#Vicki Lawrence Reminisces About The Carol Burnett Show Celebrating It’s Shout Factory TV Release
“Vicki Lawrence Reminisces About The Carol Burnett Show Celebrating It’s Shout Factory TV Release”
There is great news afoot, and you might not even know it.
ShoutFactory TV has worked together with Carol Burnett to get the full series of The Carol Burnett Show ready for streaming, and you can now watch every episode that was ever made.
A celebration is in order, and to help with that, we had a chance to chat with Vicki Lawrence about the release and so much more.
If you’re unfamiliar with Vicki Lawrence, well, shame on you! But even if her name isn’t familiar, I can guarantee you’ve seen her work.
She began starring on The Carol Burnett Show at 18. She was hired after a letter she sent during her senior year of high school prompted Carol to visit Vicki on the evening she participated in the Miss Fireball pageant because their similarity was uncanny.
Best known for her roles as Burnett’s sister Chrissie and Thelma Harper aka Mama on The Family sketches and the later series, Mama’s Family, Lawrence has never stepped out of the public eye since her odyssey first began, and now an entirely new audience can experience the joys of The Carol Burnett Show.
When I asked her about capturing lightning in a bottle and whether she thought The Carol Burnett Show experience could be duplicated today, she wasn’t so sure, especially since she still wonders how she even wound up there.
“Oh my God, I don’t know. I don’t think I was suitable,” Lawrence said truthfully. And the fact of the matter is that she learned everything along the way. She marvels at the opportunity she was awarded and thankful for the class shown by people like Harvey Korman, whose comedic brilliance taught her so much.
“I just got lovingly brought along by all these amazing comedians. I mean, Harvey was like having a private tutor, really. He really mentored me. And I think because comedy was such serious business to him because he was classically trained. I mean, he would go down with the ship if something wasn’t working. I think he was so appalled by me in the beginning because I was such an idiot.
“He said, ‘Forget stage right, stage left. You couldn’t even find the ladies’ room.’ And I think it was literally either kill me or train me. I really think. And so he said, ‘Okay if she’s going to be on the show, I’m going to set about to make her a comedian.’
“And he would work with me, literally for hours, on dialect and props and explaining who the hell I was in the movie takeoffs that I’d never seen. He was just invaluable. He was invaluable. I mean, Carol, God love her, gave me the leg up, but she had a show to run. So Harvey really is the one that I feel taught me most everything I know about comedy.”
Lawrence wasn’t in a lot of the early shows, so she’d also sit in the audience and absorb the experience and all they had to offer. “I would just sit in the audience and watch these people working and I think I learned a lot by osmosis.”
She laughed. “When the gal was casting Cool Kids, she knew she wanted me, so I went in to read for the part. She didn’t really care about me reading. It was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I want you for the part, but I want you to tell me how you got the chemistry on The Carol Burnett Show.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s God. I don’t know.’
Everything fell into to place so perfectly for The Carol Burnett show, but it was all guided by Burnett’s hand. “Carol is the most giving, wonderful, fun person to be around,” Lawrence said.
“I mean, I used to have all the people on the show tell me all the time, ‘You will not know what the real show business world is like until you get out into the real world of showbiz, kid because this ain’t it.’ They would tell me that all the time, that it was like the Emerald City.”
Their chemistry was fantastic, and Lawrence couldn’t disagree. “That chemistry. I mean, I think like you just said, that chemistry. I think you just said the chemistry was amazing, so yeah, everybody would love to capture that, but I don’t know that there’s a formula to capturing that. I mean, that was ridiculous the way Carol found me. Lyle came out of the audition system. But Harvey…
“Harvey had just finished The Danny Kaye Show. He had just finished doing Danny Kaye and still had an office at CBS. They were sitting there at CBS brainstorming like, ‘Who are we going to get for your leading man?’
“And Carol said everybody kept mentioning Harvey. ‘We need a Harvey Korman. That’s what we need. We need somebody like Harvey Korman.’
