Nicole & Co.
One lady raised her hand and said she wanted to sing.
So Carol Burnett invited her onstage, and they did what the comedian remembers as “this crazy duet.”
Another lady raised her hand and asked where the bathroom was.
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So Burnett stepped down from the stage, took her by the hand and showed her.
This is what happens when you’ve been in America’s living rooms for decades, like a familiar, favorite aunt who is also a comic genius. People feel like they can ask you anything, and know that, along with an answer, they are going to get a laugh.
And Burnett — such an American institution that she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2013 — loves the challenge.
“I kind of fly by the seat of my pants without a net,” Burnett said of her Q & As with audiences, which will bring her to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre on May 9. “Because I never know what someone is going to ask.”
It’s hard to believe, but Burnett is now 80.
She lives in Santa Barbara with her husband, professional musician Brian Miller, and sees her two grandsons pretty regularly.
And in between guest spots in shows like “Hawaii Five-O” and “Hot in Cleveland,” she still takes the stage to connect in person with fans. The shows are called “Laughter and Reflection with Carol Burnett.”
“I enjoy it. It’s that simple,” she said of the appearances. “But I am only as good as the audience, because they’re my partner.”
The Q & A sessions started in 1967, when Burnett debuted her own, hourlong variety show after a stint on “The Garry Moore Show.”
Moore did his own Q & A with the audience instead of hiring a comedian to warm things up before a show.
“Garry wanted to do it himself, because what if the guy is funnier than the show?” Burnett recalled. “I remember listening to him backstage and thinking how wonderful and warm it was.”
When she got her own show, she adopted the practice.
“The reason is that during the hour you would be doing all these different characters. The audience would first get to know you, and then you could do all this crazy stuff.”
She continues to go out to five or six cities a couple times a year. The audiences — like her — don’t seem to age, thanks to YouTube and DVD collections of her shows. And neither do her characters — the bonneted cleaning lady; her parody of Scarlett O’Hara, wearing a curtain rod across her shoulders. And, of course, her Tarzan yell.
Last fall, a young boy raised his hand. Burnett asked his name (Andrew) and age (9), then paused:
“And you know who I am?”
“Surprisingly,” he responded, “yes.”
At home in Santa Barbara, Burnett spends time with friends (director Ivan Reitman and his wife live nearby) and does the crossword puzzle every morning — in red pen.
“That way if I make a mistake, I can go over it with black pen,” she said. “But it gives me a lot of confidence.”
She stays fit by swimming in her lap pool and doing Pilates.
Burnett wouldn’t want to commit to another television series. She’s happy to watch the comediennes following in her footsteps.
“I love sketch comediennes,” she said. “The usual suspects: Amy (Poehler) and Tina (Fey) and Kristen Wiig, I think, is brilliant.”
Jane Lynch. Maya Rudolph and — one male — Jimmy Fallon.
“He’s a doll,” she said of “The Tonight Show” host. “I’ve never met him and I think he is so talented and very versatile.”
She remembered when she was working on “The Gary Moore Show,” and the comedian Ed Wynn was a guest one week.
“We were all sitting around the table and he was regaling us with stories about vaudeville,” she said. “He described the difference between a comic actor and a comedian. A comedian says funny things. And a comic actor says things funny.”
Who did she look to, coming up?
“I looked to Lucy.”
She and Lucille Ball were close friends. So close that Ball sent her a bouquet of flowers for her birthday every year, with the same note:” Happy Birthday, Kid. Love, Lucy.”
In 1989, Burnett awoke on her birthday to news that Ball had died. A few hours later, a knock on the door: The flowers. Just like always.
Someday, Burnett said, she will stop going out on the road, and stick to the crosswords and the Pilates.
“But I am in good shape and I enjoy it.”
And, yes, she said, she will tug on her ear at the end of her show — a message to her grandmother, who raised her, that she is doing just fine.
“That,” Burnett said, “is just standard.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.