Along with being one of television’s most innovative sketch comedy artists, what Carol Burnett does best is tell stories – comic tales based on her life and parents or the Hollywood films she loved as a girl growing up in Texas. Burnett made a habit of interacting with the crowds during her long-running “The Carol Burnett Show” with a tug of an ear (a secret greeting to her grandmother) and a no-holds-barred q&a session with her studio audience at the start of each show. “You never knew what was going to come at you, especially in a live setting,” says Burnett. “That’s the fun part.”
That’s the whole point of “Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection Where the Audience Asks the Questions” coming to the Academy of Music April 11.
“I was nervous about taking questions at first, but my executive producer suggested that it might be a way for audiences to get to know the real me as I performed in fright wigs, crazy dresses and blacked-out teeth,” she says with a laugh. “When the television show ended, Burnett missed the contact with her audiences. “It’s not a long tour because I don’t like being away from home for long. And it’s not a stand-up, or a one-woman-show. The audience is my partner and there’s no pre-planning.” She admits that it’s a risky proposition, but that such free-flowing improvisational repartee “keeps the old gray matter ticking because you’re thinking and acting in the moment. It is fascinating for me, and I hope so, for the audience.”
Burnett was forthcoming about her pre-comedy past, about how she attended UCLA in order to study journalism, only to find that, “in its catalog, they didn’t offer that as a major;” a move that led her to the university’s theater arts department. “Writing, directing, scenic designing aside; no matter what else you did you had to study acting. The scene I did just happened to be funny.”
Those chuckles were a light bulb moment for the burgeoning actress.” Bit by the bug, and “liking the feeling of getting laughs,” Burnett’s life’s course was decided. “And yes, I still write. I’m on my fourth book about what’s gone on in my life, and if anything else happens during this next chapter, I guess I’ll have another book out when I’m 112 years old.”
She was sorry to see that the “variety show” concept co-opted for “The Carol Burnett Show” would be impossible to embrace in the present as it would be cost-prohibitive now. “I had a 28- piece orchestra, 12 dancers, a rep company, two major name guest stars and 60 to 70 costumes every week (many designed by Cher’s designer Bob Mackie), which amounts to mounting a Broadway-style production every time we hit the stage. No network would go for that now.”
What networks are going for now is her return to the world of weekly television series with the hilariously macabre “Household Name”, an upcoming ABC multi-camera comedy starring Burnett, written/executive produced by “Mad Man” alum Michael Saltzman and executive produced by Amy Poehler, an old friend of hers that Burnett considers (with Tina Fey, Kristen ihig, Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph) to be one of the present-day greats. “I gravitate towards good sketch comedians rather than stand-ups.”
”Household Name” is based on the true idea of Hugh Hefner and Zsa Zas Gabor selling their mansions “with the caveat that they got to live in them until they died,” she says with a snicker, about playing a faded starlet who doesn’t realize she’s not so in-demand. This is a role that Burnett has played in the past, on “Law & Order” (a particular vicious episode) as well as The Carol Burnett Show” where she lampooned the classic film noir, “Sunset Boulevard.”
“I don’t want to make this character demented. A lot of these old Hollywood stars – such as Ann Miller – still wore full makeup, wigs and gowns wherever they went, even into the 80s. They miss what was, so they go on and polish their star on the Walk of Fame. If I’m going to do a series, this biting stuff is what I want to do. Have six and seven husbands. Have some old cronies sitting around shooting the breeze.”
For now, Burnett is delighted to be doing “An Evening of Laughter and Reflection Where the Audience Asks the Questions,” a live show that she insists is “fascinating for me, and I hope so, for the audience.”
If you go:
Tuesday, April 11
7:30 p.m., $35-$179
Academy of Music,
240 S Broad St.