Exclusive Interview: Carol Burnett shares details about her legendary show and characters

'The Carol Burnett Show' is finally on DVD

Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, and Lyle Waggoner entertained viewers on "The Carol Burnett Show" like no one had ever done before or has done since. Now, thanks to Time Life, the legendary sketch comedy series is available on DVD. The collection comes in four configurations, including a single "Best of" DVD with classics like "Went With the Wind," the "Family" series, and the Mrs. Wiggins skits. The ultimate package is a 22-DVD collector's set featuring 50 complete one-hour episodes and bonus footage, celebrity interviews, and a cast reunion. In a recent exclusive interview, the infamous Carol Burnett talked about the 25-time Emmy-winning show.

Is it true that "The Carol Burnett Show" almost didn't happen?

I had a 10-year contract with CBS to do two guest shots and one special a year for 10 years. But there was a weird clause that they put in that said within the first five years of the contract, if I wanted to push that button, they would have to - at my request - give me 30 one-hour variety shows. The last week of the fifth year, my husband and I said, "Maybe we should push that button." It was Christmas week, and I called New York and got one of the vice presidents. I said, "I'm calling because I want to exercise that clause." And there was a very long pause.

I'm sure he got a lot of lawyers out of Christmas parties that night, and he called back the next day and said, "Variety is a man's game. It's Sid Caesar. It's Milton Berle. It's Dean Martin. It's Jackie Gleason. But we have a great sitcom we'd like you to do called 'Here's Agnes.'" And I said, "I don't want to be Agnes every week. I want to do sketches. I want to have a variety show. I want music. I want dancers, guest stars, a rep company like Sid Caesar has." They had to put it on the air. They did not want to, but they had to.

Talk about creating characters like Eunice and Mrs. Wiggins

Originally they wrote it for me to play Mama, and we were going to hire a younger actress to play Eunice. But Eunice spoke to me on the page. This desperation in her reminded me of someone I knew when I was a kid growing up. I said, "I'd really rather do Eunice." Then we were going to hire an older actress to play Mama, because we never thought it would be a regular thing that we would be doing. We just thought it was going to be one time. Then Bob Mackie, our brilliant costume designer, said, "Just put Vicki in a fat suit, and take her eyelashes off, and wipe off the lipstick, and put on glasses and a wig." And boom, Mama was born.

The same thing with Mrs. Wiggins: She was a character that the IQ fairy never visited. I went into a costume fitting on Wednesday and [Bob] showed me the sketch that he had drawn of this blond bimbo with the black skirt and the flowered top and the push up bra. The skirt was an old black wool skirt that was tight at the knees, but it sagged in the behind. And I'm flat back there. I said, "Bob, I think we're going to have to take it in," and he said, "No stick your behind into it." And that's how I developed the walk, the Wiggins walk, the waddle.

How important was your collaboration with Bob Mackie?

There were times when we didn't know how we were going to do something until we saw what Bob had come up with. He has a great sense of humor and a comedic mind. So many times, we got the laugh because of what he put us in. "Gone With the Wind," that curtain rod dress - that was his idea. The writers had written that I would just come back down the stairs with the draperies just hanging over me, loosely, which is okay, but it wasn't that funny. And I went to the costume fitting, and there it was on this curtain rod. I fell on the floor, and I said, "This is going to be one of the greatest sight gags ever."

What was the longest laugh you ever got on the show?

It was "Gone with the Wind" when I came down the stairs. The audience just went crazy. I had shown the outfit to Harvey ahead of time because I didn't want him to crack up. It was hard for me because the laugh was explosive, and I remember I was almost laughing myself. I was biting the inside of my cheek to keep from cracking up.

What was the first time Tim made Harvey crack up live?

The classic one is the dentist sketch, where Tim is a novice dentist and Harvey is his first patient. And Tim started doing stuff that he had not done in rehearsal when we were taping, like shooting himself by accident with Novocain. And poor Harvey, he was a captive, and he started to laugh, not knowing where Tim was going with this. And Tim was relentless, and literally - I'm not kidding - Harvey wet his pants. He was so mad at himself, because he was the consummate comedic actor and very serious about how to do sketches. But when Tim got at him, he was a helpless pulp.

Why was interacting with the audience important to you?

It was not my idea; Bob Banner, our first executive producer, said, "Carol, you're going to be doing all kinds of characters, with blacked out teeth and fat suits and fright wigs and pies in the face. It's important for the audience to get to know you. Just do questions and answers. Talk to the audience, have a conversation, and we'll tape it and see where it goes." I was terrified. First, I was scared that they wouldn't ask questions. Then I was scared that they would. But after about three weeks of doing it, and it was on the air, people who came to the taping got the hang of it, so I started to get some really fun questions. It started to be one of my favorite things because I was myself, and then, I could do all these crazy characters.

So the questions that they asked were truly off the cuff?

Totally. At first I said, "Bob, I don't think I can do this." He said, "We'll put some plants in the audience." And I said, "If I'm going to do it, just let me hang there with egg on my face if I can't answer something. At least they'll know it's true." So we never had a plant.

When did you first know you were funny?

I never consciously was aware of it. I was kind of shy as a kid. I was a pretty good student. I was a wallflower, or nerd, if you will. It wasn't until I went to UCLA and I was in a one act. It was student written, and it was about this hillbilly family, and I was cast as one of the hillbillies. I came out and said one line, and the audience laughed. The line was, "I'm baaaack." The next day, some of the seniors were coming up to me and saying, "Hey, do you want to have lunch with us? We thought you were really funny." I felt like I had won as Oscar.

"The Carol Burnett Show" DVDs are available online and in retail stores now.

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