Interviews
12:56 pm
Fri November 15, 2013

Carol Burnett: The Fresh Air Interview

Originally published on Fri November 15, 2013 2:57 pm

Carol Burnett won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in October. The award ceremony — including tributes from Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Martin Short and Vicki Lawrence — will be broadcast on PBS Sunday, Nov. 24.

Burnett was among the first women to host a TV variety show. The Carol Burnett Show ran on CBS from 1967 to '78, and won 22 Emmys. It was famous for its movie parodies, the soap opera spoof "As The Stomach Churns" and its sketches about a bickering family. For most of the show's run, Burnett shared the stage with Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway.

Early in Burnett's career, she starred in the original production of the musical comedy Once Upon A Mattress. Her movies include A Wedding, The Four Seasons and Annie.

Fresh Air's Terry Gross interviewed Burnett in 2003, after a new edition of her 1986 memoir, One More Time, was published.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: That's the theme from "The Carol Burnett Show," which ran on CBS from 1967 to 1978. Last month, Burnett won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The award ceremony, including tributes from Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Martin Short and Vicki Lawrence, will be broadcast on PBS Sunday, Nov. 24th.

CAROL BURNETT: Burnett was among the first women to host a TV variety show. "The Carol Burnett Show," which won 22 Emmys, was famous for its movie parodies, the soap opera spoof "As the Stomach Churns," and its sketches about a bickering family. For most of the show's run, Burnett shared the stage with Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway.

Early in Burnett's career, she starred in the original production of the musical comedy "Once Upon a Mattress." Her movies include "A Wedding," "The Four Seasons" and "Annie." Terry recorded this interview in 2003, after the publication of a new edition of Burnett's 1986 memoir, "One More Time."

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

When you were young - you know how some people see life as a tragedy, and some people see life as a comedy? You're largely a comedic actress. When you were growing up, did you see the comedy in life?

BURNETT: Yes, I think I did. I had a lot of laughs with my grandmother and my mother. They had great senses of humor. And people who read the memoir and have read it, they think, oh, my gosh, that was a real tough upbringing. But I never felt that. We were poor, and both my parents died, eventually, of alcoholism, but I was kind of in the same boat with a lot of the kids in the neighborhood.

Everybody was poor, and a lot of their folks had drinking problems. But we found a way to survive and to play and to laugh and thrive in a funny way.

GROSS: Now, you were raised primarily by your grandmother, even when your mother was alive, right?

BURNETT: Yes. Actually, my folks, my parents came to Hollywood from Texas, and left me there with my grandmother. They were hoping that they were going to strike it big out here in Hollywood. And then they divorced. And so my grandmother and I followed my mother out to Hollywood in 1940, and mama lived in an apartment building one block north of Hollywood Boulevard, but really a million miles away from Hollywood. You know, it was just the neighborhood.

And she got us a single room, which faced the lobby of the building, and mama was down the hall. And so Nanny - that was my grandmother - and I lived in this one room. But the doors were always open, and mama was in our place, as much as we were down the hall with her. So - but I did live and stay and sleep in the same room as my grandmother.

We had a Murphy pull-down bed from the wall, and I slept on the couch.

GROSS: Now, two things I read about your grandmother that seemed totally contradictory to me - or at least difficult to live with as a package - is that: one, she was a hypochondriac, and two, she was a Christian Scientist. Was she both?

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: Go figure. Go figure. She was a hypochondriacal Christian Scientist. She would have Mary Baker Eddy's scientific - "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," and she would hold that book, and she would read it and what we call - she would know the truth. In other words, there is no illness. There is no evil. There is no this or that. But then she was constantly feeling her pulse.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: And say, oh, my God. I'm dying. Get me a Phenobarbital. So, you know, she had all the bases covered. If God didn't come through for her and she didn't know the truth well enough, I would have to run in and, you know, get the pills and give it to her.

GROSS: Was she a dramatic hypochondriac? Did she have a theatrical flair about it?

BURNETT: Yes, yes, yes. And she could kind of look like she was going to faint, you know, and lie down and fan herself, you know, with her hand and put a washrag on her forehead. But then if somebody came in or said, hey, let's go to the movies, she'd be up and out.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: Ready to go.

GROSS: Now, your parents were both drinkers. They were alcoholics. Did they become different people when they drank?

