Story.
Alan: It was called Rhapsody in Blue, but he was playing Gershwin.
Carol: Yeah, that’s what I meant.
Alan: We were still living in this little bungalow with no light coming through the windows because all the banana trees were blocking the window.
Carol: Oh, my gosh. At least you had enough potassium.
Alan: It was just this little cottage. I always wondered because I remember a girl in the yard when I was about seven or eight, and I always wondered if that was you.
Carol: I don’t know. It could’ve been.
Alan: I don’t remember her roller skates so probably wasn’t you.
Carol: Well, we roller skated. Then we would run and play hopscotch and stuff on the street. That was way, way back in the covered wagon days. You were ill at the time and couldn’t come out to play.
Alan: That’s right. I had polio, and I was in bed for months. I remember looking out the window, standing on my bed and look out the window with kids playing outside.
Carol: That was us.
Alan: Yeah.
Carol: We could’ve been childhood buddies.
Alan: Yeah. Well, we got to be buddies later.
Carol: Better late than never.
Alan: Some of the best times I’ve had acting I’ve been with you. You’re such a positive presence, and it shows in your work, and it shows in the preparation to work. My impression is we talk about communicating and relating all the time on this show. One of the aspects of that is how a person manages a group, and you had a group that … For how many, 11, 12 years your show was on the air?
Carol: Eleven.
Alan: There was a sense of community that the actors had among themselves and that you had with the audience, and that, I think, comes from your ability to relate to the people around you. I remember you told me once, did I get this right, that you wanted to work with people on the show who would be good to work with.
Carol: Oh, absolutely.
Alan: They were all talented, but I think one of the aspects that came first was would they be good collaborators.
Carol: Well, I learned that actually from Garry Moore when I was a second banana on The Garry Moore Show.
Alan: So tell everybody who Gary Moore was because some people might not remember him.
Carol: Garry Moore was a television host comedian. He started out in radio as the sidekick of Jimmy Durante.
Alan: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Carol: Yeah. Then Garry was the host of I Got a Secret. He had a morning show for many years on CBS. It was a half hour morning show live with Durward Kirby as his sidekick.
Alan: He started out as an announcer.
Carol: He did. Durward did. Garry kind of announced too, but then he became an MC, and then he got his own television variety show. I had auditioned for him for the morning show because on Fridays instead of being a half hour it would be an hour and a half, and he would introduce new talent. He introduced Jonathan Witters, Steve Lawrence, and I auditioned for him, and he put me on the air. Then he got this variety show, an hour variety show, on Tuesday nights at CBS. This one night, one week, Martha Ray was going to be his guest. She got sick. She got bronchitis and couldn’t do the show, and it was a live show. They called me on Sunday. They said, “Can you come rehearse and learn Martha’s part?”
Alan: How much time did you have to get ready?
Carol: Sunday afternoon and Monday, and then the show was on Tuesday night. It went well. Garry explained to the audience, which was very sweet, on the air at the end when he brought me out for a bow that I just come in two days before. As a result, Bob Banner who was producing Garry’s show, asked if I would become a regular performer on Garry’s show.
Alan: And that’s when you learned from Garry about this thing of collecting people who would be good collaborators.
Carol: That’s right. Also, another important thing I learned was that even though his name was The Garry Moore Show, we would be sitting around reading the script on the Monday for the following taping the show, and then we started taping on Fridays, and he would read … Maybe there would be a joke or a punchline or something, and he’d say, “You know what? Give this line to Durward or give it to Carol. They can say it funnier than I can.”
Alan: Oh, wow.
Carol: He was so generous. He said, “It only makes my show better.”
Alan: That’s the thing. It always amazed me. I’ve worked with actors who didn’t want to be on the other side off camera while the camera’s on you.
Carol: Yeah.
Alan: Because they had more important things to do they felt. It makes the picture better if you’re there connecting.
Carol: Of course. Well, you look at our show. You can see me supporting Tim Conway or supporting Harvey, Harvey supporting Vicki, or Vicki supporting me. It was a true rep company, which is what I wanted so that everybody could shine, everybody could score a touchdown.
Alan: And you had amazing talents working with you.
Carol: Oh, my gosh. And guest stars. You.
Alan: You know I came across on YouTube the two of us singing a song. I was dressed up as Santa Claus.
