Carol Burnett is a national treasure and a comedy hero, and strode on the stage at The Chicago Theatre with the presence and confidence of a prize fighter. After a montage which showed clips of Burnett answering questions from her audiences from The Carol Burnett Show, the icon was met with rapturous applause from an appreciative audience. What followed was an hour and a half of anecdotes and more flip clips as well as a massive Q&A session, in which hard-working ushers sprinted up and down the aisles thrusting mics into the raised hands of excited fans. The stories Burnett chose to share came up mostly as well-prepared “tangents” inspired by the questions she was fielding – in one instance, early in the show, a fan asked about costar Vicki Lawrence and Burnett, not wanting to give away the store, cheerfully promised to bring up Lawrence later in the program.
In presenting the show with film clips, Burnett was given a chance to do two things: 1) rest, when needed – after all, even though she doesn’t look it, she’s 83-years old and 2) illustrate some of the anecdotes she was sharing. One particularly funny story deal with Tim Conway and the late Harvey Korman (to whom An Evening of Laughter and Reflection was dedicated) in which the former played an inept dentist while the latter was his hapless patient. The point of the sketch was just how masterful Conway was in getting Korman to break. A major hallmark of The Carol Burnett Show was the times the cast members corpsed throughout the show. Burnett explained that even though they tried their best to keep it together, Conway was often able to mess them up, sending his cast mates into paroxysms of laughter.
Burnett also used the film clips to remind viewers of some of the most iconic moments of The Carol Burnett Show including the famed Gone with the Wind parody, that had Burnett – as Scarlett O’Hara – descend down a grand staircase with the curtain rod dress. The audience on TV laughed uproariously, as did the audience in the theater. Slightly less-known, but equally funny is Burnett’s take on Sunset Boulevard, with her boozy, tragic Norma Desmond (in a cute aside, the comedienne boasted about Gloria Swanson once guesting on the show). Other clips reeled off all of the great guest stars that stood next to Burnett on her stage – Cher, Liza Minnelli, Ray Charles, Ethel Merman, Lucille Ball – but the biggest reactions came when Karen Carpenter appeared sadly warbling a Bacharach tune (we all awwwwed sadly) and when a still-beautiful Rita Hayworth popped up in full 70s glamor. When asked by an audience member if any superstar was a hard get, Burnett said no, and assured her fans that every superstar that was asked appeared.
The subject of women in comedy came up, as well. First in a story about Lucille Ball, who, freshly divorced from Desi Arnaz, found herself president of Desilu Productions, and in charge of shooting down bad ideas. In the story the legendary comedienne found her inner strength and started issuing orders and edicts, and proudly admitted to Burnett that it was then that they added an “s” to her last name. Though, not an explicitly feminist comic, Burnett still holds a giant place in female comedy, and she acknowledged it, not by embracing feminist politics, but by name-checking Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy throughout the evening.
The (great) problem with having an historic show like The Carol Burnett Show, is that it tends to overshadow everything else. After the show’s ending in 1978, Burnett continued a long and accomplished career in television, stage, and film, though nothing came close to the success of that show (she tried her hand at variety TV again in the early 90s with a pair of anthology series that didn’t last very long). As a result, the lion’s share of the evening was spent on The Carol Burnett Show at the expense of the comedienne’s other projects. She did squeeze in a cute story about Annie, and how because the shooting of the film was so long and protracted, she found herself in a pickle when she had to come back for a reshoot after having had minor plastic surgery. Someone in the rafters of the theaters shouted a question about Law & Order, and Burnett took the time to joyfully admit that though comedy was her love, she did enjoy playing villains, too.
But even though she liked playing villains, Burnett’s stock-in-trade is her likability. She comes across as a genuinely nice person. Throughout the evening, peppered among the good questions, were goofy requests for hugs – which Burnett tactfully postponed for after the show; a couple kids got into the act, too, garbling adorably incoherent questions which the star handled like a pro. Her star power coupled with her genial manner made for a lovely and hilarious evening that more than lived up to its title.
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