“And Carol said, ‘One day I looked at everybody and said, ‘Has anybody asked Harvey?’ So she literally accosted him in the parking lot at CBS because he still had his office there and asked him to be on the show. So that’s how he got there.”
It’s hard to believe that Tim Conway wasn’t even a series regular until the end of The Carol Burnett Show or that when they first worked together Tim and Harvey had never even met.
“Tim, he used to tell a really funny story about how they took him down to… People would say, ‘How did you meet Harvey?’ or, ‘How did that happen?’ He said they took him down into the basement at CBS, and Harvey was chained to the pipes, and they said, ‘You’re going to be working with him.’ Anyway. My God, the two of them together.”
If it was only near the end of the series that Conway’s value to the series lent to him becoming a series regular, he was never underestimated by his castmates.
“He was a silly guy. I mean, he just lived to wreak havoc on that show. Back in the day, we used to have cue cards. Now everything’s on a teleprompter, but we used to have an entire cue card department, and they would just lovingly hand write out all those cards.”
Lawrence laughed, “I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could print like that.’ I’d try to emulate the way they printed because everything was so pretty. Carol was black, and Harvey was blue, and Tim was green and I was red. Well, I don’t remember, but we were all color-coded.
“And if you looked out into the audience and saw a cue card on any given night and one of Tim’s green cards said, ‘Saver,’ that meant, ‘Here comes the joke that nobody has heard that is going to save the show.’
“And you would just go, ‘Oh man. Here we go.’ And at one point, he had so many saver cards that he wallpapered his office with them. The saver. And we did two shows, so they would ask him to adhere to the script pretty much during the dress show, and if they got everything they wanted on camera, they would just turn Tim loose on the air show, just let him go.
“They were called the dress show and the air show only because that’s the schedule that Carol always went by on live television, so that’s the way we shot. But they were both shot in front of the live audiences, and then they would edit between those two shows.
“And literally, it was like we would start at 4:15, we would be done by 6:00. You’d have an hour break to get your hair, your makeup touched up, get something to eat. You’d get notes, and notes, the director would come by and say, ‘We’re changing your mark in this musical number. We’re changing your line in this sketch. We’re changing the running order.’
“It could be any number of things. Or, ‘Here’s a new joke.’ The night that I got Tim in the Family sketch with the elephant story, he had gone off-script and done this whole long story during the dress show that nobody had ever heard, and Carol said, ‘God damn it. You know how I hate breaking the fourth wall. I want everybody to have some discipline tonight.’
“So on the air show, the first person that loses it is Carol. And on the dress show, the whole thing falls apart, and the director comes by to give me my note before the air show and says, ‘I have only one note for you tonight. The elephant story will be different, and good luck.’
“And by now, I’m married to my husband, Al, who was the makeup man on the show, so he’s sitting in my dressing room. I said to him, ‘How does Tim get away with this?’ And Al said, ‘Get him.’
“And I don’t know if it was Al that unleashed me that night or whatever, but the elephant story went south again. Carol was the first one that lost it and I thought, ‘Okay, here goes. I’m going to try.’ It was the first time I ever did that to everybody, broke everybody up.”
That moment has gone down in history as possibly the best blooper on the show from a show known for its bloopers. Take a look for yourself.
Lawrence can’t help but lament how much things have changed in the entertainment industry from a time that those with the talent could run a production without the suits looking over their shoulder telling them what they can or cannot do.
Burnett ran a tight ship on The Carol Burnett Show, but she was allowed to run it as she saw fit.
“I mean, you just don’t work anywhere that is like that anymore, where you could do a show that big and that beautiful in five days. Yeah, pretty incredible. People will say to me, ‘What, exactly, does an executive producer do?’ Well, they put all the right people in all the right positions, and then they just stand back and let them do their thing,” Lawrence mused.
That doesn’t happen anymore, though, and it’s hard not to believe that producers being so involved in the process doesn’t change the process and the quality to a great degree.
