08 December 2012

Progress Report 19: So Glad We Had This Time Together

A mutual appreciation society.

“I just want to quell all those rumors about me and George Clooney!”

That, according to Carol Burnett, is why she agreed to an interview for the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn (which, as you may have noticed, I’m writing). We spoke by phone this week about Harvey Korman, about The Carol Burnett Show, and about the episode in which Madeline appeared in 1976. I can’t say much here about what she told me — I have to save something to make you want to buy the book, don’t I? But it’s an occasion to reflect on a performer and a show that meant a lot to me — and to Madeline, and I dare say to you, too.

Madeline’s contribution to the episode (“One of my favorites,” Carol said, as she proceeded to quote from it, 36 years later) consisted of a “Family” sketch, in which she played a pretentious actress trying to rehearse with poor Eunice; a chat with Carol and a duet, “Friend”; and a delirious send-up of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, in which Madeline and Harvey warble “I Always Used to Oooh” in a “film clip” from a spoof of That’s Entertainment.

Right there, you get a sense of why the episode, and the show itself, made an indelible impression on this viewer. For instance, when Madeline’s character exhorts Eunice to concentrate, she intones, “In our circles, in our circles!” For the duration of my (limited, long-ago) experience working in theater, not one production in school, off-off-Broadway or on-Broadway went by without somebody’s quoting that line in rehearsal.

Mavis Danton (Madeline) rehearses with Eunice Higgins (Carol).

What’s more, The Carol Burnett Show reliably delivered at least one gag per week that left me helpless with laughter on the floor — and in this particular episode, it comes during Carol’s contribution to the That’s Entertainment parody, in which she performs an Esther Williams-style routine in a retro residential swimming pool strewn with plastic water lilies. Singing even when she’s underwater (at which point she sort of gargles the notes) and when water gets in her mouth (at which point she spits), tossing aside the flowers when they get in her way, Carol clowns around much the way any kid clowns in a pool — “Look at me, I’m Esther Williams!” — especially a movie-mad kid, like the one Carol was, or the one I was.

It’s that playfulness that makes so much of The Carol Burnett Show not only memorable but also approachable. We’ve all done silly stuff like this, though few if any of us goofed around in a way that might be entertaining to anybody but ourselves. I’ve seen the proof more times than I care to count at summer-camp jamborees and school talent shows, when would-be Carols and Harveys wore out their welcome almost before they began. The comedy on The Carol Burnett Show could be very broad, often campy. How did Carol know when to stop while it was still funny? “Instinct,” she told me.

The camaraderie among her core players — Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner — extended to guest stars and even to the audience. We had a good time watching them because we sensed that they were having a good time. (Something that seemed to be confirmed every time Tim Conway made Harvey Korman crack up.) In talking with Carol, I found myself referring to Korman simply as Harvey, and now I’m writing about her as Carol, as if I’d known them, which I didn’t, or as if I’d grown up with them, which in a very limited sense, I did, actually.

Not exactly the “Indian Love Call”: Harvey and Madeline.

Together they demolished classic films I hadn’t seen yet. As a kid, I barely knew who Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were: when it came time for me to see Now Voyager and Mildred Pierce, I had to leave the movie theater, because I was laughing so hard, remembering Carol’s parodies. For this viewer, she did to old movies what MAD Magazine did to the great films of the 1970s, and what Anna Russell did to Wagner.

And yet, in every case, the more I’ve learned about the source material, the more I’ve come to appreciate the care with which it was spoofed, and the artistry required to give an audience something to laugh about, no matter how little or how much background knowledge they possessed. You didn’t have to know anything about Gone with the Wind (though I did, by the time Carol got to it) in order to find “Went with the Wind” hilarious. Each week, jokes aimed high and low, and hit their marks. That’s a rare gift.

Even in their broadest gestures, Carol’s imitations of the great screen goddesses were so keen — and yet so affectionate — that the ladies themselves loved them. Joan Crawford regularly watched the show and wrote Carol a fan letter after “Mildred Fierce.” Gloria Swanson was so smitten with Carol’s demented “Nora Desmond” character that she guest-starred on The Carol Burnett Show — whereupon the “Nora” character was retired, much to my disappointment. I underscore: at the time, I’d never seen Sunset Boulevard. I just thought Carol’s Nora was funny.

Always ready for her close-up: Carol as Nora.

As a result, Carol Burnett’s movie parodies were an entryway to my exploration of an art form — in very much the same way that Anna Russell eased me into Wagner while reminding me not to take the music (or the music criticism) too seriously. The very clear lesson from both ladies was, no matter how brilliant this stuff is, we should have fun. At the same time, the bitter conflict between Eunice and Mama taught me that the best comedy has its foundation in pain.

Television creates an artificial intimacy with the viewer, and that can be tough for performers, and even for news anchors. I’m sure there are moments when Carol really doesn’t want to hear how much complete strangers love her, how much she influenced them, how much she taught them. And in talking with her the other day, I kept all of those things to myself — though they were right there, ready to be said and very sincerely felt.

But at all times during our conversation, Carol Burnett was gracious, open, and funny as hell. In short, exactly the person I hoped she would be. I add her to the list of boyhood idols with whom I’ve been able to communicate, as a result of Madeline Kahn’s biography: Lily Tomlin, Bill Cosby, Betty Aberlin, to name a few. These opportunities inspire in me a gratitude I can’t quite express — though I suppose I’ve just tried.

“I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist!”


Anonymous said...

Ahh! I so miss that show. Saturday nights were always family nights to watch Carol.My dad and I laughed until we cried. I was so excited to meet this great lady back in the early '70s. My grandmother lived on Oahu and we spent several summers on Waikiki beach. She had a condo in the HIlton Hawaiian Village. My sister and I were playing in the sand when we spotted her sitting in a beach chair. We ran inside to get paper and pencil and rushed to see if she was still there. Younger folks may not remember the "good old days" when celebrities were not surrounded by an entourage plus security. We walked right up to her and asked for an autograph. She was SO nice and gracious. I don't remember much of what she said but I do know that she left me with a "warm and fuzzy" feeling that lasts to the day. And , of course, we ( I was about 8 yrs old and my sister was 10) still talk about it as one of the most memorable parts of our childhood.

Anonymous said...

Love love love and appreciate your sharing with us your conversation with one of the great ones. I also appreciate your articulation of what so many of us think and feel.

Ashley said...

I just rewatched this episode with my Mom the other night. Madeline was so great. And I love hearing her sing <3 I can't wait for your book!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I too am looking forward to your book. It's sure to be one of those books that engage and entertain even readers with no prior knowledge of the subject matter.

-- Rick

Will said...

I saw so many of those great movie parodies live. The Carol Burnett and Steve Allen shows were, hands down, the most literate of the variety shows. Allen once had the lovely actress Lily Palmer do the same script of an encounter between a man and a woman who hadn't seen each other in a while three separate ways: totally casual and emotionally neutral, then with a hint of hostility as if from a bad break-up, then with growing romance.

I can't imagine anyone attempting such a thing today. Nobody would be interested in seeing acting technique at work.

Anne said...

I can't tell you how glad I am you are writing this book. Besides all her other achievements , I very much remember Madeline's short lived sitcom. It was screamingly
funny...because she was.