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Carol Burnett: Make ‘Em Laugh

It was a match made in heaven: TV’s favorite variety comedienne and an upcoming costume designer. They began a relationship that would define the extravagant style of the 1960s and 1970s and funny was never more stylish than when San Antonio native Carol Burnett and Bob Mackie collaborated, entertained and brought laughter into millions of hearts with their combined creative talents. In an exclusive, here’s a behind the scenes look the glitzy magic that happened every week over two decades in one of the most popular television series of all time.

It’s been said that comedy isn’t pretty. Silly, yes. But pretty? Rarely. Until sometimes, just sometimes, it can be really quite beautiful. Slim, trim and sparkling at the age of 73, Ms. Burnett is still a hard working actress. She’s appearing A Conversation with Carol Burnett, to share some of her favorite moments of her career and to share answers to questions from the audience. In a conversation with her recently, I got to “bump up the lights” with her to see what makes this star tick. And how she looked so beautifully funny while doing it.

Lance Avery Morgan: At this point in your career, you’re considered a legend. Is that odd or is it still about the work for you?

Carol Burnett: You know, I don’t think anybody thinks they are a legend. To me the legends were people like Bing Crosby and James Stewart. They were bigger than life. It really is about the work. It’s not ‘Oh, here comes the legend.’ I just show up and hit my marks.

LAM: What drew you to comedy and variety?

CB: When I was in my 20’s I did The Garry Moore Show. I had such a good time with it and then wanted to do it myself. Very few people these days remember his show, but he had one of the best in the world. It was a true musical-comedy-variety show. We had so many guest stars and did it like a live show, even though it was taped. After his show went off the air, I got offers to do my own show on CBS with titles like Here’s Agnes. That wasn’t what I wanted to do because I didn’t want to be the same person every week. Especially somebody named Agnes. With variety, I loved that I could be different characters and have my own guest stars. So, when I left New York where we did Garry’s show, to come to Los Angeles, a lot of the writers, producers, and performers came out with me. It was a perfect segue because everybody knew what they were doing.

LAM: You’ve teamed with some of the greats – Julie Andrews, Lucille Ball and so many more. Plus, all your series’ co-stars and guest stars. How important is the collaborative process for you?

CB: I loved musicals growing up. So for me, all of what we did on the show was the best of all possible worlds. And it worked. It was a great cast with a great synergy.

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Growing up in the Depression in 1930’s wasn’t easy for a child. Born into a Texas family of modest circumstances, Burnett depended on her grandmother more than her parents whom, she learned early on, could not be relied upon. It created an unstoppable drive for her to be an entertainer and make people laugh. Proving once again that the best comedy strikes from the darkest origins. Seeing the light of music, dance and comedy was what Burnett did to survive. She and her grandmother would move to Los Angeles where Burnett attended school and in 1951, became yet another famous alumna of Hollywood High School. With a scholarship to UCLA, her destiny was chartered. She’d study drama but had the intent on becoming a playwright, hence her close relationships with the writers who would write her career’s myriad funny lady lines.

In the mid 1950s Burnett landed a spot on the The Winchell-Mahoney Show and on a sitcom calledStanley, co-starring Buddy Hackett until 1957. She then created a persona on the nightclub and cabaret circuits, where it was a crash course in connecting with her audience. She came to national acclaim on the variety shows like Ed Sullivan and Jack Parr’s The Tonight Show, with a parody tune called I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles. What lent it to being so funny was that Dulles was known to be a very dry secretary of state, about as unsexy as it gets. After that came success on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress, the Moore show (for which she won the first of her five Emmy awards in 1962) and specials starring with talents like Julie Andrews. “Carol probably brings out the worst in me. We bonded the minute we first met and usually do wicked, silly, naughty things whenever we get together,” Andrews said about their partnership. From there it was up, up, up to the pinnacle success starring in her own CBS weekly show in the fall of 1967. Pop culture would never be the same.

LAM: Carol, hundred of millions of people on this planet have enjoyed your show. Even while watching it as a kid, it looked to me that so like much work went into it. Was it an 80 hour work week to make it all happen?

