Laughing has kept Burnett going
The Province, September 11, 2008

It takes a special person to get up on stage and let the audience ask questions.

You expose yourself completely, so you have to be clever and willing to laugh at yourself, repeatedly.

Laughter and Reflection With Carol Burnett at the Orpheum next Thursday, as part of the Global Comedyfest, gives the audience unprecedented access to this groundbreaking comedian.

Legendary funnywoman Carol Burnett headlines the Global Comedyfest, which kicks off this weekend.

Burnett doesn't have a PR person patch you in for an allotted 10-minute interview. Burnett calls you herself from her cell at home in Santa Barbara, something unheard of with contemporary comics who try to give you their attention but mostly sound like they're stoned and can't wait to get off the phone.

Burnett's trademark on her multi-Emmy-winning Carol Burnett Show was to "bump up the lights" and take questions from the audience.

"I open with about seven minutes of clips from our show that were some of the funniest Q&As," she says. "That gets the live audience in the mood and shows them what the evening is going to be like. And off we go. Nothing is ever planted, people know that and I like it to be spontaneous, even if you've got egg on your face. It's honest."

And it's clean.

"I think it's a lot harder to laugh when you're not blue. You have to be a lot more clever, so you're not shocking the audience into laughing," she says.

For 11 years Burnett and Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner had the time of their lives with sketch comedy and musical medleys.

"We had 12 dancers, 28 musicians. We would do these seven-minute medleys -- a tribute to Rogers and Hammerstein. You couldn't do that today because they wouldn't let you -- the estates. A medley like that today would cost about $80,000," she says.

It was the golden age of variety shows and Burnett's set the mark not only for its content but for the camaraderie of the cast and how they would go to great lengths to make each other lose it on stage.

"It was Tim's goal in life, practically, to destroy Harvey," she says of Conway.

"We'd go out to dinner, even in the past few years when the show wasn't on, we would always keep in touch, have dinner once every couple of weeks. And I used to say we've got to be careful here: With Tim and Harvey, if you started to laugh, you'd have to know the Heimlich manoeuvre, either that or have already swallowed because it was dangerous."

Korman died earlier this year, and Conway remains close.

"Whenever we go out with the Conways, I look so forward to it because I know I'm going to get a healing treatment, which is what laughter is."

Burnett credits her work ethic and success to growing up just like everyone else. Her parents divorced when she was young and she was raised by her grandmother in Los Angeles.

"My best girlfriend was being raised by her grandmother, they were on what was called relief, which is like being on welfare. Nobody had any money," Burnett says. "It wasn't like we were the only ones, so I never really felt sorry for myself. The one splurge was that my grandmother would save up so we could go to the movies. There was always a good ending, the bad guys got it, the good guys won."

When Burnett headed to New York to break into the biz, she just kept at it, finally staging her own show in a women's-only boarding house so she could get an agent who, in those days, wouldn't represent you until you'd performed, but you couldn't perform unless you had an agent.

"When I was turned down at auditions, it was like, well, I'm not supposed to get this. It was meant for somebody else and my turn will come. So I never felt bereft or left out of anything and things opened up for me. Honest to God, I think it was the movies that gave me what I needed -- I wasn't cynical about it."

Burnett was determined and willing to do it all. She was offered one role that required her to jump out of a window. She told the producer she'd done that many times before and went ahead with the scene.

"And I sat up and said, 'Oh, thanks for the mattress!' And everybody was hysterical. I hadn't even gone to check what I was going to land on."

She caught the attention of Lucille Ball, who affectionately always called her "Kid." On every birthday, Ball would send flowers to Burnett.

"We would socialize a lot. I would do her show, she'd come on and do my show. We were close."

Ball died on Burnett's birthday in 1989.

"She died that morning and I got my flowers that afternoon. Oh, boy. It was hard. She was a mentor. A good lady."

Burnett has always come across as approachable and is known for never refusing autographs. But she's no pushover.

Burnett took on The National Enquirer in 1981 for printing a story about her being drunk with Henry Kissinger.

"I was just angry, and stubborn and patient. It took a lot of patience. It took five years to get to court."

Burnett won and later donated a portion of the settlement to several journalism schools with the intent to educate would-be scribes of the dangers of defamation.

She's won Emmys, a Kennedy Centre honour and has been the Grand Marshall of the Rose Parade.

But what she's most proud of isn't surprising from the woman who seemed to move effortlessly between TV, stage and films.

"I'm very proud of the friendships I have and that I've had, some of them for over 50 years. I'm very proud that we've kept together.

"I'm proud of my kids," she says, and then speaks of one of her daughters, Carrie, who died at the age of 38 in 2002.

"I'm grateful that I survived my daughter's death, which was the hardest thing you can go through. I've never gotten over it, but I've survived. Otherwise what's the alternative?"

She still gets fan mail and a few young girls who were wise enough to put their phone numbers on their letters got a call from the star herself.

"We talk, I was able to answer their questions and it was fun," she says.

She is often asked for advice and offers what's worked for her.

"The main thing is to be prepared when fortune opens its door. Know your lines, know what you're going to do. Don't take it personally when you're turned down. Usually it's because you're not the type," she says.

"You have to have the fire in the belly. And if you don't, it doesn't matter how talented you are."

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