Carol: That was Nobody Does it Better.
Alan: Yeah.
Carol: Nobody Does it Better.
Alan: I couldn’t sing it now without a lot of preparation. In fact, when I saw it I thought, “Oh, my God. I’m singing in tune.”
Carol: You sang up a storm.
Alan: The DVDs of your shows and your show itself on MeTV is really as popular as ever.
Carol: It’s amazing. I think it’s because we were never … One of the reasons is we were never topical.
Alan: Right.
Carol: We just went for the laughs.
Alan: Yeah.
Carol: I mean once in a while we’d do a takeoff on something in the oval office, but it wasn’t very often. So we were mostly doing sketches that people could relate to today. I dare anybody to look at the dentist sketch with Tim and Harvey and not lose it, and that’s over 45 years old.
Alan: Isn’t that amazing? They are always talking about how comedy is changing, and it does change, but there’s an example of how it’s still hitting us in the funny bone.
Carol: I miss seeing shows that would just go for belly laughs.
Alan: I got a question for you. The iconic moment when you come down the stairs with the-
Carol: Gone with the Wind?
Alan: Gone with the Wind. Did you know that was going to stop the show for the next generation?
Carol: I wasn’t surprised because originally the writers had written that I would run up the stairs as Starlet O’Hara, and just come down with the draperies hanging on me. Bob Mackie, our brilliant costume designer, who designed every costume we wore. He designed an average of 65 costumes a week.
Alan: Oh, my God. How did he do that?
Carol: I don’t know. In 11 years that’s a little over 17,000 costumes.
Alan: Oh, my gosh.
Carol: That he designed. He would come up with all these comedy wonderful looks. So I went into costume fitting that Wednesday. We were going to tape on Friday. He said, “You know the draperies hanging, that’s not as funny as it could be.” He said, “Come here. I want to show you what I have in mind.” I walked into the dressing room. There it was on the curtain rod. I said, “Bob, this is going to go down in history as one of the funniest sight gags ever in television.”
Alan: And it sure did.
Carol: And it has.
Alan: I never see it without laughing.
Carol: Oh, I know. The line too. He says, “That gown is gorgeous.” She says, “I saw it in the window, and I just couldn’t resist it.”
Alan: I know.
Carol: It was a great punchline to that.
Alan: How much improvising was there in rehearsal or on camera during the show?
Carol: Well, Tim totally improvised.
Alan: He would love to surprise people and make you laugh.
Carol: Oh, totally. Oh, yeah. People sometimes we were criticized because, “Oh, you shouldn’t be doing laughing like that.’ But it wasn’t as often as people think. They just remember it.
Alan: It’s involuntary, right? I mean, you can’t stop it. Once you start to break up, the more you try to stop it, the worse it gets.
Carol: Tim was merciless. Totally merciless. Like in the dentist sketch, half of that stuff he did on air, which he didn’t do in the dress rehearsal.
Alan: Oh, wow.
Carol: That’s why Harvey was … Tim swears Harvey wet his pants. Harvey prided himself on being very serious about his comedy. He did not like it when he broke up. He was not a happy camper.
Alan: He broke up at the-
Carol: At Tim.
Alan: Also at you with the pole over your shoulders.
Carol: No, he was … No, uh-huh.
Alan: It looked like he was holding it back.
Carol: No, he was-
Alan: My memory. See, that’s the thing. We impute breaking up when it doesn’t even happen because we knew once in a while it did.
Carol: I almost started to break up coming down the stairs, and I was biting the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing.
Alan: Because you knew how great this moment went.
Carol: Because the audience went nuts.
Alan: Did you ever get … You mentioned program practicing-
Carol: Yes, I did once.
Alan: … which is the euphemism for censorship on the network.
Carol: Yeah, once.
Alan: What was it they didn’t like you did?
Carol: It was early on. Harvey and I were doing a sketch. He was interviewing me voiceover kind of like Edward R. Murrow. I’m a nudist. I’m behind a fence that says, “Keep Out,” and my shoulders and arms are bare, and I’m kind of leaning over the fence. My legs are shown from just above the knee down with high top sneakers. It was a funny look. It was nothing but jokes about being in a nudist colony. So, one of the lines was Harvey said, “So what do you nudists do for recreation?” My line was, “Well, we have dances every Saturday night.”
