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Carol Burnett reflects on her life of comedy in discussing her book 'This Time Together"

April 25, 2010 |  8:32 am


During the Q&A at Saturday's "Conversation With Carol Burnett," a fan commented that the legendary comic actor is one of the few people today who are truly beloved. Burnett accepted the compliment with an amused graciousness that seemed to permeate her humor, her observations and, undoubtedly, her new book, “This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection.”

UCLA's Ackerman Ballroom at the Festival of Books was packed when Burnett, looking youthful in an emerald blazer, took the stage to take part in a conversation with L.A. Times television critic Mary McNamara. McNamara introduced Burnett as the first woman to host an hourlong sketch comedy show, the author of two books, a recent guest star on “Law & Order” and a successful litigant against the National Enquirer.

Burnett opened the conversation with the story of how she became known for answering questions from her TV audiences in her “Let’s Bump Up the Lights” segment that she eventually took on the road. She refused to have plants in the audience, saying, “If I have egg on my face, it’ll be honest.”

But writing was always her first love, having majored in English at UCLA. She described “This Time Together” as a “hybrid anecdotal quasi memoir.”

McNamara focused on Burnett’s groundbreaking career, crediting her with Oprah’s audience-interaction style, to which Burnett replied, “So she owes me some money.” Burnett discussed whether the variety-show genre for which she became famous could ever be revived in prime time today. She thinks not. For one, the show would be too expensive. “We couldn’t do today what we did on our show," she said. Every week they had "28 musicians, 12 dancers, two guests stars … 50 Bob Mackie costumes.”

She regrets that good writers are out of jobs today because of reality shows “that cost $1.98.” After reminiscing about contemporaries such as Bernadette Peters (who also appeared at the Festival of Books on Saturday), Lucille Ball and Vicki Lawrence, Burnett praised today’s female comic actors including Tina Fey, Tracy Ullman and Jane Lynch. The audience broke into applause at McNamara’s suggestion that Burnett play Lynch’s mother on “Glee.”

Burnett related the story of how she moved from L.A. to New York to start her acting career because in Hollywood “you had to look like Marilyn Monroe or Tony Curtis, and I didn’t look like either.” She gained fame in the Broadway musical “Once Upon a Mattress,” which led to her return to L.A. Eventually, her appearances on “The Garry Moore Show” won her a 10-year contract with CBS, in which the network optioned what would eventually become “The Carol Burnett Show.”

Throughout her career, Burnett’s positive outlook kept her moving forward. No matter how many parts didn’t pan out or how many roommates with whom she had to share a single striking orange “audition dress,” she never despaired. “I always knew something would have my name on it. When someone else would get the part, I’d think ‘It’s her turn. It wasn’t my turn.’ ”

— Chris Daley

Daley is a contributor to the L.A. Times Books section

Photo: Stephanie Keenan / Los Angeles Times