Comedy legend Carol Burnett looks back on her groundbreaking variety show

Carol Burnett gathered some friends to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her groundbreaking variety show for a new CBS special. "CBS Sunday Morning's" Mo Rocca spoke with the comedy legend about her return to prime time not far from where she made her Broadway debut and took her first step toward stardom. 

If comedy is all about timing, then Carol Burnett picked the right moment to launch her TV show. 

"I'm glad I'm the age I am and that I was the age then. You couldn't do what we did today," Burnett said. "Money. Twenty-eight piece orchestra. All those dancers. It could never be as elaborate as what we did."   

Before her TV show, Burnett had been a star on Broadway, where she learned to play for a live audience and about pacing.

"The Carol Burnett Show" was an hour long and took little more than that to tape.

"I never wanted to keep the studio audience waiting. I can't stand that because they give us our energy. I have been a guest on some sitcoms where – 21 minutes and they take five hours. That's insane. That's not necessary," Burnett said. 

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The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special  

CBS

The cast included Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner, and Vicki Lawrence – who joined the ensemble just out of high school. 

"And it's so funny. I would say she started out being my kid sister and wound up being my mother," Burnett said.

Burnett began each show not with a monologue but a Q&A with the audience, which sometimes led to the discovery of new talent.

"I remember this one woman, I loved her," Burnett said.

She recalled that the woman, without missing a beat, turned to the orchestra and said, "'You Make Me Love You' in the key of G."

"And I mean it was just heaven. And the audience ate it up," Burnett said.

Although Burnett is one of the funniest people ever to be on TV, there is one thing she can't do.

"I can't tell a joke to save my soul. Cannot," Burnett said. "I don't say funny things. But I can say things funny in a sketch that we're doing, you know. That's a lot different from telling a joke." 

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Carol Burnett in her iconic "Went with the Wind" sketch

The Carol Burnett Show


"When you would work during the week on a bit that you knew was going to kill, like the curtain rod in 'Went with the Wind,' how did it feel in the moments before you went before the audience with it?" Rocca asked.  

"Oh, well, I knew that was going to get a huge laugh. I said 'This is going to be one the greatest sight gags in the history of television,' and it is," Burnett said. "And that costume is in the Smithsonian." 

"Everything I see from the show, those old sketches, seems to hold up. Is that what accounts for people's attachment and affection for this show?" Rocca asked.

"I think so. It certainly showed that we were having fun and the reason I think that we've lasted is that it's funny. Here we are, 50 years, and we're celebrating a show that started 50 years ago. That's pretty wonderful. It's as fresh today as it was then," she said.

While Burnett was able to draw some of the biggest names in entertainment, the one star she says she wished she could have included is Frank Sinatra.

The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special airs on Sunday, Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS