In an interview conducted in January, SAG-AFTRA’s then-President Ken Howard sat down with Life Achievement Award honoree Carol Burnett to discuss her career. Here is a brief excerpt from the discussion.
Ken Howard: I don’t wish to embarrass you, but you are legendary and incredibly original, and there’s only one you in the world and comparisons are odious. However, having said that, you and Lucille Ball are probably, arguably the two great female television clowns — and you worked together. I’d like to know what that was like, because I’m sure it was a joy for you.
Carol Burnett: Well, the first time I met her was the second night of Once Upon a Mattress. I heard lots of noise backstage before we were going to go on, and I asked the stage manager what was going on and he said, “Lucy’s in the audience.” And I went. “Oh my god!” I made the mistake, I peeked out the curtain, and I saw this redhead in the second row. I was more nervous that night than I was opening night, because of her. I had this funky little dressing room, because it was an off. Broadway theater, and after the show she came in, and the couch there had a spring coming up. And I was afraid she was going to [sit on it], so I said, “Be careful,” and she said (imitates Lucy) “I see it.” And she sat and talked to me for a good 20, 25 minutes, and she called me “kid” — she was 22 years older than I am — and she said, “Kid, if you ever need me for anything, call.” So, wow, you know? And so a few years later, I was going to do a special for CBS if I could get a big guest star. And the producer said, “Why don’t you call Lucy?” And I said, “Oh I can’t.” But he said, “All she can do is say no.” So I called her office, got her on the phone right away, and she said “Hey kid, you’re doing great. What’s happening?” And I said “Lucy, I know you’re really busy, but …” and I stumbled and mumbled and stuttered and everything. And she said, “What is it? What is it?” And I said, “I’m doing this special for …” And I couldn’t even get it out before she said “When do you want me?” So we did the special.
K: I think people would really like to know about how the Harper-Higgins family — Eunice, Mama, Ed — how did that come to be?
C: It was written by two of our finest writers, Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, who were on our staff. And they were writing about their dysfunctional families. Both of them came from dysfunctional families from Chicago. So they wrote it, and I read that and I thought this is pretty good. There were no jokes. It was all character driven, all of it. Not that I’m against jokes — I’m not — but I loved this. So when we had our first reading, Harvey, Vicki and I, the writers weren’t there. It was a Monday, and I laced into doing it Southwestern. It just felt right to me, because that’s my background: Arkansas and Texas. Harvey followed suit, and Vicki. So when we did it on run-through on Wednesday, for the crew and the writers and everybody, Dick and Jenna were horrified. They said “You can’t do them that way.” They said, “You’re going to alienate the entire South!” And I said that’s really, that’s the way I feel it. And of course, it was fine.