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Carol Burnett

She earned wide critical and popular acclaim and an Emmy for her work on The Garry Moore Show (from 1959-62). The Carol Burnett Show debuted in 1967 and won 22 Emmys in a run of more than a decade. She has starred or appeared in a number of TV movies and specials. In December, she'll be a Kennedy Center honoree for her body of work. In 1981 she struck a blow for fellow celebrities by winning a lawsuit against The National Enquirer tabloid. Her memoir One More Time was recently republished in a paperback edition. There's also a DVD collection of The Carol Burnett Show.


Other segments from the episode on October 13, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 13, 2003: Interview with Carol Burnett; Review of Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Fifth Book of Peace."


DATE October 13, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Carol Burnett and her life as a comedian

This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of theme music from "The Carol Burnett Show")

GROSS: That's the theme from "The Carol Burnett Show" which ran on CBS from
1967 to '78. A variety show which won 22 Emmys, was famous for its movie
parodies, the soap opera spoof "As the Stomach Churns" and its sketches about
a bickering family. For most of the show's run, my guest Carol Burnett shared
the stage with Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Tim Conway. Early in her
career, Burnett starred in the original production of the show "Once Upon a
Mattress." Her movies include "A Wedding," "Four Seasons" and "Annie." She'll
be one of the Kennedy Center honorees in December. Her 1986 memoir "One More
Time" has just been published in a new edition. She and her daughter Carrie
were in the process of adapting the memoir into a play when Carrie was
diagnosed with lung cancer in the summer of 2001. She died in January of
2002. The new edition of Burnett's memoir includes an afterward about her

Carol Burnett, congratulations on your Kennedy Center honor, the re-publication
of your memoir and the new forthcoming production of "Once Upon a Mattress,"
and welcome to FRESH AIR.

Ms. CAROL BURNETT (Comedian): Oh, thank you. Thanks, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Now the book of yours that's just been published with the new
afterward is a memoir about your childhood and your coming of age. When you
were young, you know how some people see life as a tragedy and some people see
life as a comedy. You're largely a comedic actress. When you were growing up
did you see the comedy in life?

Ms. BURNETT: Yes, I think I did. I had a lot of laughs with my grandmother
and my mother. They had great senses of humor. And people who read the
memoir and have read it, they think, oh, my gosh, that was a real tough
upbringing. But I never felt that. We were poor and both my parents died
eventually of alcoholism but I was kind of in the same boat with a lot of the
kids in the neighborhood. Everybody was poor and a lot of their folks had
drinking problems. But we found a way to survive and to play and to laugh and
thrive in a funny way.

GROSS: Now you were raised primarily by your grandmother even when your
mother was alive, right.

Ms. BURNETT: Yes. Actually my folks, my parents came to Hollywood from
Texas, and left me there with my grandmother. They were hoping that they were
going to strike it big out here in Hollywood. And then they divorced. And so
my grandmother and I followed my mother out to Hollywood in 1940 and momma
lived in an apartment building one block north of Hollywood Boulevard, but
really a million miles away from Hollywood. You know, it was just the
neighborhood. And she got us a single room which faced the lobby of the
building and momma was down the hall and so nanny, that was my grandmother,
and I lived in this one room. But the doors were always open and momma was in
our place as much as we were down the hall with her. But I did live and stay
and sleep in the same room as my grandmother. We had a Murphy pull-down bed
from the wall and I slept on the couch.

GROSS: And two things that I read about your grandmother that seemed totally
contradictory to me or at least difficult to live with as a package is one,
she was a hypochondriac and two, she was a Christian Scientist.

Ms. BURNETT: (Laughs) Go figure.

GROSS: Was she both?

Ms. BURNETT: Go figure. She was a hypochondriacal Christian Scientist. She
would have Mary Baker Eddy's "Science and Health" with key to the Scriptures,
and she would hold that book and she would read it and what we call, she would
know the truth. In other words, there is no illness, there is no evil, there
is no this and that. But then she was constantly feeling her pulse and
saying, `Oh, my god, I'm dying, get me a phenobarbital.' And so, you know, she
had all the bases covered. If God didn't come through for her and she didn't
know the truth, well enough I would have to run in and, you know, get the

GROSS: Was she a dramatic hypochondriac? Did she have a theatrical flare
about it?

Ms. BURNETT: Yes. Yes. Yes. And she could kind of look like she was going
to faint, you know, and lie down and fan herself, you know, with her hand, and
put a wash rag on her forehead. But then if somebody came and said, `Hey,
let's go to the movies,' she'd be up and out. Ready to go.