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CB: We were so organized. So organized that we’d go in on Mon at 10 am and read through the script, put a sketch on feet, then go home. The same for Tuesday…we’d go in, have lunch, go into a dance rehearsal and be out by 3pm. Wednesday’s I’d go in at noon and review costumes and do run through for the crew and be out by 4:30pm. Then we’d rehearse Thursdays from 2-6pm, then after dinner be back from 7-9 PM, then go home. And Friday was the show and by then, we’d nail it. Unless it took longer because of the Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins, which Tim would adlib anyway. So, even though we did more episodes a season then than is done now, we’d have several weeks off, summers, and Christmas. Can you believe we did it all in about 30 hours a week? Now it’s so different in television. They’re still shooting in the studio at 1:00 AM. The poor guests. And the poor actors. They’re like warhorses – if audiences are even laughing by the end of the taping.

LAM: In the 1970s, your show really reached a high level of popularity, didn’t it? You, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner, and Harvey Korman were superstars. What drives {you} to perform and make the world laugh?

CB: It makes you feel good. The biggest compliment I have is when someone tells me, like you did, that my show was the time their whole family would watch television together. To be a family. We were lucky were part of that Saturday night lineup… with All In The Family, Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore. It was magic.

LAM: Was there a great deal of effort that went into what your show looked like... that’s where designer Bob Mackie comes in? You sort of discovered him, didn’t you?

CB: When we decided we were going to do the series, my husband Joe and I had seen his work in Las Vegas for Mitzi Gaynor and just loved it. Then we saw the television special Alice Through the Looking Glass and thought the costumes are so inventive, fun and colorful. And again it was Bob Mackie. We got in touch and told him we wanted to meet us at our home to discuss our show. So, the doorbell rings and I open the door to what looked to be a twelve year old. At the time he was 24. We hired him on the spot.

LAM: Is there’s a great deal of trust level a star needs to have a designer?

CB: For the first three to four weeks when we started doing the show, Bob would show me some sketches to get approval. Finally, after that short amount of time, I said ‘just tell me when you want me to come to the fitting’ because there was no need for the design’s approval by me. I loved what he was doing. It’s about trust and he had that with me. I remember one time when a sketch called for me to hang from a chandelier that I had to climb up. So, naturally I thought I should wear slacks. Bob said it would be funnier to be in a tight skirt and high heels. I had ‘funny legs’ – so being in a skirt and turning and dangling made it much funnier. Bob had that intuition, too.

LAM: He designed your opening gowns as well as all your characters each week. Many of them were real showstoppers since Bob Mackie’s signature was glitz and glam – was that part of what you wanted to project to your audience?

CB: I loved getting all dressed up and getting the laughs. I never knew what he was going to put me in each week. I loved what he designed for the opening outfits I would wear to talk to the audience. He did every single costume – not just mine. That was about 50 costumes a week – Harvey, Vicki, Tim, the dancers. The more you do the more you {can} do.

LAM: Did the costumes become a part of how you approached your characters? What was your favorite costume or character?

CB: They did. My favorite had to be the Gone With The Wind outfit. You know, the writers wrote that I would pull down draperies and then they would just be hanging on me in the next scene. Which would have been funny. So we went into our usual Wednesday costume fitting that week and Bob said, ‘I have an idea.’ That’s how Scarlett’s curtain rod dress was born. When we shot it, it was so hard for me to keep me from laughing, so I had to bite the inside of my mouth. Plus, at the taping it was the first time the audience and crew had seen it, so it was it was a surprise for everyone.

LAM: And what about Mrs.Wiggins? Mackie designed that perfect dumb blonde outfit to capture that character, didn’t he?

CB: When we first thought about doing Mrs. Wiggins’ character, she was a senile, elderly lady. So we thought, why don’t we make her a bimbo whom the IQ fairy had never visited? Bob had so many great ideas for her like the pushup bra and the fake nails. I went in for the fitting and he fitted me with a black, slim skirt that was very tight at the knees. But it had a baggy behind. And I have a {flat} behind. So I told him, ‘I think we’re going to have to take this in.’ Bob said, ‘Stick your butt into where its baggy.’ And that’s how the crazy walk started there… with the high heels, of course. It was another classic. He designed all the show’s wigs, too, you know.

