Why Carol Burnett ‘Balked at the Idea’ of Taking Questions From ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ Audience: ‘I Felt Naked’
The iconic comedy sketch series The Carol Burnett Show aired from 1967 to 1978. The show gave viewers side-splitting laughs from skits performed by the legendary Carol Burnett and her co-stars Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and Lyle Waggoner (later replaced by Tim Conway). Burnett had several traditions on her show, particularly how she opened and closed each episode.
When developing The Carol Burnett Show, the famous redhead was at first against the suggestion of speaking directly with the audience and airing the segment as part of the show.
Carol Burnett took a cue from her former mentor
The famous redhead got recognized for her comedic talent when she appeared on The Gary Moore Show. Burnett recalled how he would open his variety show on his own rather than using an opening act.
“Usually a television show hires a comedian to warm up the audience before cameras start turning, telling jokes to get the audience excited and happy,” Burnett wrote in her 2016 book, In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox. “However, Gary Moore would have none of it because he wanted to be the warm-up guy himself, and he was wonderful at it.”
Burnett noted how Moore always received a welcoming response from the audience that was completely authentic.
“He would go out on stage and ask the folks in the audience if they had any questions,” Burnett recalled. “They always had plenty, and Gary would answer them, getting lots of laughs… without any plants. No questions were planned. … He was funny, accessible, and always genuinely warm.”
‘The Carol Burnett Show’ star liked staying in character
When putting together The Carol Burnett Show in 1967, co-executive producer Bob Banner thought Burnett should open her show the same way as Moore… with one addition.
“Bob Banner suggested that I do the warm-up just like Gary did,” Burnett recalled. “Only we would actually tape it and show it on the air! I balked at the idea big-time, feeling that I would be at a loss to come up with any kind of snappy answer and wind up with egg on my face.”
Burnett explained that she was more in her wheel house when in character than when having to improvise.
“Put me in a fat suit or a fright wig or black out my two front teeth and I’m in hog heaven,” she wrote. “I kept saying that I was only comfortable hiding behind a character. I didn’t have a clue as to how I could ‘be myself.’ But Bob was like a dog on a bone. … very reluctantly, I gave in and agreed to try it a couple of times.”
Carol Burnett took questions for all 11 seasons
When The Carol Burnett Show premiered in September 1967, the star of the series was nervous about the opening more than anything else.
“I came out on stage that first show and I was absolutely scared stiff,” Burnett revealed. “It wasn’t stage fright exactly; I had been on stage lots of times before a live audience, but this wasn’t scripted! I looked out at all of those people, sitting in their seats waiting for me to say something that would amuse them, and I felt naked.“
Burnett prompted the audience after the first few minutes of awkward silence. She finally received some questions and hit them out of the park. The positive reception was enough to convince Burnett to open the show the same way each week for the run of the series.
“I did the same opening again the next week and things went a little better,” Burnett recalled. “By the third week the audience had seen the first two airings and knew what to expect, and were not nearly so shy about raising their hands. The questions got funnier and I began to have fun. … after that first night it became a tradition that would last for the entire 11 years.”