The beauty and power of Carol Burnett’s work stems from her strong capacity to improvise. The two shows at Cobb Energy Center this week showcased the way her talent in this regard continues to grow and evolve. Billed as a night of “laughter and reflection,” Burnett primarily utilized a question and answer format where the audience could ask her anything. She stated explicitly at one point that she doesn’t bother to plant questions in advance, and also that she expected to immediately be entreated to do the famous Tarzan yell, which indeed she was. Some of the questions were deep and wonderful; others were confusing and even creepy. Burnett remained unruffled throughout, even when she got called the most beautiful redhead of the century and when she got asked for her hotel address. Her storytelling was terrifically paced, the punchlines always landed, and every detail was made vivid. Burnett is definitely succeeding in her goal of “keeping the grey matter ticking” at the age of 83.
Most of the audience questions focused on her eleven seasons of The Carol Burnett Show, with occasional dips into her background, her turn as Miss Hannigan in Annie, and matters of influence generally. One tearful audience member simply read her a short letter about how she was constantly bullied as a red-haired child and how valuable Burnett’s televised choice of fiery hair color helped her to stay strong. Another audience member announced that she was the god-daughter of Sue Vogelsanger, prompting an instant flashback to one of Burnett’s own favorite episodes of the show, when Vogelsanger emerged from the audience to deliver some sheet music to Burnett, which Burnett gamely agreed to perform at next week’s show, much to the chagrin of the producers. The moments of her career she seemed to prize most highly all hinge on this kind of impromptu connection.
Burnett was also willing to weigh in on the future of comedy, beyond her own legacy and skill set. When asked what current comedians she admires, she began first to reel off the women: Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Kate McKinnon. Noticeably absent from the list was Amy Schumer, who perhaps falls more clearly into the category of “edgy, blue, locker room” humor than Burnett had cast aside as “too easy” in a previous question. She also did not list any younger male comedians, instead citing the likes of Martin Short and Steve Martin. Burnett had nice things to say about Lucille Ball, above all others. She lovingly related how the hardened showbiz performer used to refer to Burnett as “kid,” and how she sent Burnett flowers for her birthday every year. When she closed the story by saying Ball died on her birthday and Burnett still received flowers that afternoon, her eyes were glistening.
The common wisdom is that Burnett’s brand of comedy continues to endure across generations because she always keep things clean and positive. While that may also be true, on this Q&A tour, Burnett is proving that the form matters more than the content. Her consistent effort to be in the moment—to address audience members by their names, to roll with the punches, to delight in shock or surprise—keep her mind as young and spry as it ever was. She never once went on autopilot, and moreover, displayed a deep well of empathy. Her eyes sparkled in listening to the tale of the bullied redhead; she paused to inquire as to how Sue Vogelsanger is doing these days; she hugged the stage hand who brought out her chair and glass of water; she turned her eyes toward the screen instead of going off-stage during the clip montages.
With this uncanny ability to be here now and pursue a course of genuine connection despite her fame and success, it’s still possible to look at Carol Burnett fifty years after the debut of The Carol Burnett Show and say that she has never stopped going places. Most immediately, she is headed to the ABC network to star in a comedy series about an aging actress who rents her mansion to a family on the condition that she remain there to live with them. It is produced by Amy Poehler’s company, Paper Kite. Along her many accolades, Burnett already counts 22 Emmy Awards to Poehler’s one, but the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences may as well start engraving some on behalf of their double trouble now.
Megan Volpert lives in Decatur, teaches in Roswell and writes books about popular culture.