LAM: You did so many characters, and there was Bob Mackie, week after week creating what would be classic costumes to match your priceless characters…

CB: He was. I also recall I did a character that was Cockney tart during the time of Jack the Ripper in the late 1800s. I just couldn’t get into her character for some reason and Bob said, ‘since people then had such bad teeth, why don’t you black out a tooth so it looks chipped?’ And what happens when you have a chipped tooth? You lisp. So I lisped and no matter what I said, the character became very funny. Bob thinks like a comedic writer and director.

Man of Design

“A woman who wears my clothes is not afraid to be noticed,” says the Sultan of Sequins Bob Mackie. The prolific designer should know. He’s won nine Emmy Awards (and has been nominated for 31) and has also been nominated for three Academy Awards. But it’s not just the accolades to Mackie. It’s about the creative process. I caught up with Mackie as he was dashing off to the East Coast from his Los Angeles studio, where he is still a sought after designer for made to order for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and helms successful products with his QVC network appearances. He had just learned he was nominated for another Emmy for Carol Burnett’s costumes for her role in this past season’s television special, Once Upon A Mattress. He still has that inimitable dynamic touch. Cameron Silver, owner of the chic Los Angeles store, Decades, specializing in vintage couture, comments on Mackie’s talents, “Just look at the last Dior Haute Couture show by Galliano and you see Mackie’s influence. When Cher was overheard saying it was her favorite show and she would wear all the clothing, it’s a great validation that costume and fashion have fused at the highest echelon of style. Bob Mackie has been able to mix his profound talent as a costume designer with his couturier ability to create some of the most memorable fashion images of the 20th century.” Mackie wowed audiences every week on Burnett’s show with an outrageous array of imaginative colors, luxury fabrics, beading, feathers, fur and just about any other sort of adornment that could create an instant impression. He created a body of instant impressions that’s lasted to this day, decades later.

LAM: Bob, Texans really love your style. Are you here much?

BM: I’ve been to Texas many times. I loved doing trunk shows at Neiman’s when I had a clothing line there. Austin’s great, too. It’s very hip.

LAM: Speaking of hip, you’ve designed creations in your career for just about every star including Cher (while simultaneously doing Burnett’s show), Barbra Streisand, Lucille Ball, Elton John, Sharon Stone and so many more. How is costuming different these days?

BM: It’s all about shopping now. The way the designers – or personal stylists, really, bring in a rack so the star and director can choose what will be worn. It’s just different. I did Carol’s show for 11 years and I never once had her wear a pair of jeans.

LAM: What was the most challenging aspect of The Carol Burnett Show?

BM: I did everyone’s clothes, including the guest stars’, which was like running a race each week. It was exciting to find out what the script would be like on a Friday for the next week’s show. There never seemed to be enough time. I made it work. You could say it was an adrenalin rush.

LAM: I’ll bet. Carol told me you designed almost 50 costumes a week for the show. Did you have a large team to implement the costumes at the time?

BM: I had male assistant who would help with the men’s clothes. If there were uniforms, we would just rent those. I had a female assistant to help with the women’s costumes. Although I designed so much, for some characters, like a housewife part, we’d just buy a dress.

LAM: What was your favorite costume for a Carol character?

BM: We did over 200 shows and the one that got the most attention was the {Gone With The Wind}outfit. It was recently on display at a television costume exhibit for at the FITM Design School. But mostly, it was just another week, another show.

LAM: It’s become a true classic. Any others? What about the classic movie homages?

BM: Those were really fun. Remember, that was back in the day before VHS and DVD rentals.

LAM: So, did you depend on The Late, Late Show as a resource, or how did you design, like say, Mildred Pierced, a take off on the Joan Crawford movie that was a really successful sketch or say, Sunset Boulevard?

BM: I have a collection of fashion books that I could reference, plus I’d seen all those old movies and loved them. Sometimes, though, it was tough. For instance, in the books, they might not have a photo of the bottom of the skirt…the hemline. So, I just made do. Looking back, and having access to those movies now, I was pretty close. I just had a feeling of the film and its period.

LAM: You also designed Carol’s opening segment where she would answer questions from the audience. The gowns were gorgeous, many with your signatures beads and sparkles. What was your inspiration for those?

