In this era of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, of Ellen DeGeneres and Chelsea Handler – not to mention Melissa McCarthy's Oscar-nominated turn in Bridesmaids, where she broke new ground for female gross-out humour – it's kind of funny to think of a time when a female host for a comedy variety series seemed too radical for network television.
Such was the case for Carol Burnett. The network signed her to a 10-year contract in the early 1960s, including an option to run her own hour-long variety series. When she told the network she wanted to put it in motion, though, they balked.
"They came back and said, 'You know Carol, this kind of a variety show is more like Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle and Dean Martin. It's really kind of a guy's thing," Burnett said recently on the line from Los Angeles. "They had a TV pilot they wanted me to do called Here's Agnes. You can just imagine. I said 'I don't want to be Agnes.'"
Contractually bound, CBS premiered The Carol Burnett Show in September, 1967, with the idea, Burnett says, that it would be off the air by February. Of course, it was an enormous hit, running 11 years, averaging 30 million viewers a week, and winning a display case full of Emmy Awards.
Burnett, now 78 – and appearing at Vancouver ComedyFest Friday night – was a comedy trailblazer, but she didn't do it alone.
In this Mean Girls kind of world, it's pretty heartwarming to hear about the support she received along the way from that other pioneering comedienne, Lucille Ball.
"When I was first starting out, I remember she came to see me in Once Upon a Mattress, and she came backstage and – she called me Kid – and she said 'you know, Kid, this is great … and if you ever need me for anything, give me a call.'"
A few years later, Burnett needed her. There was the possibility of a CBS special – but only if Burnett could land a big name guest. "The producer said, 'You've got to call Lucy.' I said 'I'm not going to do that.'" But she did. Ball took her call right away. "Hi, Kid. What's happening?" she said. When Burnett finally spat out the request, Ball didn't hesitate. "When do you want me?"
Ball appeared on Burnett's special; she had Burnett guest star on The Lucy Show; and when Burnett was pregnant with her second child, Ball threw her a black-tie, co-ed, evening baby shower. "I remember the men saying, 'Gee are these showers that much fun?' Not usually, no. When would a man ever go to a baby shower? But that was Lucy."
Fast forward a lifetime, and being a funny girl is no longer unusual, nor is it any sort of risk for a network. Have we come a long way, baby?
"Yes and no," Burnett says. She's not crazy about seeing women go "blue" in their material. "I'm not one to go for gratuitous language. Hell, I say it myself, but it's almost like, can you be more clever without doing it?"
She finds DeGeneres fall-on-the-floor funny, she's thrilled to witness the comedy renaissance of her old friend and collaborator Betty White, and she absolutely loved Bridesmaids. Kristen Wiig's performance may have been overlooked by the Oscars (although not her script), but Burnett is delighted to see McCarthy nominated for best supporting actress.
"She had some great scenes, especially on the plane, with that guy," says Burnett. "She deserved that recognition."
Burnett stars with Poehler in the animated film The Secret World of Arrietty – in theatres Friday – and the two recently teamed up for a press junket day. Maybe not a passing of the torch, but Burnett was glad they had that time together.
"She was so fun to be with. She's quick, she's sharp, she's sweet and I fell in love with her," says Burnett. "And she said that she'd kind of grown up on our show."
Burnett hears a lot of that (ahem), and is often told by younger women in comedy that she was an early inspiration.
"It makes me feel like I'm 104," Burnett says, that trademark laugh still so rich. "But I'm very flattered by it."
Laughter and Reflection with Carol Burnett is at the Orpheum Theatre for Vancouver ComedyFest on Friday night (comedyfest.com).