GROSS: Now your parents were both drinkers. They were alcoholics. Did they
become different people when they drank?

Ms. BURNETT: Yes and no. Actually my dad drank before my mother did. In
fact, one time I remember seeing momma break a bottle of his that she'd found
and pour it down the sink. But daddy, when he drank, just became sweeter.
There wasn't a mean thought in his body. I've always said he was like a drunk
Jimmy Stewart. You know, he just got sweeter. But he was ineffectual, he
couldn't hold a job, you know, he was just hopeless. He had that disease.

Momma didn't start drinking until later. She wasn't living with daddy then
but she started heavily in her 30s and she was a mean drunk. She could really
get mean and vicious and angry. Again, that frustration, you know, just came
out. You know, it was just totally a hundredfold I guess you would want to
say, when she drank. She was very witty and she was very beautiful at first.

GROSS: Was she mean to you when she got drunk?

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah. Yeah. She could be mean to me too, yeah. And then she
and nanny would go at it, you know, and sometimes I would just sit in the
corner and draw. I at one point entertained the idea of being a cartoonist
and having my own comic strip. And I could almost just ignore them while they
were arguing because it was like background music, you know. Yeah, she would
be unreasonable, you know, she would accuse me of something. And I was a good
kid. I was goody two-shoes actually and she would accuse me of ridiculous
stuff when she drank.

GROSS: Now you grew up in Los Angeles, you went to Hollywood High. How do
you think your encounters with the world of show business were any different
growing up in Los Angeles and going to Hollywood High then they would have
been had you, say, stayed in San Antonio.


GROSS: Were you connected by geography to the world of Hollywood?

Ms. BURNETT: No. Not a all. It could have been a different name. The
difference was we had all these movie theaters on Hollywood Boulevard and my
grandmother would save up enough money because way back then before I turned
12 it was 11 cents for me to go to the movies and it was a quarter for my
grandmother, you know. And we would see on the average in the '40s, we would
see eight movies a week because we would go to two movies during the week and
then two on the weekend but they were all double features. Second runs is
what we called them, you know. So I would see eight movies a week. So that
was my connection to Hollywood. But that could have been in San Antonio also.

And Hollywood High, the three years I went there they didn't have a drama
class of all things. So my high school years were--mama said, `you know, you
ought to take up journalism.' And I did at Hollywood High. And I got very
interested in that and took the journalism course and became editor of the
Hollywood High School News and wrote a column. I even interviewed a movie
star, Joel McCrea who had gone to Hollywood High. It was my idea to say,
`Gee, let me go interview these movie stars who had attended the school,' you
know. And that was fun. So that's what I really kind of thought I was going
to be. And momma kept pushing it because that's what she wanted to do.

GROSS: Right. Yeah. Was there a point where you realized that's what she
wanted to do and not necessarily what you wanted to do?

Ms. BURNETT: After the fact. So when I got into UCLA I thought I was going
to major in journalism but they did not have a major in journalism so I took a
course in my freshman year, a journalism course, and joined the Daily Bruin.
But then I majored in theater, arts, English, because then I could get the
playwrighting courses. And no matter what, when you major in theater arts,
whether you want to write or be a director or design scenery or whatever, when
you're a freshman at UCLA then, I guess it's still the same way, you had to
take an acting class. Acting 1A they called it. And so I was kind of
terrified about it and had to get up in front of some people. And I did a
scene with a guy who was in the class that was a comedy scene and they
laughed. And I thought, well, that's really nice, you know. I like that.

And I just felt validated, you know. And it was a high. And all through high
school and junior high, I guess you could describe me as being one of the
nerds. You know, we had a little group of us. You know, I was quiet. I was
not particularly attractive. I had friends. I had a lot of buddies but I was
not what one would call very popular. But after I did a few scenes, you know,
in this acting class and then I got cast in a couple of one acts at UCLA
people on campus would come up, even seniors, and graduate students and
saying, `God, we really liked you in that,' and so forth, and `Why don't you
come over on the lawn here and have lunch with us today.' And all of a sudden
I started to get popular. And I've said this on a couple of interviews, you
know, it was a great way to meet guys. And I thought, this is really kind of
what I want to do but I wouldn't tell my grandmother and I wouldn't tell

GROSS: Were you afraid they'd shoot it down and tell you weren't good enough,
you're not pretty enough, whatever?