“You’ve got 80,000 people putting in their two cents. So it was just an amazingly fun place to work. It was almost more like school. You’d have music rehearsal and then there’s passing period. Then you’d have sketch rehearsal, then there’s passing period. Then you’d go to the big rehearsal hall and you’d put the musical numbers on their seat.
“Then you’d have another passing period, and then you’d have your run through. And it was the only place I’ve ever worked where you could make an appointment … If the schedule said you’re going to be out at 4:00, you could make a 4:30 appointment and keep it.
In contrast, when Lawrence worked on Cool Kids on FOX, she got to know her castmates very well because of the enormous amount of time they spent together sitting around and waiting.
Lawrence said, “Lots of time to talk and share funny stories.” The Carol Burnett Show, on the other hand, was run like a well-oiled machine.
“It just hearkened back to a different time. It was really different. I mean, a lot of things have changed for the better, but a lot of things … I don’t know. Show business was so fun back then. What we did was so much fun compared to the way you work now, you know? It was pretty special.”
“Like Carol used to say, we got paid for playing dress-up, and that’s really what it does feel like. We got to just wear all those beautiful clothes and do all those fun things and do it in front of a live audience and not have 50 people telling us what we could and couldn’t do. It was really a different time.”
In today’s climate, Lawrence wonders if the show would have lasted as long given the way production has changed and even the way the audience interacts directly with so much of today’s programming.
“We had so much fun. I was really kind of a fish out of water for a lot of years there. I have said I feel like I went to the Harvard school of comedy in front of America, and that wouldn’t happen nowadays. I mean, what happened to me would no longer happen anywhere, I don’t think. I would have been voted off in the first week and that would have been the end of that.”
Lawrence continued, “Nowadays, most of the variety is competition shows, and you either get voted off by America or the judges, one or the other. I would have been gone in a nanosecond.”
Lawrence believes that The Carol Burnett Show lived so long and will thrive on streaming today because it was funny without living in the moment. Sure, the show was a product of its times, but the themes and the laughter are everlasting.
“I think that’s why it’s lived so long. It really wasn’t topical. It was just funny. She deliberately was not topical, and I think that’s a lot of the reason it stood the test of time.”
With her one-woman show, Lawrence gets a chance to bring Mama into modern culture. “When I put the show together, I said, ‘I definitely don’t want it to be retrospective.’ So it was really fun to take that old lady and throw her into the real world. I let her comment on it, and that’s what’s so fun about doing it now, is letting her loose.”
Lawerence laughed, “I mean, she’s got so much to be upset about, bless her heart. All the technology and the toilets that flush three times before you can get your pants up and the gay marriage and the … I mean, the whole mess. Congress and her healthcare. She’s got a lot of stuff to be worried about, so that’s what’s fun about her.”
It’s taken years for the full rights to The Carol Burnett Show to be granted. Even when it was initially rerun as Carol Burnett and Friends in the same era, much of what originally aired was missing for the 30-minute installments.
“Oh, I loved all The Family sketches,” Lawrence said. “They were all really well written and good and funny. I know Went with the Wind is super famous for the curtain rod, but I did love Chrissie in that show, in that particular sketch. I thought she was hysterical.
“A lot of the musical takeoffs we did I loved. For many, many years, you just couldn’t see the musical stuff because I think it took forever to negotiate all that with the musicians’ union.”
Nowadays, Lawrence is taking it slow in the new climate with coronavirus scares and the recent swell of protests in the US, talking with family and training her new puppy. It wasn’t lost on us how difficult it was to discuss something as engaging as The Carol Burnett Show when times are heavy.
But there is always time for love and laughter, and the hope is that resurrecting The Carol Burnett Show can offer release for those who are struggling with the world as it is today.
You can watch the series in its entirety on Shout Factory TV, which will be setting aside 3% of their website sales for the month of June to donate to organizations dedicated to social injustice and income inequity issues.
Their site and apps are available across all devices.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.
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