BURNETT: Yes and no. Actually, my dad drank before my mother did. He - in fact, at one time, I remember seeing mama break a bottle of his that she'd found and pour it down the sink. But daddy, when he drank, just became sweeter. He was - there wasn't a mean thought in his body. He was - I've always said he was like a drunk Jimmy Stewart.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: You know, that he just couldn't - he just got sweeter. But he was ineffectual. He couldn't hold a job. You know, he was just a hopeless - he had that disease. Mama didn't start drinking until later. And she wasn't living with daddy then, but she started heavily in her 30s. And she was a mean drunk. She could really get mean and vicious and angry. Again, that frustration, you know, just came out, you know, it was just totally 100-fold, I guess you would want to say, when she drank. She was very witty, and she was very beautiful, at first.

GROSS: Was she mean to you when she got drunk?

BURNETT: Yeah, yeah. Mm-hmm. She could be mean to me, too. Yeah. And then she and Nanny would go at it, you know, and sometimes I would just sit in the corner and draw. I, at one point, entertained the idea of being a cartoonist and having my own comic strip. And I could almost just ignore them while they were arguing, because it was like background music.

You know, and - yeah. She would be unreasonable. You know, she would accuse me of something, and I was a good kid. I was a goody-two-shoes, actually. And she would accuse me of ridiculous stuff when she drank.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in Los Angeles. You went to Hollywood High. Do you think your encounters with the world of show business were any different growing up in Los Angeles and going to Hollywood High than they would have been had you, say, stayed in San Antonio? Were you connected by geography to the world of Hollywood?

BURNETT: No, not at all. It could've been a different name. The difference was we had all these movie theaters on Hollywood Boulevard, and my grandmother would save up enough money - because way back then, before I turned 12, my - it was 11 cents for me to go to the movies, and it was a quarter for my grandmother.

You know, and we would see, on the average, in the '40s, we would see eight movies a week. Because we would go to two movies during the week, and then two on the weekend, but they were all double features - second-runs is what we called them, you know. So I'd see eight movies a week. So that was my connection to Hollywood, but that could've been in San Antonio, also.

And Hollywood High, the three years I went there, they didn't have a drama class, of all things. So that whole - my high school years were - mama said, you know, you ought to take up journalism. And I did, at Hollywood High. And I got very interested in that and took the journalism course and became editor of the Hollywood High School News and wrote a column.

And I even interviewed a movie star, Joel McCrea, who had gone to Hollywood High. It was my idea to say, gee, let me go interview these movie stars who had attended the school, you know. And that was fun. So that's what I really kind of thought I was going to be. So - and mama kept pushing it, because that's what she wanted to do.

GROSS: Right. Was there a point when you realized that's what she wanted to do, and not necessarily what you wanted to do?

BURNETT: After the fact. So when I got into UCLA, I thought I was going to major in journalism, but they did not have a major in journalism. So I took a course in my freshman year, a journalism course, and joined the Daily Bruin. But then I majored in theater arts, English, because then I could get the playwriting courses. And no matter what, when you major in theater arts, whether you want to write or be a director or design scenery or whatever, when you're a freshman at UCLA then - I guess it's still the same way - you had to take an acting class, Acting 1A, they called it.

And so I was kind of terrified about it, and had to get up in front of some people, and I did a scene with a guy who was in the class that was a comedy scene, and they laughed. And I thought, oh, that's really nice.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: You know, I like that. And I just felt validated, you know. And it was a high. And all through high school and junior high, I guess you could describe me as being one of the nerds. You know, there was - we had a little group of us. You know, I was quiet. I was not particularly attractive. I had friends. I had a lot of buddies, but I was not what one would call very popular.

But after I did a few scenes, you know, in this acting class, and then I got cast in a couple of one-acts at UCLA, people on campus would come up, even seniors and graduate students, and say, God, we really liked you in that, and so forth. And why don't you come over on the lawn here and have lunch with us today?

And all of a sudden, I started to get popular, and I said this on a couple of interviews, you know, it was a great way to meet guys. And I thought this is really kind of what I want to do. But I wouldn't tell my grandmother, and I wouldn't tell mama.

GROSS: Were you afraid they'd shoot it down and tell you you weren't pretty enough, you're not pretty enough, you're not whatever?

BURNETT: You got it, yeah.

