Comedian-actor-singer-writer Carol Burnett comes to Benaroya Hall Oct. 21, as part of a tour stop, for an evening of memories, video clips and banter with the audience.
Shortly before Carol Burnett calls from her home in Santa Barbara, I watch her memorable turn as Supergirl in a funny sketch on the March 6, 1962, episode of “The Garry Moore Show,” a vintage variety hour from the CBS television network.
The sketch showcases Burnett at her sharpest and most antic during her earliest years on TV. Her Supergirl has a secret identity as mild-mannered reporter Clara Keene, who stumbles around the office, suffers a horrible sinus condition and swoons over a fellow reporter. The comedy is broad, yet there isn’t a wasted gesture or sound in Burnett’s silly-but-disciplined performance. It helps explain why she won an Emmy Award in 1962, and why CBS was so anxious to hang onto her when she left the “Moore Show.”
When I mention watching her turn as Supergirl, Burnett says that was the sketch where she introduced her “Tarzan yell” to the world — a comic trademark later heard almost weekly on her own 1967-78 variety series, “The Carol Burnett Show.”
“I’ve done the Tarzan yell since I was a kid,” she says.
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Chances are good she’ll do it again from the stage of Benaroya Hall, where she will appear Oct. 21, as part of a tour stop, for an evening of memories, video clips and banter with the audience. More accurately, Burnett will likely be requested by someone in the crowd to do the yell. That was how things worked on “The Carol Burnett Show.”
“I’ve been doing these tours for over 25 years,” she says. “I go out every so often during the year for them — usually I don’t do more than three in a row. And I go out and talk to the audience, just like I did on my show, when I would come out and they’d ask questions.
“So that’s what this [Benaroya appearance] is. It’s a conversation with the audience, and I open it by showing a few minutes of some of my favorite clips we did on the show, with an amazing cast that included Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner. Those clips get the audience in the mood, and I say, OK, let’s turn up the lights and you can raise your hands. It will be all random, nothing’s planned. So that’s what makes it a lot of fun.”
Do the questions ever get personal?
“No, no, it’s really about the show: Why did you pull your ear at the end of every [broadcast]; was Tim Conway really that funny? A lot of stuff like that. Because some of these questions have been asked so many times, I certainly have stories to tell. Sometimes I’ll get a question I don’t expect, and that’s even more fun.”
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Burnett, 85, moved with her grandmother to Hollywood, California. She wanted to be a writer and decided to study journalism at UCLA. But there was no journalism degree there, and she entered the theater arts program.
Burnett began performing in New York City nightclubs, then received a Tony nomination in 1959 for her much-buzzed-about role in Broadway hit “Once Upon a Mattress.” “The Garry Moore Show” soon followed, and then CBS offered her a 10-year contract to do guest spots and appear in specials.
“My agent, who was brilliant, put a caveat in the contract, stating that within the first five years, if I wanted to push the button, CBS would have to give me 30 one-hour variety shows whether they wanted to or not. So as we are nearing the end of the fifth year, I contacted a vice president at CBS, and he told me variety shows are really a man’s game.”
The network, instead, offered her a situation comedy called “Here’s Agnes.” Burnett was not interested.
“I said I wanted an orchestra, dancers, guest stars, a repertory company. I wanted to play different characters and do sketches. They had to put us on even though they didn’t have much faith in us. But as luck would have it, they kept renewing the show.”
Burnett says the reason “The Carol Burnett Show,” in syndication, on DVD and through YouTube clips, still works for today’s audiences is that the show was never topical, despite arising during a very turbulent, late-1960s era in America.
“We just did funny sketches. I’m a clown, so it was never really in my bag to comment on what was going on in the world at that time. I left that to other people,” she said. “The Smothers Brothers did it beautifully on their show. Funny is funny, and I get fan mail from kids who discover the clips and who also know me as Miss Hannigan from ‘Annie.’ ”
That reference to the 1982 movie version of the perennial stage hit raises the subject of Burnett’s career beyond her own television series. She has written four books (“no ghostwriters involved,” she says), appeared on Broadway, and starred in comedies and dramas alike with some of the greatest film directors: John Huston, Billy Wilder, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman and Martin Ritt among others. The 1979 made-for-television film “Friendly Fire,” in which Burnett starred as a mother investigating the death of her son in Vietnam, drew 64 million viewers.
“ ‘Friendly Fire’ fell into my lap. They sent me the script and I looked at the envelope to make sure my name was on it. The director [David Greene] came to me and said he saw something in me during my final show, when I was playing a cleaning lady, sitting with a bucket and tearing up. Something in there made him want to use me.”
These days, Burnett can be seen hosting a Netflix series called “A Little Help with Carol Burnett,” in which a panel of precocious kids solve adult problems with gaffes and conflicts in relationships. The show probably appeals most to child viewers, taking her back to 1969 when she appeared on “Sesame Street.”
“I hope to see some kids in the audience in Seattle,” Burnett said. “It’s so sweet. They just want to see something funny.”
Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection, 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $60-$179; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org