Ms. BURNETT: You got it. Yeah.

GROSS: And did they ever get around to telling you that? (Laughs)

Ms. BURNETT: Well, like momma, you know, and I don't want to lay this on her
because she didn't really know what she was saying at the time. She was
saying, `Listen, be a writer because no matter what you look like you can
always write,' you know, and so that kind of imprints a little message.

GROSS: Very nice.

Ms. BURNETT: She didn't think. She's just saying, no matter what, you can
always write. And, you know, she was being very supportive because I actually
was a pretty good writer. But then I got into Musical Comedy Workshop at UCLA
doing background in "South Pacific." They were doing a scene from "South
Pacific" and the student director said, `Can you carry a tune?' And I said,
yeah, because momma and nanny and I would always sit around the kitchen table.
Momma played the ukelele and we would sing and harmonize. And I said, yeah, I
can carry a tune. And he said, `Well, would you be the chorus in the "Wash
That Man Right Out of My Hair" scene, and I said, sure. So I got in and I got
so brave I started to belt--to sing very loudly. And he said, `You're pretty
loud.' And I said, oh, I'm sorry, I'll tone it down. Then he said, `No, no.'
He said, `I'm going to do a scene from "Guys and Dolls," and would you be in
the scene with me and would you play Adelaide and sing "Adelaide's Lament?"'
which was a wonderful comedy song from "Guys and Dolls." And I thought, oh, my
lord, you know, sing alone, sing a solo? And he said, `Well, she's suppose to
have a cold.' And I said, oh, well then I'll do it because she wouldn't have
to sound good, you know, I could always cough or sneeze or something. So that
was the first time I ever sang in public was that scene. And then I got
involved in Opera Workshop and I thought this is what I want is musical

So the following semester we were going to do a scene, I think, it was from
"Call Me Madam," that Ethel Merman had starred in on Broadway and I got up the
nerve to tell nanny and to tell momma that I was going to be performing. And
they said, `Really!' And I said I'd like you to be there. And they came. And
actually momma got sober. I mean I hadn't seen her looking that good in a
long time but she kind of dressed up for it and put on her old red coat and
came in. And nanny was there and afterwards, backstage, they were very
complimentary. Momma hugged me and she said, `You were really good, kid.' You
know, and I just started to cry. And they were very supportive until I said
this is what I want to do with my life. And then it was like, hey, you know,
they wanted to hit me with a reality stick.

GROSS: My guest is Carol Burnett. Her 1986 memoir, "One More Time" has just
been published in a new edition. We'll talk more after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Carol Burnett is my guest and her best-selling memoir, "One More Time"
has just been published in a new edition with a new afterward. In December
she'll be getting a Kennedy Center honor.

You knew you wanted to get to New York. After you fell in love with acting
you knew you wanted to get to New York. You knew you didn't have the money to
get there.

Ms. BURNETT: Right.

GROSS: And you ended up getting a thousand dollars from someone who saw you
do a sketch at a party and thought you were really talented...


GROSS: ...and became like your benefactor. And they were anonymous I believe
or is it just that you're keeping them anonymous from the rest of us?

Ms. BURNETT: I'm keeping them anonymous.

GROSS: Got it. So you knew who they were but we don't know.

Ms. BURNETT: Right.

GROSS: So with that thousand dollars you got to New York and you started
performing there. And you ended up being on television in the pretty early
days of TV, in the formative years. In 1955, for instance, you were on "The
Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show." This, you know, is a show of
ventriloquists and dummies that all the kids watched.

Ms. BURNETT: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: All the kids watched it. And, you know, what did you do on the show?

Ms. BURNETT: I was the girlfriend of the dummies.

Ms. BURNETT: I was just kind of like a sidekick. I didn't do too much
comedy because that was all the dummies, you know. Jerry Mahoney and
Knucklehead Smith were their names. And so actually I kind of sang a lot on
the show with Paul Winchell and with the dummies. You know, we would do
little duets and stuff. And I was only on a short while and then I was off
the show. In '56 I got part as Buddy Hackett's girlfriend on a short-lived
show called "Stanley" which I think was the only live sitcom ever on

And then I met Garry Moore who had a daytime show and he put me on that show
and that started our friendship and relationship so that when he got his
nighttime show which was a wonderful variety show he had me as a guest a
couple of times. And then once Martha Raye was going to be on, she was an
hysterical comedian. And she got sick and Garry's office called me on Sunday
and he went live on Tuesday and he said, `Can you come over and learn the
show?' Man, I was out of there so fast. Boy, I ran over there. And Garry
explained to the audience that I had, you know, just come in and learned it
and they were very receptive. So, then he asked me to be a regular, weekly.
And that was a big, big break.