GROSS: And did they ever get around to telling you that?

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: Well, like, mama, you know - and I don't want to lay this on her, because she didn't really know what she was saying at the time. She was saying, listen, be a writer, because no matter what you look like you can always write, you know. And so that kind of imprints a little message.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's very nice.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: She didn't - she really, she was just saying you know, no matter what, you can always write. You know, and she was being very supportive, because I actually was a pretty good writer. But then I got into musical comedy workshop at UCLA, doing background in the - "South Pacific." They were doing a scene from "South Pacific."

And the student director said can you carry a tune, and I said, yeah. Because mama and Nanny and I would always sit around the kitchen table. Mama played the ukulele, and we would sing and harmonize. And I said, yeah, I can carry a tune. And he said, well, would you be in the chorus, the "Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" scene? And I said sure.

So I got in, and I got so brave, I started to belt real - sing very loudly. And he said you're pretty loud. And I said, oh, I'm sorry. I'll tone it down. Then he said no, no. He said I'm going to do a scene from "Guys and Dolls," and would you be in the scene with me, and would you play Adelaide and sing "Adelaide's Lament"? Which was a comedy - wonderful comedy song from "Guys and Dolls."

And I thought oh, my Lord, you know, sing alone? Sing solo? And he said, well, she's supposed to have a cold. And I said, oh, well then I'll do it, because she wouldn't have to sound good.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: You know, I could always cough or sneeze or, you know, something like - so that was the first time I ever sang in public, was that scene. And then I got involved in an opera workshop, and I thought: This is what I want, is musical comedy. So, the following semester, we were going to do a scene - I think it was from "Call Me Madam," that Ethel Merman had starred in on Broadway.

And I got up the nerve to tell Nanny and to tell mama that I was going to be performing. And they said really? And I said, and I'd like you to be there. And they came. And afterwards, mama - actually, mama got sober. I mean, she - I hadn't seen her looking that good in a long time, but she kind of dressed up for it, and put on her old red coat and came in.

And Nanny was there. And afterwards backstage, they were very complimentary. Mama hugged me, and she said you were really good, kid, you know, and I just - I started to cry. You know, it was - and they were very supportive, until I said this is what I want to do with my life. And then it was like, hey, you know, they wanted to hit me with a reality stick.

BIANCULLI: Carol Burnett, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with Carol Burnett, the recipient of this year's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The TV special in which she receives that award will be shown November 24th on PBS.

GROSS: You knew you wanted to get to New York. After you fell in love with acting, you knew you wanted to get to New York. You knew you didn't have the money to get there. And you ended up getting $1,000 from someone who saw you do a sketch at a party and thought you were really talented, and became like your benefactor. And they were anonymous, I believe. Or was it just that you're keeping them anonymous from the rest of us?

BURNETT: I'm keeping them - this...

GROSS: Got it. So you knew who they were, but we don't know.

BURNETT: Right, right.

GROSS: So, with that $1,000, you got to New York, and you started performing there. And you ended up being in television in the pretty early days of TV, in the formative years. In 1955, for instance, you were on the "Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show."

BURNETT: Right.

GROSS: And this is, you know, a show of ventriloquists and dummies that all the kids watched.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: Yeah.

GROSS: All the kids watched it. And, you know, what did you do on the show?

BURNETT: I was the girlfriend of the dummies.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: And I was just kind of a, like, a sidekick. I didn't do too much comedy, because that was all the dummies - you know, Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smith were their names. And so, actually, I kind of sang a lot on the show with Paul Winchell and with the dummies. You know, we'd do little duets and stuff.

And I was only on a short while, and then I started - then I was off the show, and in '56, I got a part as Buddy Hackett's girlfriend on a short-lived show called "Stanley," which I think was the only live sitcom ever on television.

GROSS: Wow.

BURNETT: And then I met Garry Moore, who was - had a daytime show. And he put me on that show, and that started our friendship and relationship so that when he got his nighttime show, which was a wonderful variety show, he had me as a guest a couple of times. And then once Martha Raye was going to be on - she was a hysterical comedian - and she got sick. And Garry's office called me on Sunday, and he went live on Tuesday. And he said, can you come over and learn the show?

Man, I was out of there so fast. Boy, I ran over there. And Garry explained to the audience that I, you know, had just come in and learned it. And they were very receptive. So then he asked me to be a regular weekly, and that was a big, big break.