Carol: “Oh, well how do you nudists dance?”
Carol: “Very carefully.” For some unknown reason program practices thought that was too dirty to go on the air.
Alan: Nowadays they’d show it.
Carol: Tell me. They said, “Come up with something else.” So we said, “Okay.” This is what we wanted to say in the first place, but we didn’t think they’d let it go, but they did. Okay, we have dances every Saturday night. Oh, how do you nudists dance? Cheek to cheek.
Alan: That was okay.
Carol: That was okay.
Alan: You wonder what goes on in the dirty minds of the censors.
Carol: I don’t know.
Alan: We had a similar thing on M*A*S*H. Margaret, formally known as Hot Lips, came into the tent and caught out of the corner of her eye a jockstrap on the table and berated Hawkeye for parading that thing around in front of her. They sent us a note. “You cannot have a jockstrap on the table, and you cannot even have a white piece of cloth representing it.”
Carol: What?
Alan: Because there’s something so sacred about male genitals I guess. You can’t refer to it in any way. Previously on programs I would be playing Hawkeye in a scene that was totally uncensored. I’d walk into a clothesline full of brassieres and panties.
Carol: Nothing sacred about those.
Alan: Nothing sacred about that. That was fine.
Carol: Oh, that’s funny.
Alan: You’re known by a generation now that wasn’t even born 10 years ago.
Carol: Several. Yeah.
Alan: You told me once that … It’s so hard to believe that if you get a letter from somebody … Tell me again. I can’t get over that.
Carol: Well, I’ll get sometimes these kids that are like 10 years old, 12 years old, whatever, and more than once I’ve gotten letters from a little kid that’s going to be in a production of Once Upon a Mattress, which was the show that gave me my big break on Broadway. I played Princess Winnifred, Winnifred the Woebegone. Sometimes I get letters from little girls who say, “I’m going to be in Once Upon a Mattress, and I’m playing Princess Winnifred, and I know you did. Could you give me some advice on how to do it?” If they leave me a phone number, I’ll call them because it’s simpler than having to sit down and say … This way I can say, “What are you concerned about? Tell me, and then I’ll tell you how I felt when I was doing it.”
Alan: I think that’s amazing. That’s an example of your utter ability, total ability to relate to another person at your own expense. I’m amazed at that.
Carol: I would only do it for little kids.
Alan: Kids get me too.
Alan: The way you connect to the audience when you have done Q&A, and you do Q&A still, right?
Carol: Yes.
Alan: When you do a speaking engagement, it’s all Q&A?
Carol: No. I intersperse it with clips of the show in and out.
Alan: That maybe gives the audience prompts for things they want to ask you.
Carol: Correct.
Alan: Except over the time that you’ve been such a star performer they have plenty to ask you about anyway.
Carol: Oh, lots of stuff about how did I find Vicki Lawrence. Is Tim that funny in real life? Things like that. Of course, I have stories about that that have developed over the years that I can that are a lot of fun. But I never know … I don’t want to know what anybody’s going to ask.
Alan: See, I love that. You really have this improvisation ability, and you reach for it. You want to not know what’s going to happen.
Carol: When we first were going to do my show, Bob Banner who was executive producer who was an executive producer of Garry’s show came over and was doing my show. He said, “You know, you should do what Garry did because Garry would warm up his audience,” but they never taped it. He’d do Q&A because he said, “I don’t want a comic coming out to warm them up. Let me go out and do it.” Bob said, “I think you should do that, but I think we should tape it.” I didn’t want to do it.
Alan: The first time you do it must be a really scary thing.
Carol: What? Are you kidding me? You know? He said, “Carol, it’s important.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because you’re doing a variety show, and you’re going to be in fright wigs and fat suits and teeth blacked out and all kinds of crazy outfits and doing crazy characters.”
Alan: Show them you first.
Carol: The audience should get to know you first.
Alan: That was smart.
Carol: Very smart. I said, “Look, okay, I’ll do it for four shows, but if I’m not comfortable, let’s just 86 that whole idea.” So the first time I went out I was a wreck. I was scared nobody would ask me a question, and then I was scared if they did I wouldn’t have an answer.
Alan: Do you remember the first question, the first two questions?
Carol: Do you get nervous when you come out before an audience?
Alan: You’re looking at it.
Carol: Hello. You know what I did? I said, “No,” and I fell down.
