Carol Burnett reflects on how variety spiced up TV life
By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES – Carol Burnett has a one-word explanation for the disappearance of her TV specialty, the comedy-variety show: “Money.”
“We had a 28-piece live orchestra, no synthesizer, real live musicians. We had 12 dancers, two guest stars a week, all those sketches – sometimes five, six, seven – and big production numbers. And costumes by Bob Mackie, 50 a week from head-to-toe,” she says. “You couldn’t do that today.
MORE: Burnett pulls back the drapes on much-loved show
“We did all these medleys that would last five to six minutes. To pay for each song (today), the medleys would be out.”
Burnett’s recounting of her Emmy-winning, 11-year run on The Carol Burnett Show is a central element of her new book, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection (Harmony, $25), which she describes as “a quasi-memoir.” It’s on sale today.
Variety was thriving when Burnett, 76, started her show in 1967. She remembers when Sonny and Cher, Glen Campbell and the Smothers Brothers were putting on shows on adjoining stages at CBS‘ Television City.
Burnett loved the challenge of putting a show together from scratch each week, then taping it twice before separate studio audiences. “I’m a live-theater performer. When the curtain goes up, let’s go do it,” she says. The show “was like a Broadway musical-comedy revue a week.”
Burnett doesn’t see such reality shows as American Idol and Dancing With the Stars– which are taped at Television City – as variety descendants, because each focuses on just one form of entertainment. Saturday Night Live reflects the form “to some degree, because they do sketches.”
“But I do know the talent is there to host a variety show. It would have to be toned down. You couldn’t have a big orchestra,” she says.
“Martin Short could host a show, because he sings, he dances and, God knows, he’s funny. When CBS put Bette Midler in a sitcom, I thought she should have had a variety show. She’s got the same comedy chops and she sings up a storm. … Here’s another one: Kristin Chenoweth. She sings, she’s cute and she’s funny.”
Burnett, who gets letters today from younger viewers who have seen clips of the show on YouTube, says the larger audience is missing the great entertainment variety provided.
She realizes how fortunate she was to have had a chance in the genre. “I was so spoiled. I was there at the right time, for which I am grateful.”