This weekend, Carol Burnett will give Triangle fans the chance to do something they've probably wanted to do since they used to watch her on TV when they were younger: ask her a question.
On Mother's Day, she'll be at the Durham Performing Arts Center for an evening titled "Laughter & Reflection with Carol Burnett: A Conversation with Carol Where the Audience Asks the Questions." Anyone who watched The Carol Burnett Show, the CBS variety show that ran from 1967 to 1978 and made Burnett a comedy icon, knows she begins every show by giving her studio audience a chance to ask her anything.
Burnett has been doing an extended live version of this on and off for the past 25 years. And she's been asked everything from "Is Tim Conway that funny in real life" to "What is the significance of the ear tug" that ended every episode of her show. It's guaranteed that someone will ask her to do her signature Tarzan yell.
"I've been doing this for years, and it's always been fun," says Burnett, speaking from her Santa Barbara home. "And I never know what anybody's going to ask. It's all random. So, they raise their hands and I'll just call on somebody."
The 80-year-old Burnett is doing several of these shows to promote her latest memoir, Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story. In it, Burnett details her relationship with her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, who died in 2002 of brain and lung cancer. She was 38.
Like most mother-daughter relationships, Burnett and Hamilton had rocky moments. During her teen years, Hamilton had a much-publicized bout with drugs that led to several stints in rehab. But she eventually overcame her addiction and went on to become a singer, actress and writer. She also collaborated with her mother on the writing of the play Hollywood Arms, which ran in Chicago and New York after her death.
Before she died, Hamilton also wanted her mother to finish a story Hamilton had started, called "Sunrise in Memphis." But Burnett found this to be close to impossible.
"It had been living with me for a decade," she says. "I had tried to finish her story for her, and it just wasn't coming." Burnett eventually got the idea to write about her life with Hamilton from before her birth to the day she died.
"It occurred to me that, because she was so unusual and everybody who knew her said that—but in a happy, good way—I wanted to bring Carrie to the reader," she says. "And, then, Part 2 is her unfinished story, which is interesting in its own right."
Chances are, DPAC audiences will ask Burnett questions about her celebrated variety show, which seems to have inspired most of today's comedy elite. Even the current crop of Saturday Night Live alumni—especially Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and fellow former female cast members—appears to be more influenced by her than the original Not Ready for Prime-Time Players.
"Well, I'm very flattered," she says. "I know Amy—I don't know Tina that well—but they have often been quoted as saying that they've loved watching our show. I don't think we're that much alike however, because I'm a clown and I do pratfalls and I did all of my own stunts and I got pies in the face. It was just kind of vaudeville."
But times have changed, even as her old fans flock to the Durham theater.
"Now, the comedians are a little more edgy, so to speak," Burnett says. "I can't describe these women as silly. I can describe myself back then as silly."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mother of comedy."