GROSS: Did you have a sense that, you know, TV was in its infancy then and
that the rules could be made up as you went along, that things weren't fixed
in stone yet?

Ms. BURNETT: No, I did not. To me it was a stepping stone to Broadway. I
still, you know, and at the time, I was in a show called "Once Upon a
Mattress" Off-Broadway and so I was doubling. I was doing Garry's show and
"Mattress." But "Mattress" was my big love. I didn't think I was television
material at all.

GROSS: Why not?

Ms. BURNETT: Well, once I auditioned for something called, oh, I forget, it
was like "Star Search" only not, you know. It was "Reach For the Stars" or
some kind of show like that. And the emcee came out and he said `You're very
good, dear, but you're too loud for TV.' So that was, you know, again,
somebody said that so I accepted it. And when Garry hired me I was kind of
surprised, you know. So I just kind of thought, you know, I'm a belcher and
I'm a comic and I belong on the stage. But in doing Garry's show, that's when
the bug bit about doing different things every week.

GROSS: Oh, and not doing the same show every night on Broadway.

Ms. BURNETT: Correct. And so I could do these different characters and be
dressed differently and become different people, sometimes three or four
different people in one show. And I liked that. And I liked having the rep
company feeling and a family, you know.

GROSS: You're describing "The Carol Burnett Show." That's "The Carol Burnett

Ms. BURNETT: Exactly. That's exactly right. I patterned our show after
Garry and, of course, after Sid Caesar, you know, who was a past master at it
and had a great rap company and did all these different characters. And I
thought this is what I mean because you could do musical comedy. You could
have guests. You could have interesting people to work with but you still had
your little family core to work with also, that you could rely on. And that
was the most fun.

GROSS: Carol Burnett will be back in the second half of the show. Her 1986
memoir, "One More Time" has just been published in a new edition. I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, movie parodies and Bob Mackie gowns. We continue our
conversation with Carol Burnett.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actress and comedian
Carol Burnett. She'll be a Kennedy Center honoree in December. Her 1986
memoir, "One More Time," has just been published in a new edition which
includes a new afterword about her daughter, Carrie, who died of lung cancer
last year. When we left off, we were talking about "The Carol Burnett Show,"
the popular variety show which ran on CBS from 1967 to '78, and won 22 Emmys.

Well, one of the things your show, "The Carol Burnett Show," was famous for
was your movie parodies.


GROSS: And you said earlier that when you were a kid, you'd go to maybe eight
movies a week with your grandmother. Are there movies from your childhood
that you ended up doing parodies of on "The Carol Burnett Show"?

Ms. BURNETT: Oh, yes. "Mildred Pierce," Joan Crawford; "The Postman Always
Rings Twice," Lana Turner; "Gilda," Rita Hayworth; "Gone With the Wind,"
Vivien Leigh; even something as remote as a movie called "Born to Be Bad,"
with Joan Fontaine, and we called it "Raised to Be Rotten," and so, I mean,
even--oh, we did "A Double Life"--no, "A Stolen Life," Bette Davis, where she
played a good twin and an evil twin. So there were just so--I would just go
to the writers and I'd say, `Can we do "Mildred Pierce"?' And they would get
the film and run it, and sure enough, I mean, it was just great. And about
three or four weeks, we would have the sketch.

GROSS: Is it fun to do the kind of glamour roles that you figure you're
probably not going to get--because you're a comedic actress and you don't
think of yourself as the glamorous type--so is it fun to do those glamour
roles, but to do like the comic version of them?

Ms. BURNETT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I remember Bob Mackie putting me in
all white, and I had a white wig, practically. I mean, Lana Turner in "The
Postman Always Rings Twice," always wore white.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Ms. BURNETT: And oh, I had the eyelashes on, and you know, the white shoes
and the white slim skirt and the blouse, you know, and the white earrings, and
coming down the stairs, because her first entrance in "Postman" is just
showing her legs walk down the stairs, and the sexy music and John Garfield
just gaping at her, and Steve Lawrence played the Garfield role, and Harvey
was the husband we murdered, you know.

