Carol Burnett taps her inner child

In the Netflix series A Little Help With Carol Burnett, the titular host joins a panel of opinionated thinkers aged five to nine as they help grown-ups tackle tricky conundrums.
In the Netflix series A Little Help With Carol Burnett, the titular host joins a panel of opinionated thinkers aged five to nine as they help grown-ups tackle tricky conundrums.PHOTO: REUTERS

The 85-year-old host of a new Netflix series still feels like she is eight and talks about her role as a pioneering comedienne

NEW YORK • Comedienne Carol Burnett turned 85 on April 26, but inside, she says she is still about eight. Which makes her new Netflix series a bit like playtime in the sandbox.

In A Little Help With Carol Burnett, she joins a panel of opinionated thinkers aged five to nine as they help grown-ups - including celebrities such as Lisa Kudrow, Wanda Sykes, Tony Hale and Taraji P. Henson - tackle some rather tricky conundrums: how to get time alone with your spouse when your kids want all the attention, how to determine whether a man is being honest in his online dating profile and even how to decide whether to have more than one child.

Their answers are outlandish, whimsical, brutally honest and utterly reasonable. Burnett, meanwhile, tosses out the occasional zinger that, mostly, goes right over her young co-stars' heads.

"The cliche is true - out of mouths of babes," she said. "Their advice is very, very good. Some very funny. Some very heartfelt."

Seven decades into her illustrious career, with 25 Emmys for The Carol Burnett Show, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Mark Twain Prize for American Humour already on her mantel, Burnett will receive the inaugural Peabody career achievement award on May 19.

In a telephone interview from her home in Santa Barbara, California, she talked about her role as a pioneering comedienne.

At this stage, why take on another series?

It was 12 shows, so it's not a huge commitment and I liked the kids. It's a cute premise because we have three grown-up dilemmas for each show and the kids give their advice on how to solve the problems. And there's no script. It's all unrehearsed and the kids are not professional actors. It was a walk in the park.

You famously discovered young talents such as Vicki Lawrence and Bernadette Peters. But on The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special in December, actor Jim Carrey reminisced about asking to come on your show as a kid. Is he the one who got away?

Well, I didn't know Jim when he was 10 years old. I did answer his letter, however. Vicki was 18 and had no professional experience, but she wrote to me, telling me that people said she reminded them of a younger me.

We were planning to have a segment in which Harvey (Korman) and I would be a married couple raising my kid sister. She was going to be in a contest called Miss Fireball Of Inglewood and I told my husband: "I've got a feeling. Let's go see this contest." She won the contest. We auditioned her and she got the role. That wouldn't happen today.

Why not?

No network would allow us to hire somebody that raw. Now, they have the sponsors and they have to approve everything and are too hands-on, as far as I'm concerned.

They don't trust you. That was back in the covered-wagon days, when they just gave you a show and said: "Okay, you're the artist. Do it and, if it's successful, we'll renew every year."

When you think of that Saturday night line-up with All In The Family, M.A.S.H, Mary (Tyler Moore), Bob Newhart and us, we all had free rein. The network left us alone and that's why those shows were so good.

In your 2016 memoir, In Such Good Company, you wrote about trying to maintain lady-like qualities while making demands of your male staff.

Back in the day, the men - Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar and Milton Berle - if they said, "Hey guys, this sketch sucks. Get with it. What's the matter with you?", they were fine because they were guys.

But if a woman did it, she would be labelled a b****. So, I tap-danced around it a lot. Like, if a sketch wasn't working, I'd call the writers down to rehearsal and I'd say: "Can you help us out here? I'm not saying this right. Maybe you could come up with a different line that would make it easier for me to get a laugh."

But now, because women are more accepted as producers, writers and stars, such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, I would say: "Guys, this isn't working. Let's go back to the drawing board." Still, that's a nice way to say it. I can't stand confrontation. It makes me crazy.

What about the censors?

We never got called on anything except one time.

We were doing a scene in which I was in a nudist camp and I'm behind a fence that says "Keep Out" and my shoulders and legs are bare and Harvey was interviewing me about what nudists do for recreation. He said, "How do you nudists dance?" My line was, "Very carefully."

Well, for some reason, the (network) programme practices (department) thought that was too dirty and so we came up with the line we wanted in the first place: "Cheek to cheek." They bought it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2018, with the headline 'Carol Burnett taps her inner child'. Print Edition | Subscribe