Carol Burnett is a trailblazer who opened many doors for women and set the standards for variety television. She was the first woman to star in a comedy variety show, and has won over 20 Emmys. Although her show aired during the late '60s and '70s, it's obvious to see that her sense of humor has put smiles on the faces of several generations.
In January 2016 she will receive the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, but on Wednesday, The Paley Center for Media welcomed the actress for an intimate chat moderated by Ellie Kemper, star of the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Prior to the laughter-filled discussion, Burnett offered her advice for thriving in a male-dominated world with InStyle. Her situation, she says, was a little different. "I had a contract where they had to put me on the air," she said. "They didn’t want to, so that was my big break." But Burnett recognizes that those types of contracts are now rare. "There are so many wonderful women today. I think you just have to keep plugging at it, and have the fire in the belly. Don’t take it personally, but just keep trying," she said.
"I sure would like to see more women keep coming out. You look at the late-night lineup, and it’s all men. It will change, but it takes time. I think it’s because there are so many men hiring. All of the network guys are there, so they're going to hire guys. Now we got to get women as presidents of networks."
Read on for highlights from Burnett's interesting (and hilarious) chat with Kemper and her answers to audience questions.
On how her successful career took off.
When she was a student, her professor invited the class to perform at a black tie event. There she met a couple at the hors d'oeuvres table who asked her about her plans for her life. Burnett continued the story, "One day I want to go to New York, and be in musical comedy." The husband replied, "Well, why aren't you there now?" She went on to shyly admit, "I was a part-time cashier at a movie theater making 65 cents an hour, and I was saving up." The husband then offered to give her enough money to make the move, and immediately Burnett assumed it was just the champagne talking, but his wife reassured her, "'No, he really means it." He gave Burnett his card and suggested, "Come down to my office next week, and I'll lend you the money.'"
"So, the following week I went there with my boyfriend [Don Saroyan] at the time. He had this huge desk and huge rug in his office. He said, 'So, you really want to go to New York?' I said, 'Yes.' Then he told me, 'I'm going to loan you the money. These are the stipulations: You must use this money to go to New York. If you can, pay it back within five years, no interest. You must promise to help others out the way I've helped you, and you must never reveal my name.' So, he wrote out two $1,000 checks. He gave one to Don, and one to me."
On what it's really like to be the boss—and sometimes the bad cop.
"I could never do it," Burnett said. "If a sketch wasn’t working, instead of saying, 'Guys this really stinks. Let’s fix it.' I would say, 'You know, I’m not really doing this that well. Do you guys think you could help me out?' Because a woman at that time would be considered a bitch. Even though she was just being forceful and wonderful, but I was very careful."
"I remember during a medley with Eydie Gormé, who was like [Lucille Ball]. She never censored herself from anything. But we were singing away in rehearsals and there was platform that ended, and we wanted to step down off of that platform and get a little bit closer to the audience. The director, however, said, 'Ladies, don’t step down off of that platform.'"
"We instinctively moved closer for the big finish, and the director yelled at us again. Then Eydie says, 'What’s the problem?' She’s the only person I know who could sing and eat a steak at the same time. The director replies, 'Girls, I don’t want you to step down there because you’re not lit for down there. OK?' So then there’s a pause and she says, 'Well, why don’t you hit us with a spotlight like in real show business?' I wanted to kiss her feet. She says, 'What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you speak up for yourself?' I said, 'Oh no, I have to actually come back here to work.'”
On how to do her famous Tarzan yell.
"It's a yodel. When I did it for Beverly [Sills], she said, 'That's a great throat exercise.' I don't know if I can do it too well because I've got a frog in my throat. But here we go!" Burnett proceeded with a rendition of her classic Tarzan cry.
The audience then attempted to give their best yodel, and although it didn't sound quite like Burnett's tune, it was fun to give it try.
Burnett went on to say, "I have a theory about the body. When you can do stuff like that you feel so much better afterwards. I am not a person who yells at all, but I realized that I have always felt so good after doing the Tarzan yell, after doing Charo, or screaming as Eunice. Your body doesn't know when you're acting, so you're just letting it out. Doesn't it feel good?"
On her close friend Lucille Ball, who was also her mentor.
"She was a dear friend, and she gave me a baby shower once when I was pregnant with my second daughter, Jodie," revealed Burnett while adding, "I was on her show, and she was on mine. She called me kid, because I was 22 years younger than her. She would always say, 'Kid, whenever you need me just give me a call.' Lucy would always send me flowers on my birthday, and she died on my birthday. But that same afternoon I got flowers from her. She was a good friend."
The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes Ultimate Collection is now available for purchase on the Time Life website.