It was--yeah, and I remember when we did "Gilda," I got a telegram from Rita
Hayworth, and she said, `This is just great, and I can I come and play
with'--and so she came on our show.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Ms. BURNETT: Rita Hayworth was a guest. Betty Grable was a guest.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Ms. BURNETT: And Lana Turner was a guest on our show, and Gloria Swanson.
Oh! Oh, no, it was just such a thrill, you know, and I thought, `Oh, my God,
if Nanny were alive and saw Betty Grable on our show and me doing a number
with Betty Grable, it would kill her.' She would just faint dead away. You
know, the pulse really would race, and because never in a million years did we
ever dream that we'd ever know these people, let alone work...

GROSS: She would have needed one of those phenobarbitals.

Ms. BURNETT: Oh, oh, my dear. Oh, my dear.

GROSS: Now you mentioned Bob Mackie, who did the costumes for your show, and
he's--God, he's designed so many, like, really extravagant gowns over the
years. I mean, you know, he did Cher's clothes, too.

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah. Well, what...

GROSS: So he--go ahead.

Ms. BURNETT: What he did on our show, which people don't know, don't
realize, he designed everything you saw on our show, including the wigs,
including the makeup, so that whatever--not just what I wore, but what the
guests wore, what the cast wore, whatever, know--and he created all of those
hysterical looks. He created Eunice's look, he created Mrs. Wiggins, Mr.
Tudball. He designed, literally, 50 costumes a week, five-oh costumes a week.

GROSS: Did he design for Harvey Korman in drag?

Ms. BURNETT: Yes. Yes, yes, that's all Bob. And of course, the greatest
sight gag ever, I think, one of the greatest, was his idea for the "Gone With
the Wind" sketch with the curtain rod dress.

GROSS: Describe it.

Ms. BURNETT: Well, when we did "Gone With the Wind," the take-off, there was
a scene when Scarlett O'Hara--Rhett Butler's coming to call on her, and she
doesn't want Rhett to know that they're poor, so she rips the draperies down,
the green velvet draperies down, and says--and she's going to make a dress.
Well, the writers had written that I come down the stairs with the draperies
just kind of hanging on me, which would have been funny enough, but I went
into the costume fitting that Wednesday, and Bob said, `I have an idea,' and
he had the dress draped over a curtain rod which fit over my shoulders, and
ran straight out, tied with the fringe around the waist. I mean, it was the
silliest-looking thing you've ever seen in your life, and I fell on the floor.

And then when we did it, you know, on the taping, the audience, the laugh just
wouldn't stop when I made my entrance, and then I came down the stairs. And
it was very hard on me because I was biting the inside of my cheek not to
laugh myself, because of the reaction of the audience was just phenomenal.
And Harvey, you know, looking so like Clark Gable and he was brilliant in it,
and then his line was, `Scarlett, you're magnificent. That dress is just
gorgeous.' And then I say, `Thank you. I saw it in the window and I just
couldn't resist it.' You can't beat those lines with the look of that, you
know. But what fun, what fun.

GROSS: Now did Bob Mackie also design the falsies that the men and women on
your show had to wear?

Ms. BURNETT: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, yes.

GROSS: What's the most creative falsie that he designed?

Ms. BURNETT: Well, the ones that kind of hang and move, you know,
and--because many designers will put cotton in, you know, and build it up that
way, but Bob puts rice in them so that they move.

GROSS: And...

Ms. BURNETT: You get the picture? So that...

GROSS: How do you use that as an actress?

Ms. BURNETT: Well, I did Charo's mother at one point, and he made me a
body suit where I had this big belly that was a midriff, and he put the belly
button in there, and it was skin-colored and the whole thing, and then he made
these boobs that kind of hung down over the belly in this red sequined top, so
all I had to do was just move my shoulders back and forth, and of course the
boobs would whip back and forth across my belly button, you know. And so it
didn't matter what you said; it was how you looked. So Bob saved many, many a
sketch for us, because not all of our sketches were gems, you know, some were
bombs, and sometimes he would put me in stuff that would literally save the

GROSS: Did your grandmother live to see any of your performing success?

Ms. BURNETT: Nanny lived--Mama died before I did anything, really. She did
see me to "The Jack Paar Show" and "Ed Sullivan," and then Nanny lived to see
me do "The Garry Moore Show," and she lived to see me on Broadway, and
she--one time we came out to Hollywood to do two or three weeks of "The Garry
Moore Show," and Nanny came and was sitting in the audience. Now she loved to
get dressed up, and she had great legs, so she'd wear her skirts a little bit
short, and she liked to put rouge on. I mean, she was OK, you know, but she
would kind of gild the lily a bit, and she would wear bright colors and all.
You know, she really liked to doll up.