Alan: Oh, perfect. Perfect.
Carol: That got a good response. Then I did it again and again. Finally, after the show had aired and people had seen it, so when the studio audience came in, they were kind of prepared. Sometimes people would want to come up and do stuff.
Alan: Oh, that’s funny.
Carol: There’s one lady. I loved her. She was in the audience, and she looked kind of Bea Arthur when Bea Arthur did Maude.
Alan: Yes.
Carol: She kind of had that look about her. I called on her. She stood up and she wanted to come up and sing. I said, “Okay, come on up.” She ran up on stage like roadrunner. She was totally fearless. I said, “What’s your name?” She said, “Terri McCann.” I said, “What do you want to sing?” Without missing a beat she turned to the band in the band shell, and she said, “You made me love you,” in the key of G. Well, the audience screamed, and the band started up. She shushed the audience, and she started, “You made me love you, ba, ba.” She was good.
Carol: I knew the song, so I came, and I joined her. Now we’re belting away just wailing away, and the audience is clapping, and we’re having a good time. Then we come to the end of the song, and I had a different way in my mind of ending it from what she had. What happened was … Then we started to peter out. There was a pause, and she looked at me in silence, and she said, “Well, you screwed it up.”
Alan: Did you keep that in the show?
Carol: Of course. We show that in my Q&As.
Alan: Oh, that’s great.
Carol: Last year I got a letter from somebody who knew Terri McCann. She passed away at age 100, and they played this at her memorial.
Alan: Oh, no kidding. What a story.
Carol: Isn’t that cute?

Like everybody else, actors have to learn to take criticism. It isn’t easy. And one of my favorite stories of Carol’s is about a harrowing moment when she got some criticism in the most unvarnished way. Coming up, right after this break.
This is C+V, and now back to my conversation with Carol Burnett.
Alan: I’m so caught up in talking with you. I never have a conversation like this with anybody else where I forget what I wanted to know because I get so tied up in what you’re telling me. I think sometimes about criticism when you have a bit of something critical to say to somebody. You want them to do something differently or better or something like that. They often say you should start with something positive. Sometimes I’m so sensitive to criticism I hear the positive part, and I think, “Oh, here comes the bad stuff.”
Alan: I always when I think about giving criticism, I always think of that story you told me. Were you at the upstairs or downstairs when you were starting out?
Carol: No, the Blue Angel.
Alan: The Blue Angel. It was I think the first night you had a song about-
Carol: John Foster Dulles.
Alan: John Foster Dulles. Tell me that story again. I love that story.
Carol: Well, I had this nightclub act. It was 20 minutes long. The Blue Angel was a very in night club in New York. There were always four acts, four performers, and each act was 20 minutes, and then there’d be a break in between and then so forth. The writer that I worked with, Ken Welch, he later wrote all my specials and wrote on my show, did a special material number. This was at the height of Elvis Presley’s popularity in 1957. Then Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles, aptly named. He was quite dull and had no sense of humor or anything like that. He wore a fedora and always had this down expression.
Carol: So Kenny said, “I’m going to write a song about you, a young girl, not crazy over Elvis, but crazy over John Foster Dulles.” I said, “That is really funny.” He wrote it, and it is a very funny song. I did it at the Blue Angel. I opened with it. The audience loved it. I went on the Jack Paar show. I sang it on the Paar show. Then I had to go back to do the midnight show at the Blue Angel, and the phones were ringing off the hook. One of the calls was from John Waters or David Water, I can’t remember, who was Mr. Dulles’ television advisor. He said, “I saw this, and Mr. Dulles didn’t … Could you go back on the Jack Paars show and do it maybe Thursday night so he can see it?”
Carol: I said, “Yeah.” I went back and did it on Thursday night. Then I did it on Ed Sullivan on Sunday night, so three in a row. I have two stories. I’m on one, and then I’ll get to yours. The following Sunday I’m watching Meet the Press and Dulles is on. It’s all very serious until they’re going to sign off, and the one last question is, “Mr. Dulles, what is this thing going on between you and that young girl who sings that love song about you?” I’m sitting there watching it. Oh, my Lord. He got a twinkle in his eye, and he said, “I make it a policy never to discuss matters of the heart in public.”
Alan: Oh, great.
Carol: Wasn’t that great?
Alan: Great.