GROSS: Did you have a sense that, you know, TV was in its infancy then, and that the rules could be made up as you went along, that things weren't fixed in stone yet?

BURNETT: No, I did not. To me, it was a stepping stone to Broadway. I still - you know, and at the time, I was in a show called "Once Upon a Mattress" Off-Broadway, and so I was doubling. I was doing Garry's show and "Mattress." But "Mattress" was my big love.

I didn't think I was television material at all.

GROSS: Why not? Why not?

BURNETT: Well, once I auditioned for something called - oh, I forget. Oh, gosh. It was like "Star Search" only not - you know, it was "Reach for the Stars," or some kind of a show like that. And the emcee came out, and he said you're very good, dear, but you're too loud for TV.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: So that was, you know, again, somebody said that, so I accepted it. And when Garry hired me, I was kind of surprised, you know. So I just kind of thought no, I'm a belter and I'm a comic, and I belong on the stage. And - but in doing Garry's show, that's when the bug bit about doing different things every week.

GROSS: Oh, and not doing the same show every night on Broadway.

BURNETT: Correct. And so I could do these different characters and be dressed differently and become different people, sometimes three or four different people in one show, and I liked that. And I liked having the rep company feeling and a family, you know, and...

GROSS: You're describing "The Carol Burnett Show." That's "The Carol Burnett Show."

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: That's exactly right. I patterned our show after Garry, and, of course, after Sid Caesar, you know, who was a past master at it and had the great rep company, and did all these different characters. And I thought: This is what I need, because you could do musical comedy. You could - you could have guests, you could have interesting people to work with, but you still had your little family, core to work with also that you could rely on.

And that was the most fun.

BIANCULLI: Carol Burnett, speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. We'll hear more of their interview in the second half of the show. Let's hear Burnett singing "Adelaide's Lament" from "Guys and Dolls." It's from the CD reissue "Let Me Entertain You: Carol Burnett Sings." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2003 interview with actress and comedian Carol Burnett. Later this month, she'll be seen on PBS accepting the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. When we left off, they were talking about "The Carol Burnett Show," the popular variety show which ran on CBS from 1967 to 1978 and won 22 Emmys.

GROSS: Well, one of the things your show "The Carol Burnett Show," is famous for, was your movie parodies.

BURNETT: Yes.

GROSS: And you said earlier that when you were a kid you'd go to maybe eight movies a week with your grandmother.

BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Are there movies from your childhood that you ended up doing parodies of on "The Carol Burnett Show"?

BURNETT: Oh, yes. "Mildred Pierce..."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BURNETT: ...Joan Crawford. "The Postman Always Rings Twice," Lana Turner. "Gilda," Rita Hayworth. "Gone With the Wind," Vivian Leigh. Even something as remote as a movie called "Born to Be Bad," with Joan Fontaine, and we called it "Raised to Be Rotten."

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: And so, I mean, I would just go to the writers and I'd say, can we do "Mildred Pierce?" And they would get the film and run it and, sure enough, I mean it was just great. And about three or four weeks we would have the sketch.

GROSS: Is it fun to do the kind of glamour roles that you figure you're probably not going to get because you're a comedic actress and you don't think of yourself as the glamorous type?

BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So is it fun to do those glamour roles but do like the comic version of them?

BURNETT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I remember Bob Mackie putting me in all white, and I had a white wig, practically. Lana Turner in "Postman Always Rings Twice..."

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: ...always wore white.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BURNETT: And oh, and I had the eyelashes on and the, you know, the white shoes and the white slim skirt and blouse and the thing, you know, and white earrings and coming down the stairs because her first entrance in "Postman" is just showing her legs walk down the stairs and the sexy music and John Garfield just gaping at her. And Steve Lawrence played the Garfield role and Harvey was the husband we murdered, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: It was, yeah. And I remember when we did "Gilda," I got a telegram from Rita Hayworth. And she said this is just great and can I come and play with you. And so we, she came on our show.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

BURNETT: Rita Hayworth was a guest, Betty Grable was a guest and Lana Turner was a guest on our show - and Gloria Swanson. Oh, oh no, it was just such a thrill, you know, and I thought, oh my god, if Nanny were alive and saw Betty Grable on our show and me doing a number with Betty Grable, it would kill her.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: She would just faint dead away. Never in a million years did we ever dream that we'd ever know these people - let alone work...