Anyway, she's sitting in the audience, and Garry Moore comes out and says,
`Now I understand Carol's grandmother is in the audience. She's the little
lady who raised our Carol. Nanny, Nanny, where are you? Stand up.' Well,
Nanny stood up, and clasped her hands over her head and did like, you know,
the winner's look. She just clapped her hands over her--and bowed, took all
these bows, and like she was the star, you know, of the show. She was
hysterical, and I wanted to die. I was so embarrassed in the wings, and Garry
got the biggest kick out of her. And yes, yes she did get to see me do a few

GROSS: Why were you embarrassed?

Ms. BURNETT: Well, I mean, I wanted the little grandmother to stand up and
just kind of wave, you know, but here's she's doing this winner's circle
thing, you know, clapping her hands over her head and shaking her fist. She
was just hysterical. Now I can laugh at it, but at the time, I was a little
embarrassed, you know, 'cause I was much more shy than my grandmother.

GROSS: My guest is Carol Burnett. Here's an excerpt of the "Gone With the
Wind" parody from "The Carol Burnett Show."

(Soundbite of "The Carol Burnett Show")

Ms. BURNETT: (As Scarlett) What am I going to do? Captain Butler is coming
over, and he's got money and I've got to get it, and look at me! I look like
the inside of a goat's stomach. What am I going to wear?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VICKI LAWRENCE: (As maid) Well, Miss Scarlett, the Yankees done stole
all your clothes.

Ms. BURNETT: (As Scarlett) I know that, stupid.

Ms. LAWRENCE: (As maid) Look, Miss Scarlett! Isn't that Captain Butler's
carriage now!

Ms. BURNETT: (As Scarlett) Oh, Lord. What am I going to do?

Ms. LAWRENCE: (As maid) Well, I've got an idea. When he comes in, why don't
you hide behind the drapes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURNETT: (As Scarlett) Help me take these down.

Ms. LAWRENCE: (As maid) Well, what you doing that for?

Ms. BURNETT: (As Scarlett) Never you mind. Now listen, when he gets here,
you just keep him busy, you understand?

Ms. LAWRENCE: (As maid) Yes'm.

Ms. BURNETT: (As Scarlett) 'Cause I've got me a dress to make.

Ms. LAWRENCE: (As maid) Yes'm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Carol Burnett will be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music from "Gone With the Wind")

GROSS: My guest is Carol Burnett, and her memoir, "One More Time," has just
been published in a new edition with a new afterword. She's also getting a
Kennedy Center honor in December.

Ms. BURNETT: I'm thrilled about that.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, that's a great honor.

Ms. BURNETT: Absolutely thrilled.

GROSS: Now let me ask you, I know--and this is public, so I don't feel like
I'm kind of saying anything that you wouldn't want me to say, but let me know
if I'm wrong--that I think it was in the '80s that you decided to have some
cosmetic surgery, and you had your chin...

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...changed.


GROSS: Tell me why you wanted to do that. Now, you know, you mentioned that,
like, your mother said to you when you were a kid, `You should go into

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...because no matter what you look like...

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: could just keep working.

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah. Well, I always had a weak chin, because we couldn't
afford to correct my bite, you know, which could have been corrected with
braces, and so the chin was always weak, and I always kind of hated my
profile. And I thought, `Wouldn't it be nice someday to feel the rain on your
chin without having to look up?' you know. So I was living in Hawaii, and my
daughter Jody had the opposite problem; she had an underbite, and so we went
to this oral surgeon, and he said he could fix her, and then he looked at me
and he said, `You know, I could fix your bite, too.' I said, `Really.' So he
showed me on some imaging how he could extend my bite like three millimeters
out, and I would just have kind of a normal chin. I said, `Well, let's go for
it.' So he did, and so I got a chin.

But the story I tell about that was I had just finished doing "Annie"--playing
Miss Hannigan in "Annie," and I went back to Hawaii and we were there, and I
got the operation on my chin. So I'm recuperating, and Ray Stark, who
produced "Annie," called me in Honolulu, and he said, `We're going to reshoot
the "Easy Street" number with you and Bernadette and Tim Curry.'

GROSS: Oh, I see the problem.

