The 22nd annual Screen Actors Guild Awards took place on Jan. 30, 2016, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Here is what this Screen Actors Guild Award winner said backstage in the Screen Actors Guild Awards press room.
Life Achievement Award
Do you see your style of sketch comedy coming back to television?
I would hope so. I would hope it never left. A lot of the comedy I see on television, I don’t mind edgy. I’m not a prude by any means of the imagination. I like edgy comedy, but I think there’s room for plain old belly laughs. And you don’t really see that too much anymore.
And I sound like an old fogey, but look at our Saturday night lineup back then: It was “All in the Family” (Norman Lear, wow!), “M.A.S.H.,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Bob Newhart” and our show. And it was all clever, and it holds today. And there was no pandering to base instincts.
And I wish that some of it would be elevated today by some of the writing. Some of the sitcoms I see — I won’t name them — they make me feel like they might be written by teenage boys in a locker room. It’s easy to get those kinds of laughs. I’d like to see cleverness come back. It does exist in some shows, but not enough.
What would you say to today’s young female comics wanting to do what you did in the 1970s?
Just do it. The thing is, I was not a stand-up comic. I was a sketch performer. I liked to be on stage with other people, so I could lock eyeballs with them and have a scene. I remember when I was doing “The Gary Moore Show” way, way, way back, one of our guests one week was Ed Gwynne, who was an old vaudevillian comic. And we got into the subject of comedy around the table one day.
And he talked about the difference between comics and comedic actors. And Gary Moore said, “What is the difference?” And Ed said, “Well, a comic says funny things, like Bob Hope. And a comedic actor says things funny, like Jack Benny.” And I realized that I wanted to say things funny. I can’t tell a joke to save my soul.
What are the biggest changes that you’ve seen for women in comedy?
The change is that there are more women, and I’m really happy for that, especially for Amy [Schumer] and Tina [Fey] running their own shows and writing and producing. It’s a beautiful, beautiful way that things have changed. And I think things are going to get better.
Women in comedy are more respected now. You look at Kristen Wiig, wow! She’s fabulous. And also now, television is allowing more women to go into movies. We used to be pigeonholed. But I think the big change is that there are more and more women now and comediennes who are being accepted.
Can you tell us about your friendship with Lucille Ball?
The first time I saw her was in “Once Upon a Mattress.” She came to see me off Broadway. And I was more nervous seeing her than I was on opening night. I peeked out from the curtains, and there was orange-red hair from behind the second row, and I was really nervous.
And after the show, she came back to my funky little dressing room off-Broadway, with a coil that came out of the couch. And she sat and talked to me for about 25 minutes. And she called me “kid,” because she was 22 years older than I.
And just as she was leaving she said, “Kid, if you ever need me for anything, give me a call.” So a few years later, I was asked by CBS to do a special if I could get a major guest star. So the producer said, “Carol, you ought to call Lucy. She said that to you.” And I said, “I’d be too nervous.”
And he said, “All she can do is say no. Ask.” And so I did. I got her on the phone. And she said, “Hey, kid, you’re doing great. What’s happening?” And I said, “I know you’re really busy. I don’t want to bother you.”
And she said, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “I’m going to be doing this special for CBS …” And she didn’t let me finish the sentence, “When do you want me?” And so, she was my guest.
We became very close friends. She gave me a baby shower — a black-tie baby shower with men attending. It was one of the funniest evenings ever. And her husband then, who was comedian Gary Morton, he opened all the baby gifts. And he did routines on everything. It was just hysterical.
She died on my birthday. She would always send me flowers. She died on my birthday, April 26. That afternoon, I got flowers from her that said, “Happy birthday, kid.”
Can you talk about your acting roles that didn’t involve sketch comedy? What did those roles mean to you?
Well, look at Steve Carell. Look at Michael Keaton. We were all pigeonholed at one point. Comedians are all actors. I was very thrilled when I got the script to “Friendly Fire.” At first, I looked at the envelope three times to make sure my name was on it. I couldn’t understand why they did it.
You know, way back in England, they don’t pigeonhole. They can do Shakespeare and then turn right around and do Noel Coward and then turn around and do a musical. No pigeonholing. And I remember one time, our show was in syndication for a half hour, so all the musical numbers had been cut out. And so, the syndicated show only showed the sketches. And one of my favorite sketch performers was Steve Lawrence, who has one of the greatest singing voices ever.
And when we’d do sketches, we did “Double Indemnity,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “The African Queen,” “From Here to Eternity.” And he was one of the best sketch comics I ever worked with. And Steve said one time he and his wife Eydie [Gormé] were in the airport, and these girls came up to him and said, “You’re that funny guy on the Burnett show!” They had no idea he was such a singer. We can do it all.
Has your sense of humor helped you bounce back from the rough times in your life? Were you born with a sense of optimism?
I’ve always been optimistic. I have a feeling that it happened when I was going to all those movies with my grandmother in the 1940s, because there was no cynicism. The good guys made it. The bad guys didn’t. If Mickey and Judy wanted to put on a show, they would do it, and it would go to Broadway.
So I never felt cynical, and I never felt like I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I wasn’t thinking about having my name above the title. That wasn’t it, but I knew I could work and make a living to put clothes on my back, food on the table, and pay the rent. That kept me going.
There was one time — way, way early in New York — when I was up for a very small part in a Broadway show. They narrowed it down to another girl and me. And I thought I had it. But I didn’t.
And something inside — and I have to thank the way that I felt — said, “It’s her turn. It’s not my turn. My turn will come.” And so that kept me from being discouraged — that attitude.
For more info: Screen Actors Guild Awards website
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