Carol: Now I feel I get cocky. I get cocky because I’ve been on television three times in one week and I’m doing the Blue Angel, and everybody’s coming to see me. I got too full of myself. I thought, “I got it nailed. I got it nailed.” This one night, I opened with the Dulles’ number. I come out to do my act. I do the Dulles’ number. The audience is like an oil painting. They’re just staring at me. No laughs. Then I had the rest of my 20 minutes to go, and the flop sweat was just horrible. I barely got this when I finished my act.
Carol: Now, I had another show to do because that was an early show and then there was another one at midnight. I go up the stairs, and I’m headed down the hall towards my dressing room, and I’m crying. I thought, “What did I do wrong?” I was just too sure of myself. Anyway, so there’s this man coming towards me to go to the men’s room. He kind of had a little too much. He tippled a bit. He was drunk. I had to pass him in the hall. As he was going into the men’s room he looked at me. He said, “Hey, weren’t you that little lady who was just on the stage down there just now?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Boy, you stink.”
Alan: That’s the example of giving criticism I always think of.
Carol: You stink. Well, it was the best thing that ever happened because from then on I never was cocksure about myself. I didn’t come out with that old, “Hey, aren’t you lucky to see me.”
Alan: You know, that’s the worst impression to give an audience. You’re so lucky to be here looking at me.
Carol: Yeah, exactly.
Alan: When I see a performer do that, I just cringe.
Carol: Well, you turn off.
Alan: Any kind of slickness. Elia Kazan used to say he liked to work with actors before they got slick and looked like actors. We don’t all have to do that, but it takes work not to get slick because there is something about it as glorious as it is not to know what the next moment is going to be.
Carol: That’s right.
Alan: You can take refuge in doing it over and over and know you have a way to accomplish it and avoid the fear of the unknown.
Carol: Exactly.
Alan: But I think the best way to avoid the fear of the unknown is not to be afraid of it.
Carol: There you go.
Alan: To welcome it. There’s something wonderful about it. Do you remember a moment when you were … You may not, so don’t worry if you don’t. Do you remember a moment where you didn’t know what you were going to say next and was shocked at what came out and how good it was?
Carol: Well, I told you about the one question, odd question, that I got when I was doing my Q&A show. This was about 10 years ago. I told you this story, but I’ll tell it again. You have to remember it was 10 years ago. I never have a plant in the audience, so it’s all random. I called on this lady, and she said, “Carol, if you could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours, and then pop back into being yourself again, who would you be and what would you do?”
Carol: The audience went, “Whoo.” I thought, and I said a little prayer. I said, “Okay, God. I’m going to open my mouth, and whatever comes out is going to be your fault.” I swear, Alan, I didn’t know I was going to say this until it came out. I said … Remember it’s 10 years ago. “I’d be Osama Bin Laden and I’d kill myself.” The audience screamed with laughter and applause, and I just said, “Thank you, God.” I didn’t know I was going to say that until I opened my mouth.
Alan: You had the sense of community with the actors that is … I think we all want to believe that when we’re having fun watching a show that’s so much fun, we want to believe they’re a family.
Carol: We were.
Alan: If you really are, that makes a big difference. I think it shows in the interplay between-
Carol: It showed in M*A*S*H.
Alan: It showed in M*A*S*H.
Carol: Mary Tyler Moore.
Alan: Yeah. And when you and I made Four Seasons.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely.
Alan: That was a movie. In a movie you don’t get a chance to rehearse, almost never.
Carol: But we rehearsed.
Alan: I made sure we had three weeks of rehearsal.
Carol: That’s right.
Alan: I don’t know if you remember, but I was directing, and I said-
Carol: Of course I remember.
Alan: I don’t know if you remember my saying this as the director. I said, “We have three weeks to rehearse, and we’ll go over the lines, and we’ll rehearse the scenes, but the most important thing we can do during these three weeks is become close friends.” Because it was a movie about-
Carol: Friendship.
Alan: Six close friends and friendship. The ups and downs of it. As soon as I said that everybody was such a good camper. Everybody started telling embarrassing stories about themselves so that we opened up to one another. Do you remember that?
Carol: Oh, my God.