Ms. BURNETT: I said, `Oh, really? You know, Ray'--and I explained to him,
you know, what I--he said, `Oh, with all that Miss Hannigan drag that you're
wearing, nobody's going to notice anything. Besides, it's going to be
separate from other scenes, so it'll just be its own thing and nobody's going
to notice that. You know, it's you and we're singing and dancing and running
around.' I said, `Of course, I'm coming back.'

So I flew back, and John Huston directed "Annie," and he was there, and we
were going to start the number, and he said, `Well, now, wait a minute. I
think what I'd like to do here is--why don't we pick it up from when Carol had
run into the closet to find Annie's locket, and let's pick it up when she
comes running out of the closet with the locket.' And I said, `Oh, dear.' And
I went up to him, I said, `Mr. Huston?' He said, `Yes, dear.' I said, `Two
months ago, when I ran into the closet, I didn't have a chin, and now when I
run out of the closet, I'm going to have a chin. So it's like, boom, boom.'
And he thought for a minute, and he said, `Well, dear, just come out looking

GROSS: Didn't anybody ever point out to you that you looked different?

Ms. BURNETT: No, no! And there are some other scenes that we reshot where
I've a got a chin in the beginning, then I don't, but nobody's ever...

GROSS: I have to go back and rewatch it now.

Ms. BURNETT: You should, yeah. I just think that's the funniest piece of
direction anybody could ever get.

GROSS: My guest is Carol Burnett, and her memoir, "One More Time," has just
been published in a new edition.

Your memoir was actually the subject of a play that you did, a play that...


GROSS: ...your daughter Carrie suggested that you write based on the memoir,
and shortly after you agreed that that was a good idea, she was diagnosed with
lung cancer and...

Ms. BURNETT: Right.

GROSS: ...she died last year. I just wanted to say how sorry I am about

Ms. BURNETT: Thank you. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: And I don't want to ask you to talk about her or anything. The one
thing I'm wondering is, you know, if you decided--if it was difficult to
decide whether to go on with that play in memory of her, or...

Ms. BURNETT: Well...

GROSS: You know, there's that whole `the show must go on' ethic, and you
know, so...

Ms. BURNETT: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you want to do it in memory of her, or was there a part of you
that felt like `I want to withdraw'?

Ms. BURNETT: Well, I tell you, we--well, in a way. We had pretty much
finished it, and we were auditioning people for the--we were going to open at
the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in April, and Carrie was in the hospital, and
Equity was nice enough to send some of the audition tapes out for her to watch
in the hospital, and you know, we worked--in fact, Hal Prince even gave us a
little bit of a homework scene to work on, and Carrie and I wrote a scene
while she was in the hospital, and we kept working together. And she was so
determined to make it to the Goodman for the opening, but she did not, and so
when she died that January, and we were going to open in April, I had to go
on and I think it saved my sanity, Terry. It gave me a purpose, it gave me a
reason to get up out of bed, you know, because you really--you want to just go
to bed and pull the covers up, you know. And I could feel Carrie, you know,
she was in me, and I could feel her working through me when Hal would give me
notes and say, `Go work on this scene, or go do this or that.' I just felt
this overwhelming presence, and it really, in essence, kind of saved my sanity
at the beginning there.

GROSS: Well, I am very sorry, and I just want to thank you so much for
talking with us. It's really been such a pleasure to talk with you.

Ms. BURNETT: Oh, my pleasure, Terry. Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: Carol Burnett's 1986 memoir, "One More Time," has just been published
in a new edition. In December, she'll be a Kennedy Center honoree.

Well, earlier, she told us about singing "Adelaide's Lament," a song from
"Guys and Dolls." Here's her 1961 recording of it.

(Soundbite of "Adelaide's Lament")

Ms. BURNETT: (Singing) In other words, just from worrying whether the
wedding is on or off, a person (coughs) can develop a cough. You can feed her
all day with the vitamin A and the bromofizz, but the medicine never gets
anywhere near where the trouble is. If she's getting a kind of a name for
herself and the name ain't his, a person (coughs) can develop a cough. And
furthermore, just from stalling and stalling and stalling the wedding trip, a
person can develop la grippe. When they get on that train to Niagara, and she
can hear church bells chime, the apartment is air conditioned and the mood
sublime, then they get off at Saratoga, for the fourteenth time, a person can
develop la grippe. La grippe, la post-nasal drip, with the wheezes and the
sneezes and the sinus that's really a pip, from a lack of community property
and a feeling she's getting too old, a person can develop a bad, bad cold.

