Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, May 11, 2001

Still Carol,
still laughing

By Tim Ryan

There's probably not much about beloved comedian and actor Carol Burnett that she hasn't already discussed during interviews with fans, journalists or talk-show hosts.

As a weekly visitor in America's living rooms, Burnett is best known for her 11-year run on the "Carol Burnett Show." But in the years since, the six-time Emmy Award winner has demonstrated even more versatility and is as widely recognized for her dramatic abilities as she is for her comedic and musical talents.

What you don't know about Burnett you'll get a chance to ask at her one-person performance, "An Evening of Laughter and Reflection," tomorrow at the Hawaii Theatre. The audience will ask the questions, reminiscent of the closing minutes of her TV variety show.

"I just thought it would be a fun sort of performance to do for me as well as the audience," Burnett says in a telephone interview from her Los Angeles home. "I love to tell stories about the (Carol Burnett) show, my personal life and some of my own struggles, and my thoughts generally.

"Heck, I'm just glad anyone cares about what I'm doing."

Burnett's as friendly, self-effacing and honest as her on-screen persona. During an hourlong interview there is no question she's reluctant to answer, taking time with most, even asking the reporter his opinions on some issues she's struggled with.

"It took a long time for me to get my first break and lot of hard work to be successful," she says. "I understand what other entertainers go through and never want to contribute to their struggles by being harsh or pushy.

"We're all in it together."

"Laughter and Reflection" begins with a large-screen video montage of scenes from the "The Carol Burnett Show," with most clips coming from the live audience question-and-answer sessions that opened each program.

"It's sort of a primer for the audience to encourage them to ask questions later and for those too young to remember my early years," she said, laughing. "The TV show really was funny and daring; we got some very weird questions from the live audience"

Some of Burnett's best TV characters make an appearance: shrill Eunice of "Mama's House"; Patsy, the "good" twin (Burnett also played the evil twin); a space cadet in love with a lighthouse; and Mrs. Wiggins, the totally stupid secretary.

Then there are the film icons skewered by Burnett and company: Shirley Temple, "Gone With the Wind's" Scarlett O'Hara and "Sunset Boulevard's" Norma Desmond.

Burnett chooses to perform the show only a few times a year to keep herself and the concept fresh. Not surprisingly, Burnett has never found an audience unable to come up with interesting questions.

"I always get asked for advice by young actors and I always tell them 'Get your education,' then provide them with hardheaded recommendations for survival in show business," said Burnett, who attended but did not graduate from UCLA, of which she is now a trustee. (Her charitable endeavors include several scholarship funds for students of theater, musical theater and journalism, of which the University of Hawaii has also been a beneficiary.)

"People always want to know about Tim Conway and Vicki (Lawrence)," she said.

Burnett includes in the show tales of her beloved granny, who raised her in a one-room apartment off Hollywood Boulevard and who used to check under the Murphy bed every night for Randolph Scott.

"Granny had at least six husbands," Burnett said, and when she died at 81, her boyfriend was a 40-year-old jazz musician in Redondo Beach, Calif.

Burnett's career also has included hundreds of stage, film and television performances in comedic, dramatic and musical roles, for which she has received five Golden Globes, a Peabody, an Ace, several People's Choice Awards and six Emmys, including one for a recurring role in the NBC comedy "Mad About You."

"I have been very, very blessed and I never forget that," she said.

Burnett in conversation is uninhibited and naturally funny. She remembers getting "a lot of laughs in school" on stage at UCLA, dating to some comedy scenes for an acting class during freshman year.

"I loved hearing the laughs," she said. "There was also an opera workshop class that did musical comedy scenes. They were doing a scene from 'Guys and Dolls' and needed someone who could sing.

"I auditioned for the part of Adelaide. In the scene she sings 'A Person Can Develop a Cold' -- Adelaide's Lament. I decided I could do that, because if she had a cold, she didn't have to sound good. Plus, it was a comedy song, which was good because I've always been afraid to do something where people would have to take me seriously. It always worried me that if I tried to be serious, people would laugh instead, when they shouldn't."

Burnett says it was Lucille Ball who really paved the way for her. "She opened the door for a lot of people so that we weren't just second bananas," Burnett said. "What Lucy did was help me believe that if they did it, maybe so could I. They gave me hope."

She admits she doesn't watch much television because it's "so formulaic." "The sitcoms, especially, have an 'A' line story and a 'B' line story. And it's setup, setup, joke, laugh track, setup, setup, joke, laugh track. Nothing seems real," she said.

Despite her success, Burnett has "never really felt settled."

"I don't mean that in a bad way, but there's always something else to conquer," Burnett said. "Every time I get on stage, or perform, it's a real challenge; that makes it interesting.

"I never feel that I've 'made it.' And that's good. Otherwise there's no place to improve."

In that vein, Burnett and daughter Carrie for a few years have been writing a play; it seems legendary director Hal Prince is interested in directing.

And Burnett has a novel idea for appearing in the current Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical "The Producers," based on the Mel Brooks film.

"There's a very brief role for an old lady in costume that I would love to do for fun, not notoriety," she said. "I could come in and do it and leave and just enjoy those brief moments.

"That would be sooo much fun!"

On stage

What: "Laughter and Reflection with Carol Burnett"
When: 8 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Hawaii Theatre
Tickets: $35 to $75; premium tickets that include a reception with Burnett are $125
Call: 528-0506

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