GROSS: She would've needed one of those phenobarbitals.

BURNETT: Oh my dear. Oh my dear.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, you mentioned Bob Mackie, who did the costumes for your show.

BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And he's - god - he's a designed so many like really extravagant gowns over the years. I mean, you know, he did Cher's clothes too.

BURNETT: Yeah. Well, what...

GROSS: So, can - go ahead.

BURNETT: What he did on our show, which people don't know, don't realize, he designed everything you saw our show - including the wigs, including the makeup, so that whatever not just what I wore, but what the guests wore, what the cast wore, whatever, you know, and he created all of those hysterical looks. He created Eunice's look. He created Mrs. Wiggins. All the - he designed literally, 50 costumes a week - 5-0 - costumes a week.

GROSS: Did he design for Harvey Korman in drag?

BURNETT: Yes. Yes. Yes. That's all Bob.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: And, of course, the greatest sight gag ever, I think - one of the greatest - was his idea for the "Gone with the Wind" sketch with the curtain rod dress.

GROSS: Oh, describe it.

BURNETT: Well, when we did "Gone with the Wind," the takeoff, there's a scene when Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler's coming to call on her and she doesn't want Rhett to know that they're poor. So she rips the curtains down - the green velvet draperies down - and says, and she's going to make a dress. Well, the writers had written that I come down the stairs with the draperies just kind of hanging on me - which would have been funny enough. But I went into costume fitting that Wednesday and Bob said I have an idea. And he had the dress draped over a curtain rod, which fit over my shoulders and ran straight out, tied with the fringe around the waist and a - I mean it was the silliest looking thing you've ever seen in your life and I fell on the floor. And then when we did it, you know, on the taping, the audience, the laugh just wouldn't stop when I made my entrance. And then I came down the stairs and it was very hard on me because I was biting the inside of my cheek not to laugh myself because the reaction of the audience was just phenomenal.

And Harvey, you know, looking so like Clark Gable, and he was brilliant in it. And then his line was: Scarlett, you're magnificent.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: That dress, that dress is, that dress is just gorgeous. And then I say: thank you, I saw it in the window and I just couldn't resist it. You can't...

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: You can't beat those lines with the look of that, you know. But what fun.

GROSS: My guest is Carol Burnett. Here's an excerpt of the "Gone with the Wind" parody from "The Carol Burnett Show".

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW")

BURNETT: (as Starlett) What am I going to do? Cat Butler is coming over and he's got money and I got to get it. And look at me. I look like the inside of a goat's stomach. What to wear?

(LAUGHTER)

VICKI LAWRENCE: (as Sissy) Well, Miss Starlett, the Yankees done stole all your clothes.

BURNETT: (as Starlett) I know that, stupid.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE HOOVES)

LAWRENCE: (as Sissy) Look, Miss Starlett, isn't that Capt. Butler's carriage now?

BURNETT: (as Starlett) Oh, Lord, what am I going to do?

LAWRENCE: (as Sissy) Well, I've got an idea. When he comes in, why don't you hide behind the drapes?

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: (as Starlett) Sissy, help me take these down.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIPPING OF CLOTH)

LAWRENCE: (as Sissy) Well, what you doing that for?

BURNETT: (as Starlett) Never you mind. Now listen, when he gets here you just keep them busy, you understand?

LAWRENCE: (as Sissy) Yessum.

BURNETT: (as Starlett) 'Cause I got me a dress to make.

LAWRENCE: (as Sissy) Yessum.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did Bob Mackie also designed the falsies that the men and women on the show had to wear?

BURNETT: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

GROSS: What's the most creative falsie that he designed?

BURNETT: Well, the ones that kind of hang and move, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BURNETT: And I - 'cause many designers will put cotton in, you know, and build it up that way. But Bob puts rice in them so that they move.

GROSS: And...

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: Do you get the picture? Yeah. So that...

GROSS: How do you use that as an actress?

BURNETT: Well, as an - well, I did Charles' mother at one point...

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: ...and he made me a bodysuit where I had this big belly that was a midriff, and he put the bellybutton in there and it was skin colored, the whole thing. And then he made these boobs that kind of hung down over the belly in this red sequin top. So all I had to do was just move my shoulders back-and-forth and, of course the boobs would whip back and forth across my belly button.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: And so it didn't matter what you said, it was how you looked. So Bob saved many, many a sketch for us because not all of our sketches were gems.