GROSS: Carol Burnett from the reissue, "Let Me Entertain You--Carol Burnett

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Maxine Hong Kingston's new novel, "The
Fifth Book of Peace." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Fifth Book of Peace" a
combination of autobiography, fiction and myth

When fire destroyed writer Maxine Hong Kingston's home in 1991, she lost all
copies of her book in progress, a novel called "The Book of Peace." She's
reimagined that book, and renamed it "The Fifth Book of Peace." Book critic
Maureen Corrigan has a review.


Maxine Hong Kingston has always been out there, writing a lot about the spirit
world and dreams, deep into what a resolutely rationalist friend of mine
dismisses as `woo-woo.' To read Kingston, you've got to be willing to go on a
magic carpet ride. Such open-mindedness is especially essential for her
latest outing, called "The Fifth Book of Peace."

Like most of Kingston's books, "The Fifth Book of Peace" combines
autobiography, fiction and myth in a literary collage that defines traditional
linear plotting. For pages on end here, we readers are kept aloft in circular
holding patterns while Kingston considers subjects like yogic breathing, or
the transformative effects of fire. Sometimes the suspended digressions are
transfixing, and rank alongside the best writing Kingston has ever done.
Other times, the ride gets very bumpy, and even the most sympathetic readers
will be tempted to bail out.

The opening section of "The Fifth Book of Peace" is a memoir, relatively
conventional in form and absolutely gripping. Kingston describes returning
from her father's funeral on a Sunday afternoon in October, 1991, to find a
firestorm raging over her neighborhood in the Oakland-Berkeley hills. It's
every writer's worst nightmare come to life. Not only are her house and
possessions destroyed, but also her latest novel-in-progress, called "The Book
of Peace." Kingston's computer, floppy disks and 156 pages of hard copy, all
gone up in smoke like the burnt offerings she and her family set ablaze
earlier that day at the Chinese cemetery.

Here's Kingston's description of discovering her manuscript in what used to be
her writing nook: `The unroofed sun shone extra brightly on a book-shaped
pile of white ash in the middle of the alcove. I held in my hands the edges
of the pages, like silvery vanes of feathers, like white eyelashes. I placed
my palm on this ghost of my book, and my hand sank through it.'

Originally, Kingston had begun writing this now-incinerated novel because of
her anger over the Persian Gulf War. She'd also been distressed to learn that
her great memoir, the "Woman Warrior," which centers on the legend of Fa Mu
Lan, was being used at the US Air Force Academy as a motivational guide for
female students. Inspired by the legends of three lost Books of Peace in
ancient China, Kingston wanted to write her own peace book. Now all was lost.

But Kingston's no-nonsense mother, Brave Orchid, advises her daughter that
anything she's made with her hands she can make again, better, and a poet
friend tells Kingston if a woman is going to write a book of peace, it is
given her to know devastation. Bucked up by these admonitions, Kingston
decides to rewrite the lost novel, which appears here as the third section of
"The Fifth Book of Peace."

I think Kingston's writing is most powerful when it oscillates between the
buoyant realm of the imagination and the mundane, the sarcastic. That
stylistic tension is what gave the "Woman Warrior" its edge, so this fictional
section of the book, which stars Wittman Ah Sing, the hippy protagonist from
her earlier novel, "Tripmaster Monkey," is for me the least engaging.
Wittman, his wife, Tana, and their young son Mario escape from California to
Hawaii during the Vietnam War, and eventually create a refuge there for draft
dodgers and returning traumatized GIs. It's a whimsical beanbag of a story, a
retreat fantasy that lacks the stuffing of authentic moral complication.

In the autobiographical section that ends "The Fifth Book of Peace," Kingston
tries to bring her fictional fantasy to life by instigating writing workshops
for war veterans, urging them to gather the smithereens and narrate them into
story. This section offers some unusual and even acerbic insights into the
teaching process, although it begins to wear out its welcome by the fourth or
fifth seminar Kingston describes.

So "The Fifth Book of Peace" is very much a mishmash, a book that's best
served by the dipping and skipping method of reading. Like Allen Ginsberg,
another shaman poet who tried to chant away war, Kingston fearlessly throws
her whole imagination and experience into this literary anti-war performance.
More restraint would have made a better book, but that's not the way these
holy fools for peace dance.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Fifth Book of Peace" by Maxine Hong Kingston.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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