Carol Burnett's new memoir disappoints

It has been a long time between books for Carol Burnett. In 1986, the great TV comedian published a minor masterpiece, One More Time, on growing up poor in Hollywood, living in a one-room apartment with her beloved "Nanny'' — her grandmother — whom Burnett always signaled by tugging on her ear at the end of her show. Burnett's first memoir is a deeply affecting, witty and wise account of her life up to about age 26, when she got her big break on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress and became a regular on TV's The Garry Moore Show.

Now there's a new book from Burnett, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, and it is a disappointment. As she says in the introduction, it is inspired by her experience doing shows in which she simply answers questions (she had one at Ruth Eckerd Hall in 2009). These, in turn, are modeled on the segment of The Carol Burnett Show in which she did a Q&A with the audience, often including a request to "do the Tarzan yell.''

Fielding questions from adoring fans must be one of the softer gigs for a performer (though Burnett was "absolutely terrified'' to do it in the beginning), and a book based on that premise has a rather slack, resting-on-her-laurels quality. Organized into a series of brief vignettes, it often degenerates into sappy anecdotes about Burnett and her famous pals (i.e., a chapter titled "My Chum Julie Andrews''). Many of the early stories were better and more completely told in One More Time.

Still, Burnett, 76, is a consummate storyteller, and there are enough gems amid the dross in This Time Together to keep a tolerant reader interested. She has a great ear for the offbeat phrase, such as describing Nanny as "a Christian Scientist who happened to be a hypochondriac,'' or recalling the uniform she wore as a teenage theater usherette as looking like "a tacky combination of Yvonne de Carlo's Arabian Nights character and a Buckingham Palace guard.''

Burnett's comedy-variety show was a staple on CBS for more than a decade, and a good chunk of This Time Together is devoted to recollections of her "TV family,'' with profiles of regulars Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway. She recalls some favorite comic sketches, like one in which Korman played the hapless first patient of newly licensed dentist Conway.

Perhaps the most revealing tale is Burnett's recounting of the night she fired Korman, who could be temperamental and had insulted some guests on the show, including Petula Clark. In preparing to confront Korman, Burnett called upon the countless hours she had spent watching movies as a child, the source of so much of her brilliant comic material.

"I conjured up a character to play, a cross between Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford, women who weren't afraid to speak up and be strong. Acting like them would give me the courage to stand up to Harvey.'' Korman, of course, got a reprieve, and he and Burnett remained friends until his death in 2008.

The book has some priceless photos, including one of Burnett in her famous spoof of Gone With the Wind, wearing a gown made from green velvet draperies still attached to the curtain rod ("one of the funniest moments in the history of television comedy''), and another of her rehearsing a dance number with her "good-luck charm,'' Jim Nabors ("I thought of him as the brother I never had''), who sports a pair of snazzy striped jeans.

The Carol Burnett Show produced a mini-Broadway musical revue every week (with a 28-piece orchestra and up to 50 costumes by Bob Mackie for each show), and it was on the air from 1967 to 1978, with Burnett's husband, Joe Hamilton, running a tight ship as producer. (They divorced in 1984.) She doesn't think it could happen today.

"These days, in my opinion, there's too much network interference, and shows that don't make it the first couple of weeks are often canceled before they have a chance to find an audience.''

Some of Burnett's daffier memories are hilarious, like the "bad hair day'' she had when, unable to get to sleep, she decided to highlight her hair with a bottle of peroxide in a hotel bathroom the night before filming a special with Andrews.

"To this day, every time I see a picture of Julie and me in that special, I cringe,'' she writes. "But the show must go on, and on it went. Julie and I did the opening number, and the audience was enthusiastic and ready to have fun. I tried to forget my hair and what the audience might be thinking about it: Did a small blond animal die on her head?''

The bay area gets a mention from Burnett, who was in Robert Altman's 1980 movie H.E.A.L.T.H., filmed at the Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach. She writes fondly about a mom-and-pop German restaurant called the Happy Times Cafe, which is nice local color but not exactly riveting.

And yes, This Time Together has at least two stories about Burnett doing the Tarzan yell in unlikely circumstances, once to scare off a mugger, another time to verify her identity so she could pay with a check for some panty hose at Bergdorf Goodman.

Fans will probably love Burnett's new book. But if you really want to know about her, read One More Time.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.

This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection

By Carol Burnett

Harmony Books, 267 pages, $25

Carol Burnett's new memoir disappoints 04/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:47pm]

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