Netflix’s rapidly expanding roster of reality shows is getting a little help from a living legend: Carol Burnett. Having already conquered Broadway, movies, books, and traditional television, the 85-year-old comedy icon is now jumping into streaming with A Little Help, debuting today. The breezy half-hour unscripted comedy has Burnett and sidekick Russell Peters teaming with a panel of precocious kids in an attempt to “solve” the various grown-up problems of celebs such as Billy Eichner, Wanda Sykes, Taraji P. Henson, and Tony Hale. It might not be the full-fledged return to sketch comedy or sitcoms her fans would no doubt welcome, but it does offer Burnett plenty of opportunities to show off her effortless charm and flawless comic timing. Vulture recently reached Burnett by phone for a half-hour chat in which she talked about why she decided to take this gig, how Netflix’s hands-off handling of talent reminds her of the first golden age of TV, and why it might be a while before the full series run of The Carol Burnett Show comes to streaming.
So after a long career working for broadcast TV, what was it like to go over to a streaming outlet like Netflix? Was it any different?
I liked it, because they stayed away. And I mean that in the nicest sense of the word, because when I was doing my show back in the covered-wagon days, they didn’t even want to read a script. Mr. Paley just said “Go do it. That’s what I’m giving you the time to do, and if you’re successful, we’ll pick you up.” Nobody ever snooped around or bothered us. It was fabulous. But a lot of the networks now, they’ve got an army of people coming to comment and tell you how you should change something, and it’s very bothersome to me. Come on. You guys can’t do what we do, and we don’t do what you do. You’re the business people. Let the artists do their thing, and if we don’t get ratings, okay, it’s our problem. But there are just too many cooks now.
What do you mean?
When we would do my show, we’d tape about an hour and 15 minutes in front of a live studio audience, and we had a 28-piece orchestra, 12 dancers, two guest stars a week, our rep company, 65 costumes a week. And we would tape all of that in a little over two hours. More recently, I have done some guest shots on sitcoms that are 22 minutes, right? Five hours to tape. Because everybody after every scene, there were all these writers and network people saying “Oh, no. Change that line.” And then you redo the scene in front of the same audience, with maybe a line change or something. That’s no way to run a show, if you’re gonna do it in front of an audience. I used to have a bet with the stagehands that I could make a skin-out costume change faster than they could move a sofa across the stage.
The overthinking that goes on in network television these days, and the amount of people trying to justify their jobs.
You hit the nail on the head. But Netflix, after the first couple of tapings? They had some notes and suggestions when we were casting, and then afterwards, they left us alone. That’s why we got to be where we are.
I’m curious about the battles you had with sexism back in the 1960s and ‘70s. You’ve been open in past interviews about how CBS executives then really didn’t think a woman could do a variety show, and if it wasn’t for a clause in your overall deal, the network would’ve never given you a series. Did that general sexism ever cross over into outright harassment? Was there a #MeToo moment for you?
No. I got my big start on Broadway, and that was Once Upon a Mattress. And everything was fine. Then, working on The Garry Moore Show, there was never a kinder or more gentle, and gentlemanly person than Garry Moore. And when I did my show, my husband [Joe Hamilton] was like Desi Arnaz was to Lucy, so there was never any of that. The sexism really came from some of the sketches …of doing flat-chested jokes, and getting jokes out of that. I look at [those sketches] now, and I’m not proud of them. That mainly came from the male writers, and I didn’t balk at the beginning, because it was just something that they always did. Even on Gary’s show. Being raised in that atmosphere, I just kinda thought, “Well, that’s the way it is.”
But as I got older and more mature, I thought “No, wait a minute. I’m married, and I have kids, and I shouldn’t be doing this.” So instead of making Lyle [Waggoner] my foil to go gaga over, we turned him into being quite a good sketch player, and so we stopped doing all of that zany, kooky stuff. I still was a little zany, but as I matured, our show did, too. Especially starting in the seventh year — I think that’s the first time we did “The Family” sketch with Eunice and Momma and Ed. That writing was incredible, because there wasn’t one joke in it. It was all character driven, and I loved doing that.
What convinced you to do A Little Help?
Well, I love kids. I like being with them. A lot of times they say, “Oh, you mustn’t work with children or animals,” but I love the age range, from 5 to about 8 years old, because they don’t censor themselves. When they have an opinion about something, it goes right out of their mouths what they’re thinking. This also appealed to me because it’s unscripted, and these are real kids. They’re not professional actors. It just seemed like a fun thing to do, and it certainly was easy.
Tell me more about the show.
The premise is I’m the host, and I have my sidekick Russell Peters, who’s a very funny comedian. We present grown-up dilemmas to these children. We had about 15 kids, and we rotated them as we were doing the various shows, split some of them who were in one show, and then put ‘em in another one, and so forth. Then we had guests come on, grown-ups — two regular folks and somebody who is famous, such as Lisa Kudrow. They would present these kids with their dilemmas and ask for advice. Then we all just reacted to what the kids said. And I tell you — out of the mouths of babes. It’s so cute. When we were auditioning, we had a woman come in, and she said, “I’m going to be marrying a gentleman who is raising his two very young kids. How can I make them like me, and not think I’m some evil stepmother?” One of the kids raised his hand and he said, “Well, bribery always works.” [Laughter.]
You seem to have a little bit of a special connection with one of the kids on the show, Caleb, who was in the trailer for the series. He seems to be wise beyond his years.