Alan: Remember Jack Weston who was such a good actor. Every time we got to a different season in the movie where there was a different physical activity to do, like he had to ski, he’d say, “I don’t ski. I can’t. I’ll just pretend to be skiing. I’m not skiing. But wait until we get to the motorcycles in the next season. I love motorcycles.” We get to the motorcycle season, and he’d say, “I don’t really ride a motorcycle. I’m no good at that, but boating is my thing. When we get to the summer sequence …” He never did anything.
Carol: I know. I know. That was a funny scene. I remember the one where we were all … where you and I started laughing when we’re hearing the characters of Bess Armstrong and Len making love.
Alan: In the next compartment.
Carol: In the next compartment. You and I got … We improvised that.
Alan: That’s right. The whole scene was improvised. The laughter was so genuine, and the sounds from the other room were so genuine. They were over in the corner improvising love making, which was already a peculiar thing to see out of the corner of your eye. You see them at a microphone.
Alan: It just occurred to me … I know this is from left field. But it occurred to me how many characters you created on your show, and what a sense of character you had even though there were often exaggerated characters. When I asked you if you wanted to do Four Seasons with me, you were so kind and thoughtful about the way you said, “Yes, I’d like to do it, but how about if we talk about making the character a little deeper?” I forget the exact words you used, but that was the intention.
Alan: You had such good ideas about what made that women different from all the other characters in the piece.
Carol: Oh, thank you.
Alan: It was very helpful.
Carol: I remember I wanted us as the characters to have a fight.
Alan: Yeah.
Carol: She was too perfect. That was the thing. I thought she was a little too perfect, so to have some flaws so that you and I could butt heads.
Alan: Right, because my character had plenty of flaws
I was working very hard on the script writing it. One day you know how when you’re in the shower your mind ranges over all your work. I came out of the shower, and I said to Arlene, “You know, I finally realized who this character is I’m writing. I understand now with all his flaws. He’s my father.” Arlene said to me, “You’re kidding, right?” I said, “No, what do you mean?” She said, “It’s you.”
Carol: No wonder you’ve been married so long and so successfully.

Alan: it really interests me a lot, your ability to open yourself up. It’s very generous. I’m thinking for instance of the book you wrote about your daughter, Carrie. Now the book is being made into a movie, right? Tell about that.
Carol: Years ago before she got sick with cancer she took a road trip. She was writing a screenplay about a girl, a kind of Bohemian young girl, who from Hollywood gets in a car with a mysterious cowboy and goes … She wants to go to Graceland. But it’s her adventures along the way, and you don’t know who this mysterious cowboy is until the end. She would write me … She would email me scenes as she was taking this road trip. I would comment on them and everything. She had the beginning and the ending and the middle needed work. So when she was sick she asked me, she said, “Mom, could you finish my screenplay for me?”
Carol: I said, “Honey, I don’t know. They’re your characters to write.” She said, “That’s okay. That’s okay.” So that had been living with me for about 10 years after she died. I thought, “I can’t do this, but what I can do is write about her and my relationship going through …” because she had tumultuous teenage years when she was into drugs. Then she got sober when she was 17, and then she went on to become a writer, a singer, a songwriter, an actress. She did so much stuff.
Carol: In fact, she did this cult movie called Tokyo Pop that she got great reviews. Marlon Brando called her.
Alan: Oh, really?
Carol: He said, “I’d like to talk to you about a project.” She said, “No, thank you.”
Alan: What?
Carol: That’s what I said.
Alan: What was her reason?
Carol: I said, “Are you crazy?” She said, “Mom, I already did it. I want to concentrate on my music.” She wanted to do … She didn’t care about being famous or a star or anything. I thought, well, I want to write about how we coped with the drugs, how finally I had to love her enough to let her hate me because she did when I slapped her into rehab places and stuff like that. Oh my God, she called me every name in the book. But then she got well, and she started as I say performing and rehearsing and so forth. Then she got sick. She had an amazing attitude about it. She at first was the fear, the anger, the why me, but then she kind of settled into some sort of a zen moment. She still had a sense of humor. She was in and out of the hospital a few times.
Carol: The last time she was in the hospital the nurse came up to me, I was headed for Carrie’s room, and she said, “I have to tell you something about Carrie.” I said, “What?” She said, “She cheers us up when we go into the room.” She’s bald headed and all that from chemo and everything. I said, “Carrie, how come you’re always so cheerful?” Carrie said, “Every day I wake up and decide,” and that’s the key word, decide. Every day I wake up and decide today I’m going to love my life. That was it. I thought about all of this and then I thought, “You know what? I’m going to write a book about us, Carrie and me, the first part of it. Then the last part will be her half-finished screenplay.”