GROSS: Did your grandmother live to see any of your performing success?

BURNETT: Nanny lived - Mama died before I did anything, really. She did see me do "The Jack Parr Show" and "Ed Sullivan." And then Nanny lived to see me do "The Garry Moore Show" and she lived to see me on Broadway. And...

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: ...she - one time we came out to Hollywood to do two or three weeks of "The Garry Moore Show," and Nanny came and was sitting in the audience. Now she loved to get dressed up and she had great legs, so she'd wear her skirts a little bit short and she liked to put rouge on. I mean she, she was OK, you know, but she would kind of guild the lily a bit.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: And she would wear bright colors and all, You know, she really liked to doll up. Anyway, she sitting in the audience and Garry Moore comes out and he says, now I understand Carol's grandmother is in the audience. She's the little lady who raised our Carol. Nanny? Nanny? Where are you? Stand up. Well, Nanny stood up and clasped her hands over her head and did like the, you know, the winners flick. She just clapped her hands over and bowed - took all these bows and like she was the star, you know, of the show. And she was hysterical. And I wanted to die. I was so embarrassed in the wings. And Garry got the biggest kick out of her. And, yes, yes, she did get to see me do a few things.

GROSS: Now let me ask you. I know - and this is public...

BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...so I don't feel like I'm kind of saying anything that you wouldn't want me to say. But let me know if I'm wrong - that I think it was in the '80s that you decided to have some cosmetic surgery. And you...

BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You had your chin changed.

BURNETT: Yeah. Yes.

GROSS: Tell me why you wanted to do that. Now, you know, you mentioned that like your mother said to you when you were a kid that...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...you should go into journalism...

BURNETT: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...because no matter you look like you could still keep working.

BURNETT: Yeah. Well, I always had a weak chin because we couldn't afford to correct my bite, you know, and - which could have been corrected with braces. And so the chin was always, always weak and I always was kind of hated my profile. And I thought wouldn't it be nice one day to feel the rain on your chin without having to look up, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: And my daughter Jody had the opposite problem, she had an underbite. And so we went to this oral surgeon and he said he could fix her. And then he looked at me and he said, you know, I could fix your bite too. I said, really? So he showed me on some imaging how he could extend my bite like three millimeters out and I would just have kind of a normal chin. I said well, let's go for it. So he did and so I got a chin.

But the story I tell about that was I had just finished doing "Annie," playing Miss Hannigan in "Annie."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BURNETT: And I got the operation on my chin. So I'm recuperating and Ray Stark, who produced "Annie," called me in Honolulu and he said, we're going to reshoot the "Easy Street" number with you and Bernadette and Tim Curry. I said...

GROSS: Oh, I see the problem.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: ...oh, really? You know, Ray, and I explained to him, you know. He said oh, with all that Miss Hannigan drag that you're wearing nobody's going to notice anything. Besides, it's going to be separate from other scenes, so it'll just be it's own thing and nobody's going to notice that. It's, you know, it's you and Tim, and were singing and dancing and running around. I said oh, of course, I'm coming back. So I flew back and John Huston directed "Annie," and he was there. And we were going to start the number. And he said, well, now wait a minute, I think what I'd like to do here is why do we pick it up from when Carol had run into the closet to get, to find Annie's locket. And let's pick it up when she comes running out of the closet with the locket. And I said, oh, dear. And I went up to him and I said, Mr. Huston? He said, yes dear, yes. I said two months ago, when I ran into the closet, I didn't have a chin. And now when I run out of the closet, I'm going to have a chin. You know, it's like boom-boom. And he thought for a minute and he said, well, dear, just come out looking determined.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did anybody ever point out to you that you looked different?

BURNETT: Oh, no. No. It's so - and there are some other scenes that we reshot where I've got a chin in the beginning, then I don't and then I, but nobody's ever - nobody said it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I have to go back and re-watch it now.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: You should. Yeah. I just think that's the funniest piece of direction anybody could ever get.

BIANCULLI: Carol Burnett speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. Later this month, PBS presents a special in which she receives this year's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews some new Christmas CDs that already have hit the marketplace. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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