Oh, he is, yeah. He’s an only child, and he’s very well educated. His favorite subject in school is science. I mean, he’s amazing, and he also plays the piano. He was the first one I met and got to know. One of the sweetest things was when we finished the series, he gave me this thumb drive. I can work a computer, but I can just do very little, so I think it was a thumb drive. I’m not sure what they call it. Anyway, I was able to put it into the computer, and on the screen comes Caleb at the piano playing my theme song.
I wept. I mean, it was so sweet, and he said, “This is for you, kid.” And he played “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together”, and I just was blown away. I asked him, “Caleb, how did you learn all of it?” It took him a month. He was working on it the whole time, and it’s one of my favorite gifts that I’ve ever received.
April marked 40 years since The Carol Burnett Show ended on CBS. The half-hour reruns featuring just the comedy sketches ran in syndication and are still on MeTV. You’ve worked with various companies, including Time Life, to put out select episodes on DVD. But the whole library of 279 episodes — the hour-long version that runs on CBS with the musical guests and production numbers — that’s never been available. You can’t get it on DVD. It’s not on streaming. Is there any chance your new friends at Netflix are getting ready to finally make the whole series available?
I would love that. Of course I would. But it’s a business thing, and I don’t get into that. The cost is prohibitive. Time Life has done a good job with what we were able to do.
Is it just that the rights to license the original music are just too expensive?
That’s an issue, yeah. [Time Life] can really break it down for you as far as the business end goes, ‘cause it’s all about that.
It’s such a shame the full episodes aren’t all out there, because for people my age who missed the original run, we mostly know The Carol Burnett Show as a sketch comedy because that’s all we’ve seen in the edited versions. But in fact, it was very much a variety show with these amazing production numbers and performances.
We did some pretty elaborate and miraculous medleys. We would take a composer, like Gershwin or Cole Porter, and we would make a story out of their music. Like an opera. We called them mini-musicals, and they were just wonderful and funny. But now, I don’t think we could get clearance from the Rodgers & Hammerstein estates and things like that. I loved doing all of that, ‘cause music was one of my first loves.
But those of us who saw the show in syndication have never seen most of those. It’s a big problem for so many of the variety shows of that era, and even a lot of scripted shows, because music publishers today just want these crazy fees to license the rights.
They’re cutting their noses to spite their face. They’re just sitting there. Whereas, if they could strike a deal, they’d get something out of it. People today have no idea what some of the variety shows did. They have no idea.
You were a huge part of the golden age of variety shows. And one of the things I love about that era is how often hosts would cross over and do each other’s shows. You’d appear on Cher, and vice versa. That had to be an amazing time.
At one point, I think there were like nine variety shows on the air — Laugh-In, Sonny & Cher, The Smothers Brothers, Glen Campbell, Flip Wilson, us, on and on and on. And yeah, we would trade off. We did a lot of long-form sketches that would be maybe 10 minutes, 15 minutes long. And there were times when the writers from Laugh-In would come over and write on our show, ‘cause they wanted to do longer sketches. And some of our writers went over and wrote for Laugh-In or Flip.
Everybody was friendly, and it only made every show better. In fact, Sonny & Cher would tape next door to our studio, and the way to get to their stage was to go through the ladies’ room or the men’s room. There were times when we were rehearsing or something, I’d walk over to their set, and we’d kid around a little bit, and sometimes they’d come over during Q&A and surprise us and the audience. It was very freewheeling.
You mentioned “The Family,” which of course turned into the spinoff TV show Mama’s Family. It’s so beloved by so many viewers, particularly in the South. I keep thinking, especially in light of Roseanne coming back and doing so well: Is there any reason why you couldn’t figure out a way to revive that? Is that a completely zany idea?
You know, I don’t think so. We’re much older now, and Harvey [Korman]’s not with us anymore, and it wouldn’t be the same. Rosanne [works] because she’s got all the same players. And Will & Grace. And also, I’d be worried that people would say, “Well, it was funnier then than it is now.” Sometimes you shouldn’t go back. Leave it where it was.
That’s something you’ve always believed in, I guess. You decided to end The Carol Burnett Show even though CBS had renewed you for another season. I actually just recently watched the final act of your show, which I had somehow never seen before. And I got choked up! Did you heavily rehearse that whole good-bye, or was it as spontaneous as it seemed?
No, nobody knew what I was gonna say. I went over it in my mind, the points that I wanted to make, and what it meant to me. But it just kinda came out. And I was tearing up. I remember that very well.
After the show was over, you took some interesting artistic chances. The first big TV thing you did was the movie Friendly Fire, which was a very serious drama. Was that an intentional choice, to show Hollywood you could do Serious Acting?
No. They sent me the script, and I was kind of surprised about it. I think it was as a result of how I said good-bye on my show that they sent [it to] me. I said, “Are you sure you want me to do … ?” And they said, “Yes.” I said, “Okay.” There’s no reason that a comedian can’t be serious. In fact, I think it’s easier for us to be serious than for a serious actor to be funny. You can’t learn [comedy].
Another thing you did in the 1980s was Fresno, which spoofed the prime-time soap operas that were so popular back then. It was really ambitious for its time — not a half-hour satirical comedy or a single movie, but a three-night comedic mini-series. And of course, most critics hated it and it bombed in the ratings. Do you look back now and regret it, or is it actually one of your secret favorites?
I loved Fresno. I loved doing it. We just laughed the whole time. I thought the writing was incredible — one of the funniest scripts I’ve ever read.
Why do you think it went over so poorly with viewers?
They put us on at a bad time. And then they put a laugh track in it, which we all objected to. They just kinda ruined it. And maybe it was a little too long. Maybe an hour could have been cut out. But oh my, did we laugh.