BM: With her opening gowns I wanted Carol to wake up the audience, and to have her not only look attractive, but also for her to look like their friend. I knew that later she’d be in one crazy costume after another, so I wanted her to be seen as more real in the opening outfits. When I see a group of those show openers now, I think ‘wow, she could wear those today.’

LAM: What was your favorite aspect about working with Carol over the years?

BM: It was a gift because I loved the movie musicals growing up. It was the first weekly variety show with a lady star. Also, to do comedy, dance, singing and the musical numbers. It was all a dream for me.

Star power. That’s what Carol Burnett really has. And star quality. She’s respectful of her background and knows how lucky she is to have achieved what she has. “I loved when we did all the movie take offs on the show. My grandmother and I would go to ‘the picture show’ in Texas and we’d see those double features and I grew up watching and loving movies,” Burnett confides.

LAM: Who came up with all the ideas to do the movie parodies? They were really genius.

CB: Because I loved all those movies, too, I’d go to the writers and say ‘let’s do Mildred Pierce. Which led to Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Sunset Boulevard and all the others. And you know what? After we did them, the stars of those movies would come on as guests. We had on Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Gloria Swanson. All of them. I’ll never forget the time Steve Lawrence and I did a take-off ofFrom Here to Eternity.

LAM: Right. The one where the beach scene has all the water that soaks you both. It’s hilarious. You had all those amazing guest stars. That in mind, who has inspired you most in your life and career?

CB: Definitely Garry Moore because he knew how to run a show and never had any ego about him at all. He knew what was best for the show. He’d say, ‘Give that funny line to Durwood (Kirby) or let Carol have that.’ He was very supportive. I feel that way, too. I’ve loved playing straight man to Tim or Harvey. We all gave. We really loved and looked out for each other.

LAM: That really came across with your character Eunice in the Mama’s family ensemble sketch, too…

CB: I always loved playing Eunice. There was such a pitifulness about her. It could be very serious stuff if we didn’t go overboard with accents. One time we experimented that way and decided to do it serious. It was very dark. The writers never wrote a joke because they were all character-driven one acts. So it got to be funny with the exaggerated way we performed it.

LAM: Do you think a phenomenon like your show could ever happen again?

CB: I feel blessed but I don’t think it could happen again – it would be so prohibitive, money-wise. The music was so elaborate. Now they charge a fortune to license five seconds of a song.

LAM: Do you think there’s the creativity out there that could handle it now?

CB: I think the talent is definitely out there. The people are out there, there’s just no vehicle for them. People like Martin Short, Billy Crystal and Kristin Chenowith. They are absolutely brilliant. But they have to be on sitcoms – or Broadway. If they were ever allowed to do it, they could do a great variety show.

LAM: Speaking of today’s talent, you recently appeared in {Desperate Housewives} with fellow Texans Eva Longoria, Ricardo Chavez and Mechad Brooks. Was that fun?

CB: It was so much fun. I only got to work with Marcia Cross because of the scenes I was in, but I loved it. I talked to some of the crew and they said everyone was so supportive of each other. It’s a well run ship.

LAM: Carol, your bringing your reminiscences to Texas this fall with your conversational show. What can we expect?

CB: I’m looking forward to it. I’ve done this many times before and realize that the show is only as good as the audience. We show clips during the evening and I’ll then talk about it. Then we’ll talk about the great musical performances we did. It’s a fun time.

LAM: You’ve already written your autobiography, so what else can we expect from you?

CB: I’m writing another book! It’s anecdotal about the people I’ve known. And fan stories that are fun. Plus, I’ll write about when I met Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and how it all came about. It will be lighthearted. Like life should be.

Carol Burnett’s appearances will be Austin, presented by the University of Texas Performing Arts Center, Tuesday, September 26 at 8 p.m. in the Bass Concert Hall. In Fort Worth, presented by Bass Performance Hall, Thursday, September 28 at 8 p.m. In Houston, presented by Society for the Performing Arts, Friday, September 29 at 8 p.m. in Jones Hall. Her final performances will take her to San Antonio, presented by The Majestic, Sunday, October 1 at 7 p.m.