Carol Burnett, Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence were three of the key members of one of the most successful variety shows in television history. Along with Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and an endless list of guest stars, musicians, writers and producers, they created brilliant comedy for 11 years and 278 episodes. They recently stopped by the SiriusXM studios and talked with Ron Bennington about the show, and a new DVD collection of some of the most memorable moments of the show. Excerpts of the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: It was a perfect storm of acting and writing and producing and for me it was the last kind of pure show business shows on television.
Carol Burnett: I think so, yeah. As far as variety is concerned.
Ron Bennington: It was one of those shows where you could see singing, dancing, girls in feathered hats, here comes an animal. How did it feel every week putting that show together?
Carol Burnett: It was pretty well run. We didn’t have to rehearse a long time. We taped it as if it were a live show, and we did two shows on Friday. We rehearsed from Monday on and we were out in time to go to dinner.
Ron Bennington: So it was like working a business week.
Carol Burnett: They asked me one time to total up how many hours a week I worked– it was 30.
Ron Bennington: You guys never had that thing of, are we going to have enough for a show this week?
Carol Burnett: No, because we could always count on Tim to go over. So there was always enough show. In fact, sometimes, because he would get on a roll and do stuff we had never seen before, so maybe a four minute sketch would turn into a ten minute sketch– thanks to Conway– and we could then bank another sketch that we were going to do that week for another week. And I did Q&A up at the top of the show, so sometimes it would just be ‘hi these are the guests, don’t go away we’ll be right back.’ If the show was a little bit short, I might do ten minutes of Q&A.
Ron Bennington: You know, that bit up front too, was so genius in that it gave us a sense of being backstage. So everybody felt immediately comfortable with this, and then it went into the show. You would have thought you might have done that at the end of the show to fill time, but it was so informal up front.
Carol Burnett: That was the first executive producer’s idea– Bob Banner. And he said, ‘you know Carol, you’re going to be doing all these characters with the blacked out teeth and the wigs, and the fat suits….you’ve got to go out in front of the audience and tell them who the guests are, and do Q&A so that they get to know you as a person.’ And sometimes we would bring Vicki out and Conway and Harvey and Lyle. And all the women wanted to kiss Lyle. So they got to know us before we got into all of the crazy characters.
Ron Bennington: Tim, this was a gig though, for the producers even to say– go ahead do the amount of time that you want to do. For an improvisational guy like you that had to be fantastic.
Tim Conway: Well……I’m very….quick. (Everyone laughs) You know what I mean? I can ….jump in at any time….and………bring up ……a …..story to fill. (Snores) Hello?
Ron Bennington: It would have been Tim and Bob Newhart would have been the slowest show in the history of the world.
Tim Conway: Oh he drives me nuts. Yeah, we go out to dinner with him a lot. You have to smack him during the course of the evening. He has no idea that he talks that slow.
Ron Bennington: Vicki while all this was happening too– you had a singing career.
Vicki Lawrence: A brief singing career.
Tim Conway: One day!
Ron Bennington: Was that something you set out to do?
Vicki Lawrence: No, I was married to the guy who wrote that song for about ten minutes. And it was really the only good thing that came out of the marriage. That and I got the dog. (Everyone laughs) And he could not give that song away. Nobody wanted it. He wouldn’t even do the demo– he said ‘you do the demo.’ He said, ‘I’m going to send it to Liza Minelli cause I want to work with her.” And I said Liza Minelli is so not right for this song. Then his producer said, let’s send it over to Cher. Sonny heard the song and said it will offend the entire southern half of the country– it has to be completely rewritten. And Bobby said, ‘I never liked it to begin with, why would I rewrite it?” So Snuff Garrett who was his producer at the time said ‘let’s just go in the studio and do it with Vicki.’
Ron Bennington: And giant hit!
Vicki Lawrence: And the ultimate demise of an already doomed marriage. And to this day I’m one of the few people that can do a medley of their hit.
Ron Bennington: That had to be amazing. With so much stuff for all of you guys happening at the same time and yet you were able to juggle all of those things.
Carol Burnett: As I said, we were very organized….
Vicki Lawrence: …it was a well oiled machine….
Carol Burnett: We had a schedule…right? Ten am script reading. Eleven am music rehearsal. Twelve to one lunch. Two to four, sketch rehearsals. Goodnight. Then we’d come back the next day…we had a schedule.
Ron Bennington: Now were the guest stars able to jump into that easy enough?
Carol Burnett: Yes.
Ron Bennington: Because these are people that you trusted and felt good about.
Carol Burnett: Right and they were always very thrilled because a lot of times, they would come on our show– like musical guests, and then we would put them in sketches. And they loved that. So a lot of people they would call up and say, can you book us on the show? Because we would love to come on and get in your sand box and play.
Ron Bennington: And it’s a testament to you Carol that everybody got that chance to carry the ball over the goal line. It was one of those shows where there were so many people who could either be funny or entertaining and it seemed like it was a comfortable place for everybody.