Carol: I did. It sold very well. Just about a year ago Steven Rogers who produced and wrote I, Tonya, I gave the book to him thinking maybe he could help with Carrie’s screenplay. He said, “I’m going to give this to these two brothers who are good writers” and see what they think. They came back and said, “What we want to write is Carrie and Carol.”
Alan: Oh, I see.
Carol: “That’s what we’re passionate about.” They fell in love with Carrie. We pitched it to a few studios and stuff, and Focus Films, which was the one we wanted, picked it up, and they’re going to do a movie of it. Steven Rogers will be a co-producer along with Tina Fey.


Alan: We do a thing on this show where we end every conversation with seven quick questions.
Carol: Uh-oh.
Alan: Yeah, I know, but they’re very mild. Don’t worry. They’re not embarrassing.
Carol: Okay.
Alan: We invite seven quick answers. They’re sort of about roughly to do with relating and communicating. You’ll see what I mean. They’re not intrusive. Don’t worry.
Carol: Okay.
Alan: What do you wish you really understood?
Carol: Life.
Alan: Okay. That was quick. What do you wish other people understood about you?
Carol: That’s a tough one.
Alan: Yeah, I always found it tough too.
Carol: It’s okay to come up and say hello.
Alan: Oh, that’s nice.
Carol: I welcome it.
Alan: Because you’re who you are. You’re not the icon. Yeah. Now you sort of answered this, but maybe you have another answer. What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Carol: That was it, the one about if you were a member of the opposite sex, who would you be and what would you do in 24 hours.
Alan: Okay. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Carol: I think I yawn.
Alan: You do? You literally yawn? You really mean that?
Carol: You said how would you do it. That’s what I guess I would do.
Alan: You could really give one too. If empathy is figuring out what the other person’s point of view is, what they’re going through, is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel empathy?
Carol: You want me to say it?
Alan: You don’t have to name anybody.
Carol: Oh, well. Then, yes.
Alan: Okay.
Carol: Because that person has no empathy.
Alan: I got you. So a lack of empathy would inspire the same thing in you?
Carol: Yeah.
Alan: How do you like to deliver bad news? In person? On the phone? Or by carrier pigeon?
Carol: Well, it depends. I guess in person if that would be allowable. If it’s bad news, and the person is 3,000 miles away, it would be either carrier pigeon or the telephone. Nobody uses the telephone anymore.
Alan: I hate the telephone. I’ve always been nervous on the phone. I was very glad when email came in.
Carol: Texting. Do you text?
Alan: Yeah, I do the whole thing.
Carol: You know, if there had been texting first and there had been no telephones, and then the telephone would be invented, everybody would say, “Oh, my gosh. Isn’t that great? You can hear a voice. You can hear how they sound.”
Alan: Yeah. You’re right. They came in the wrong order.
Carol: Exactly.
Alan: What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Carol: Cruelty.
Alan: Toward you or anybody else?
Carol: Anybody else and me.
Alan: I hope nothing ever happens that ends our friendship or threatens it in any way.
Carol: No way.
Alan: You’re terrific. Thank you so much.
Carol: I love you.
Alan: I love you, Carol. Arlene sends her love.
Carol: Back at you.
Alan: That’s great.
Carol: Thanks.
When Carol accepted her Golden Globe lifetime achievement award earlier this year, she said, “We’ve been granted a gift, a canvas to paint with our talents, one to make people laugh or cry or maybe do both.” And she has certainly made us all do both. And the Carol Burnett show is back on TV. In addition to being available through DVD and Amazon Prime, you can now watch lost episodes of her groundbreaking show on MeTV. The show airs on Sunday nights – check your local listings. The rarely seen episodes showcase sketches from the first five seasons of her long-running series, including the premier episode with Jim Nabors. Carol’s written several best-selling books, including In Such Good Company, a new York Times best seller about her 11 years on the show. And also the book mentioned in this episode, Carrie and Me, a Mother Daughter Love Story. And for more details about Carol and the Carol Burnett show, check out the official show page on Facebook at carolburnettshow.

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!