Carol Burnett: I learned that from Gary Moore, from working with him all those years ago. He spread it around. He wanted everybody to have a chance. It was a true rep company. So if it was my sketch, everybody would be supporting me. If it was Tim’s we’d be supporting him. Vicki, likewise and Harvey. We were a family so there wasn’t one person who had to shine.
Ron Bennington: Tim, you and Harvey ended up doing so many classic things together. Had you guys worked together before this show?
Ron Bennington: Uh huh….that comes across…
Tim Conway: Carol said, “have you ever worked with Harvey?” And I said no and so she took me down the basement at CBS and Harvey was chained to pipe down there, and I met him and I said, “I think this will be good, this seems like a partnership here that will work.”
Ron Bennington: But the funny thing is, everybody thinks of you guys as like a family. To think that you and Harvey met at work is just amazing to me.
Carol Burnett: The chemistry was amazing.
Tim Conway: Yeah. We both got divorced during the show too, so that will give you and idea of what we were doing.
Ron Bennington: Did anyone stay married during this show? You were the happiest people in the world at work…. (everyone laughs)
Tim Conway: …and very unhappy afterward, yes.
Ron Bennington: How much fun was it to sit back and put this kind of package together?
Carol Burnett: Oh I loved it. I have a pretty good memory. I didn’t remember every single thing that was on every single show but I remembered moments and sketches and guest stars when they would shine, and then I would look up the show. I have a big bible that has all of the show numbers and descriptions of what was in the show. And so maybe there were a couple of sketches that weren’t so good but maybe there would be a family sketch and a finale that just rocked, so I would pick that episode to be shown.
Ron Bennington: Where did the magic come from? Did you put the writers together first? Or the performers together?
Carol Burnett: Everything together. A lot of the writers and even some of the dancers and singers followed us out from New York from the Gary Moore show. And so our head writer was one of the writers on Gary’s show. And we got Kenny Solms and Gail Parent– they did an album that was a takeoff on the President Johnson and Ladybird and the kids. They were our junior writes. They were twenty-four years old when they came on the show. We just gelled. And we put the cast together– I had seen Harvey on the Danny Kaye Show and that was going off the air and we were going on in September. And we kept saying, we’ve got to get a Harvey Korman. Finally we said, why not “the” Harvey Korman?
Ron Bennington: How interesting that everybody moved out to LA together.
Carol Burnett: Also, we did Gary’s show live on tape. You could fly the scenery in and out like a real Broadway show. So we did Gary’s show “boom” from 8 to 9 Friday nights, it would be perfect. And when we did our show, we couldn’t do it exactly live because at CBS and television city you had to wheel the furniture, the set out into the hall and bring the next one in. But I never wanted to keep an audience – we had a live audience– I didn’t want to keep them waiting. So I would make a bet with the stage hands that I could do a total skin out change with wigs and everything faster than they could put that chair over there by that desk. So what wound up was we actually did a musical comedy review a week.
Ron Bennington: Even with the guest stars and different music coming in, it always did feel like the same show. It didn’t feel like a bunch of specials coming in.
Carol Burnett: The longest running variety show was Ed Sullivan. Because that was true variety. We were doing variety musical review. Which was different.
Ron Bennington: And with that show it would feel different from one week to the next.
Carol Burnett: Exactly. There’d be an elephant one week and then there’d be an opera singer and so forth. But we had our rep company that kept us– people would tune in with appointment television to see what we were going to come up with.
Ron Bennington: Absolutely. What do you think the weekly average was?
Carol Burnett: Oh Gosh, we’d do thirty million.
Ron Bennington: Thirty million, bigger than any show today.
Carol Burnett: Well that’s because there were only three networks.
Ron Bennington: Well right, but just to know….Vicki, you were young when you started the show– to know that there was thirty million people watching….
Vicki Lawrence: I was too stupid to think about it, Ron. I was an idiot.
Tim Conway: Actually the average was thirty FOUR million.
Ron Bennington: Thirty four million?
Tim Conway: Hmm? I made that up. (Everyone laughs) And if you don’t like that, you could say thirty-eight.
Ron Bennington: Tim is ready with any fact that you will need…if you will pay attention to him. For some people, I’m sure this will be nostalgic. But there’s generations now that could watch this kind of television variety and enjoy it just on the face level.
Carol Burnett: Vicki and I were talking. Before we did this– releasing the DVDs in stores– a lot of our sketches are on youtube– and we get letters from like eleven year olds, and teenagers saying I love this and my mother or my grandmother told me about this. Fan letters from all over asking- when can we see the full show.
Ron Bennington: The Ultimate Collection available in stores now, The Carol Burnett Show, Timelife.com and we appreciate you guys so much, this was so much fun and I hope to see you through here again.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at RonBenningtonInterviews.com.